“We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”Albert Einstein
We live in a world where frequency of interaction is at an all-time high, and yet so is loneliness. How can this be? We talk to, or at least, interact with people constantly. But rarely in ways that satisfy our need for meaningful human connections.
Most of us create self-made barriers to connection. The phrase, “you’ve got your guard up”, or “you put a wall up” are common ways we hear this expressed. We build walls because they help us feel safe.
The thing about walls is they keep things out. Everything. The good and the bad. They don’t have a filter. Sure, they keep out the “scary” stuff like rejection, criticism or heartbreak. But they also keep out joy, kinship, and love.
I used to be an expert at building walls. I’m working on being an expert on demolishing them. And as I demolish my own, I wonder what opportunities I missed out on because of those walls.
If we lived as if we are all connected, all a part of the same cosmic destiny, would we build so many walls? If we understood that what affects one affects the other, we would realize that any form of separation from others hurts us too. There are lots of flavors or styles of walls. I’m going to talk about 5 types I’ve experienced as especially detrimental to human connection.
The most obvious form of building a wall is to physically isolate oneself from others – to disconnect from social life or relationships in an effort to avoid disappointment or pain. It’s an extreme that most people do not employ, but those who do usually suffer immensely. They even isolate themselves from those who try to reach out, such as family or long-time friends. I use this as a starting point because it’s very clear, but it is only one of many ways we can alienate ourselves from others.
Maybe you isolate yourself in part of your life. Perhaps you have lots of friends, but the thought of dating immediately makes your walls rise up. I used to be totally fine interacting with my co-workers, but the thought of going out to meet people in an effort to make new friends sent me into a tailspin of unworthiness issues and shame.
Antidote: Connection. Allow one or more people who genuinely care for us behind the wall. Then expand your circle from there. Complete isolation is tricky because it can be a symptom of more serious issues. But if we recognize we are isolating ourselves and want to stop doing so, the easiest way is to let back in some people who make us feel loved.
2. Playing offense
Playing offense is to assume the worst is going to happen in a human relationship, so we strike first to avoid being struck. We reject someone because we fear rejection. Or we lash out because we fear criticism. We deny them affection so they cannot deny us. And so on. This can happen at any stage in a relationship. We can do it to someone we just met or make it an unhealthy pattern in a long-time relationship.
Antidote: Vulnerability. If you haven’t yet watched Brené Brown’s seminal TED talk on this topic, you must!
This sentiment is going to be unpopular because labels are such a pervasive and socially acceptable way of building walls. But we are multi-dimensional beings. As soon as we attach a label to ourselves we do two things: 1) we limit ourselves and 2) we separate ourselves from anyone who doesn’t share that label.
Let’s look at some of the underlying motivations for attachment to labels. We want to feel superior or special. We want to align ourselves with something that has a “halo” effect. We want to be a martyr. Or we want to make clear that we are not that “other” category of humans.
I’ve found the more attached you are to a label, the more likely that label is alienating you from people who are not that. And many of those people would add value to your life if you let them in. When we get stuck in our labels we create an echo chamber. We miss out on the diversity of the human experience. And we judge too harshly and too quickly those that don’t share the same label. And guess what? They miss out on us, too!
I attended a week-long, self-development retreat. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone else what we did for a living. We got to know people extremely well during that week. Then the very last thing on the very last day, we shared our professions. I guessed 0% of people’s professions correctly. That moment was a huge revelation for me. People are complicated and so much more interesting than a single label, such as a job title, can ever convey.
I used to be attached to the label “vegan.” Not a single person in almost two decades became vegan because I called myself that. Some people became vegan because I shared facts and my personal beliefs with them, but that was after they expressed an openness to it. Does a server at a restaurant need to know I’m vegan? Probably. Does a person I just met at a networking event need to know that? Probably not. In fact, it’s very likely they’re going to shut me out because I’ve triggered their walls. Now when I talk to people I focus more on my actions and less on my label. It’s amazing how much saying “I eat plant-based” vs. “I’m vegan” changes people’s willingness to have a conversation with me about it. But it’s still usually not what I lead with when I meet someone.
There are many labels today like “vegan” that are associated with social justice movements. I don’t believe the solution to a more just society is more labels. I believe a truly just society will have fewer labels. Because a just society will honor the complexity, diversity and wholeness of every individual.
Antidote: Be YOU in all your glory. Introduce people to the full spectrum of all you have to offer.
Masks are similar to labels in that they’re a way we project our identity. The distinction is that masks are always inauthentic. They are what we’re pretending to be. Or they’re hiding something we don’t want people to see.
One of the most common masks I used to wear was sarcasm. My sarcasm was always masking something – fear, resentment, judgement, etc. The thing about sarcasm is it’s very common because it is almost innocuous. On the surface, it looks like humor. But the only person ever laughing is the person delivering it. Everyone else is the target. Sarcasm is a deflection technique. It’s designed to deflect us from the truth – a truth the sarcastic person wants to avoid.
Another common mask is superficiality. We can keep our relationships with others at arm’s length very easily by focusing on things that are inconsequential to our emotions, such as pop culture or fashion trends, or the weather. It’s not that these are bad starting places for a conversation. But if you rarely engage with people beyond this, it’s a wall. On social media, perhaps the most common mask is fake positivity, which is a form of superficiality. What I’ve noticed is that often the people with the greatest capacity for emotional depth rely on superficiality to protect themselves.
Antidote: Sincerity. Show up as the real you, not pretending to be perfect or bulletproof. You’ll be surprised that you attract more of what you want into your life because people will see who you really are.
Judgment is a way of affixing a (negative) value to another human being. Maybe we don’t like their hairstyle or their diet or their political party or their opinion. We reduce them to that one thing we don’t like. And we decide that person is “less than” us because of it. Judgment is the starting point for all discrimination and hatred. Because as soon as we decide a person is less than us, we can rationalize ways to hurt them, from mild to atrocious. It’s a very slippery slope.
When we judge a person, it’s often a defense mechanism for our own insecurities. But as the saying goes, “Blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours burn brighter.” If we believe that all human lives are of equal value, then we would aim to rid judgment from our consciousness.
Antidote: Compassion. Realize that differences are what make humans interesting and that everyone is on their own journey. Who better than to teach us about compassion than the master, Dalai Lama?
“In our quest for happiness and the avoidance of suffering, we are all fundamentally the same, and therefore equal. Despite the characteristics that differentiate us – race, language, religion, gender, wealth and many others – we are all equal in terms of our basic humanity.”Dalai Lama
From here, I’d invite you reflect on a few things:
- Which of these 5 walls have I built for myself?
- What other types of walls have I built for myself?
- What labels am I attached to?
- How might I be separating myself from others with this label?
- Replay a recent situation where you had a wall up. What would have changed in that situation if I tore down the wall and adopted the antidote?
- What do I want to change to create more meaningful connections with other humans?
After reading this, I hope you’ve realized a few areas you can adjust to deepen your relationships with other human beings. Many blessings to you all.