I’ve been thinking a lot about the topics I explored in my last essay, as well as the wonderful comments made by readers in response to what I wrote. For that reason, I would like to continue the subject of emotional isolation in today’s post. I’m glad I decided to open this can of worms because it’s a major factor in my journey toward a more fulfilling, peaceful, and happy life. Some of my relationships feel so broken, with dysfunctional patterns of interacting that are so ingrained, that I’m not sure how to fix them or even if they can be transformed in a meaningful way. But since writing about other seemingly intractable life issues has given me possibility and a way through in the past, I hope that deepening this exploration will make a difference for me and others with similar struggles.
After I expand upon what I view as a key problem in my – and perhaps your – interpersonal relationships, I delve into the five levels of intimacy identified by psychologists and how they manifest in our communication. I then share sage advice from readers on how we can start to break out of our negative ruts. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I take comfort and hope from those who have walked a similar path and come out on the other side. Included is a helpful exercise we can all use to shift our focus and change our experience with the people in our lives.
Last week, I wrote about my tendency to use interest in others as a defense mechanism to protect myself from being hurt. This has resulted in negative and unfulfilling communication patterns with some of the people in my life. Now when I talk to them or exchange email, they virtually never ask me anything about me or my life. They only talk about what’s going on for them, as well as superficial macro topics like the weather and the news.
When I occasionally take a leap and share something about myself in an email, I either don’t receive a reply at all or the response completely skips over what I wrote in favor of moving back to the usual topics. It’s almost uncanny how this has happened time and time again. I’ve found it so frustrating and disheartening that I now generally refrain from mentioning personal topics and just stuck with the status quo for how we interact. Even though I’m too scared to voice it, I feel dismissed and unimportant to these people as a result of their behavior.
You may recommend that I remove such inconsiderate folks from my life, but what if the people in question are family members or long-time friends? I’ve mostly reacted by limiting my interactions with them and sticking to the “rules” when we do converse, but that doesn’t feel like a good solution to me. I know I can only really control myself, but I feel so weak and disempowered for letting things continue on this same dysfunctional path. I want to believe there’s a way to transform these “broken” relationships such that they feel more reciprocal and engaging for me. I refuse to believe that all of these individuals are simply unapologetic narcissists. Some of them may be, but I know that I’ve also played a role in how things have devolved over the years.
The way I’m feeling now is the dark side of the self-protection measures many of us take in our relationships to avoid being hurt. We dampen our engagement, which in turn deadens our connections. Our unceasing curiosity about the lives of others keeps them around, but is the relationship truly fulfilling for either party with such an imbalance in communication? Sure, if someone is completely self-absorbed, they may relish the opportunity to go on and on about themselves, but most people want the give and take inherent in healthier engagements.
The Five Levels of Intimacy
Since I’m a long-term “information junkie” who is wont to save everything, I looked back through my bookmarks in search of some words of wisdom that might assuage my worried mind. One thing I found was an article about the five levels of intimacy. While it’s geared more toward romantic couples, the principles outlined can be applied to all types of connections. Here’s a brief summary of the five levels of emotional intimacy we move through as we get to know another person:
- Level One – Safe Communication: This type of interaction involves only the exchange of facts and information, what we typically refer to as “small talk.” Very minimal intimacy is shared and there are no feelings, opinions, or personal vulnerability involved, and thus, no risk of being rejected.
- Level Two – Others’ Opinions and Beliefs: At this level of communication, we begin to share other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, such as those of a family member, friend, author, or public figure. We may say something like, “My favorite author said…” In doing so, we test the other person’s reaction to certain points of view without sharing how we feel or what we believe. We distance ourselves from what is being shared so we are less likely to be criticized or rejected.
- Level Three – Personal Opinions and Beliefs: Here is where we wade into the riskier waters of revealing the way we feel about particular topics or issues. Often, this is done in a lower level or more tentative way to begin with. If we start to feel too vulnerable by revealing what we think or believe, we can easily backtrack and say that we’ve changed our mind in order to avoid conflict or pain.
- Level Four – Our Feelings and Experiences: At this level of communication, we start to share our joys, pains, mistakes, goals, and dreams, as well as the things we like and dislike. Increased vulnerability is involved because we are revealing more about what makes us who we are and we can’t change the details of our past or current experiences or the way we feel about things. If we fear rejection or criticism, the best we can do is try to convince others that we are no longer impacted by our past and are a different person now.
- Level Five – Our Needs, Emotions, and Desires: This is the highest level of intimacy, where we are known at the deepest core of who we are. It’s where we share our hurts, needs, and desires in regards to the relationship, such, “I’m hurt when you don’t call” or “I need to feel respected by you.” Level Five is also where we typically share our emotional reactions to things, which may not always be a pretty sight. It takes a lot of trust to communicate at this level because there is no escape. Once we share the most vulnerable aspects of ourselves, we can no longer backtrack and convince people otherwise. Our greatest fear in being so open and real is that the other person can use what we’ve shared against us later.
Interestingly, the author states that we often reserve Level Five for our families. While that may be true for some people, the only family member I’m that open with is my husband. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m far more open on this blog and in the online communities I belong to than I ever am with my family. In fact, I’m lucky if I ever get to Level Three communication with family members. This isn’t the way I want it to be, but that’s the way it is at present. Since the article is primarily focused on romantic relationships, there isn’t any advice on transforming family connections, but I still found the distinctions among the various levels of intimacy helpful.
How to Break the Pattern?
Fortunately, my wise readers came to the rescue with encouragement, advice, and hope regarding shifting the way we relate to the people in our lives. Two readers shared about how relationships can improve after we change ourselves and better understood our needs, wants, and what we’re willing to accept and tolerate from others:
- “Some of the people who would talk about themselves for hours are now asking me about what’s going on with my life. When I changed, so did they, though I’m sure the truly self-absorbed are still out there.”
- “There’s a saying in Buddhism, ‘Your environment is a reflection of your inner self.’ I feel there’s a lot of truth in that. We create an environment that fits ourselves and our understanding of the world. When you change your inner self, you notice a change in everything and everyone around you.”
The following exercise was also shared as a way to shift our existing relationships:
- “This can be a really hard exercise, but it has worked for me with my parents. Start by focusing on the qualities you like best in your existing relationships. Basically remember all the best times you had and all the best qualities of each person. Just write them all down. The idea is to focus on the things you like and when you do, you naturally start attracting more of that. I hate to talk about the Law of Attraction because it sounds so trite, but I guess that’s what it is.”
The person who recommended this tried it with her father and here’s what she had to say about the experience:
- “I never even wanted to be in the same room with him. But even someone like my father has something good in him, and through this exercise and others like it, I feel like I’ve learned to appreciate him. Am I 100% fond of my dad? Hell no! But I can now honestly say I do appreciate him and actually have a relatively pleasant time around him, which is not something I could say four years ago.”
That definitely seems both promising and realistic. We may never have really close and supportive relationships with some of the people in our lives, but we can definitely improve the way we view and relate to them, as this example illustrates.
The Power of Online Friendships
Two commenters also highlighted the ways in which online friendships have helped them feel more emotionally connected to others and can also play an important role in transforming our in-person interactions:
- “For quite a few years, I was very open and honest. Then I had a period when I started isolating and did something similar to what you were talking about. I knew tons of stuff about all of the other people in my life, but shared very little. It was actually through my online friends that I started to open up again. They gave me support, empathy, and understanding. I was able to let go of a lot of stuff that felt much worse when it was a secret and move forward. Now I’m feeling like myself again and I’m more open with everyone in my life.”
- “I think online relationships are undervalued. Some of my best friends I got to know initially through the internet. The internet is a wondrous thing that allows you to connect to people who may be far away physically but are close in spirit.”
Very true words! I don’t know what I would have done without my online connections in recent years. They helped me to get though some extremely difficult times and continue to be a great source of support for me. I feel far less alone as a result of the interactions I have with people via the power of the Internet. I never intend to discount these connections, but I do feel that I need a balance of both online and in-person interactions. It’s much more of a “both and” situation than an “either or” proposition.
In Closing and Your Thoughts
Perhaps I need to just be grateful for the positive connections I do have, whether they are in person or online, while also working to attract new uplifting people into my life and transform my existing relationships. I’m going to try the exercise recommended above with a few family members who I will likely see within the next month or two. I’ll let you know how it goes in a future post.
A big thanks to all those who shared their insights in the comments sections of my last essay. I always welcome your thoughts and enjoy reading them. If you have any suggestions or advice regarding transforming our existing relationships, or if you would like to share your experiences on this topic, please do so. I look forward to learning from what you have to say and I wish you a wonderful weekend.