What Fosters Connection?

For a long time, I was in the habit of trying to improve myself in order to foster a stronger connection with the people in my life. I thought being “more perfect” or feeling more confident would somehow make me feel more loved.

I thought if I was more attractive, more successful, had my “act” more together, people might respond to me better.

I wouldn’t leave the house without makeup because I didn’t want others to see the real me. I rarely asked for help with anything because I didn’t want to burden anyone with my needs or issues.

Before friends came into my home, I would scramble around in a feverish panic; because heaven forbid the house might have visible signs of being lived-in. I literally felt shame if there was dust on the television, fingerprints on the front door, or mail on the counter, even though I knew I was building the kind of life that left me little time to keep myself or my house looking like a magazine cover.

I wanted to make my life look easy - like it was “no big deal” that I was working full-time while adulting like a champion.

I thought to be admirable in those ways - and so many others - would make me more lovable. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.

I ended up exhausted and burned out, which deepened my sense of isolation rather than making me feel more connected. This was a disheartening discovery.

Trying to transform ourselves to be more lovable… more relevant… more whatever… is exhausting work. And all for nothing, because it doesn’t accomplish what we think it will.

If I couldn’t accept my own humanity, how could I allow others into it? By not admitting my areas of struggle, or weakness, or questions, I decided for others that they couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) know the real me. I assumed that allowing someone into my messy home, or letting people get close enough to see my struggles (or even the imperfections in my skin sans makeup) would ruin their illusions about me.

Asking for help meant being vulnerable enough to admit that I wasn’t all-knowing. (I mean, really. Did people actually think I was all-knowing? I highly doubt it. Perfectionism never claimed to be realistic.)

What we inevitably find is, when we can’t trust others with what’s true about us, we simultaneously create distance and disconnection. Whether we mean to or not, we create a smokescreen that hinders genuine connection and even deepens our belief in the lie that if people really knew us, they might not accept us or love us as we are.

After consciously trying to escape this perfectionistic trap for a while, I remember the day my long-time friend walked into my “lived-in” looking house and admitted how much more comfortable she felt there. Seeing my house looking like a normal, functional space, where a busy family lives, actually helped her feel free to have me over if she hadn’t had time to get everything “just so”. Our relationship became stronger after that day. (Go figure!)

I don’t know why this was so surprising. I remember being in Pueblo, Mexico, years earlier and feeling an indescribable connection to our host family. It wasn’t because the food or setting was spectacular in any way, but because the people were. I don’t remember what we ate or what kind of dishes we ate on, but I remember how they made me feel.

I ‘ve had to learn to stop focusing on all the “stuff” I thought people cared about and simply care about them. I’ve had to learn that my true self - imperfections and all - is better for my relationships than any false or partial version of myself.

I’ve had to practice asking for help. I’ve had to admit when I didn’t have things figured out. I’ve had to stop keeping my front door locked if the house isn’t camera-ready. (I’ve possibly made too much “progress” on this. Last week I sent my friend a photo of a full-fledged spider web in my front room.)

I’ve discovered that being authentic is a huge relief. Caring for the people in my life and letting them have access to the real me, shockingly, built bridges to deeper, more meaningful relationships.

I have a feeling, it might be a relief for you, too, if you haven’t tried it.

The gift of being ourselves - and allowing others to be themselves - can change the environment of our homes, communities, and world. Authenticity communicates, often without words, that soul-to-soul connection isn’t tied to how perfect, or successful, or smart we are. Rather, it is a gift freely given and received, simply because we’re human beings who care for each other.

The reality is… trying to be more perfect is an exhausting exercise in keeping people at an arm’s length.

What I wish I had known years earlier is: I didn’t need to be more perfect to connect more deeply with my family, community, friends, spouse, etc. I simply needed to be more myself.

Emily SutherlandComment