One of my tips from last week’s Winter-Blues-Beating toolkit was to “feed the fire with strong, meaningful connections”.   And I stand by this.  We are pack animals, and we need other people.  The health impacts of loneliness are well documented, not to mention the profound emotional impact.  Being part of a tribe, being seen and belonging are vital to the internal fire that gives us warmth, energy, love, joy, connection, purpose and support.

But I also get that socialising doesn’t come easily to many.  In fact, more people seem to be finding it harder than ever in this post-pandemic world.  Some people long for connection but find themselves on the outside looking in.  Others desire it but hold back – often from a (non-conscious) fear embedded as a long-held survival tactic.  Others find connection exhausting or anxiety-inducing, particularly if not in just the right balance, so they have to “ration” it.   And of course, there’s many in partnerships and families where they’re never alone, but yet feel very alone.  Much of this can relate to our attachment style (Avoidant, or Disorganised-dominant styles can feel vulnerable in connection) or whether we’re closer to the introvert end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

And finding connection difficult can be entirely valid, but it doesn’t negate the need we ALL have for quality human connection.  And some of these patterns can hold us in a place of pretty harmful isolation.  So how can we access the gifts of social connection when that party, the family gathering, the one to one time or group class is too much to handle?

Well the good news is that there are small simple steps we can take into connection and “co-regulation” with others – essentially, to bring our autonomic state into balance in the company of other living beings, in a way that doesn’t stress us further.  And some of them are so subtle you might not even realise you are actually connecting with others when you’re doing them.

And that means we can take small, tolerable steps to honing our “social muscles”.  Just like at the gym, the more we do, the better we become, and the easier it is.  Soon we can embrace strong, meaningful connections on our terms.

Some ideas of how to create connection, when it’s the last thing you want to do…

Like with anything of this nature, start small and build – with heaps of self soothing as you go.  Take a “tolerable step” towards something you find difficult.  That’s to say, choose the next step which challenges you, i.e it won’t feel easy, might cause you to be a little stressed, creates a feeling of mild dread in advance, but it is possible rather than overwhelming.  And remember to dip in and out.  Have a haven where you feel safe and supported, whether that’s a place, a person/animal or supporting activity that brings you back to calmness, and keep using it between each each tolerable step.

I’ve written these (roughly) in order of complexity/challenge.

  • Time with a pet or in the presence of an animal (I wave at sheep and talk to horses)
  • Watching a TV programme or film where you connect with the characters
  • Listening to a podcast or comedy show

  • Watching a film in a cinema with other people there (shared experience)
  • Eye contact and a “hello” with a passing stranger
  • Sitting in a coffee shop with people around you – share a smile with someone or a hello, a little eye contact

  • Exchanging a sentence of two with a waiter or shop assistant

  • Sitting in silence with a loved one, perhaps holding hands

  • Meeting a partner’s gaze and holding eye contact when talking

  • Watching a recorded class online – not live, no interaction but feel like part of an audience
  • Watching a live event online (mics and cameras off) – try some interaction with a chat comment or “like”

  • Engaging with a live class or discussion online (mic and/or cameras on) – aim to ask a question or share an opinion

  • Joining an online forum related to one of your passions (no need to share at first, just read and “like”)

  • Attending a live talk, concert or group – share some eye contact, perhaps as a question or say a hello

  • Join a course with like-minded people (make 1:2:1 contact with course leader first so there’s a “friendly face”)

And try not to just dismiss this stuff.  I get that this isn’t the same as a close best friend or a rich family life.  But it is connection and it is co-regulation – and your nervous system will love it.

We don’t need every connection to be hugely enriching or to feel like we’ve found our people.  Obviously it’s nice to find those where it doesn’t take so much out of us (as introverts particularly) but all positive interaction and connection gives a boost.  Try not to only aim for perfect and dismiss anything that isn’t that.

This is the foundation of stronger, more nourishing connections.  And the end of that story that’s telling you that you don’t fit it, you don’t belong, you’re odd, you’re “other”, you’re better on your own (BTW others pick up on this “vibe” so then steer clear or feel awkward themselves, hence a vicious circle).  We’ll always prefer some situations to others but with these skills, we can then choose where we go, how we interact, who we want to let into our closer circle, rather than having to keep everything at arm’s length or shut ourselves away.

Why not give it a go?