We live in a time and a culture in which independence is prized as a great virtue. We believe that if we are financially and emotionally independent, we can survive any situation. This value has been driven to an extreme and now many of us find ourselves isolated and deprived of the nourishment and support of community.
I’ve felt a shift in recent years as people abandon the barren desert of isolation and turning with curiosity and courage to form relationships, friendships and even living situations that fulfill our need for a diverse level of connection. Human beings are social creatures, and just like horses, we were meant to live in a herd.
Isolation is lonely, but it’s simple. Living in community is far more complex, and as people start to move into this way of living, I see challenges arise almost immediately. Just as in an Equus Coaching™ session the horse mirrors our own emotional and energetic state, the same tends to happen between people in community. Sometimes this mirroring can create a strong sense of being seen and connected. But when we are mired in fear and anxiety – essentially rejecting our own value – we may find that what’s mirrored back to us is confusion, upset and disconnection.
In a close friendship or in a tight community, it’s easy to read somebody else’s gesture, laugh or momentary abruptness as meaning something about us. This is particularly true when we feel insecure. Whenever individuals grow close in their connection, it’s natural that they will begin triggering each other… in fact, it’s actually a healthy part of relationship.
I’ve been watching this type of pattern play out in my community recently. A friend I’ll call Sandy is very worried about over-burdening others when she feels stressed. Another member of our community, David, tends to worry that if he doesn’t give others as much support as possible, they will get angry with him for not doing enough. These internal storylines are the substance of the relationship that each person has with themselves. Sandy isn’t seeing her own needs as having equal value as those of others in the community. She’s yet to accept that her sharing and reaching out for connection is not a burden to anyone. This requires a transformation in how she views herself, an awareness that her own emotional processing is not a burden to her.
Because Sandy has had a lifelong struggle with not knowing how to embrace and even celebrate her own need to connect with her emotional process, it feels like a burden to her and so she assumes that it will be a heavy burden to anyone she shares it with. So Sandy approaches the community holding her emotional cards as tight to her chest as she can manage.
Meanwhile, David comes into the community with a lot of anxiety that he will do something to cause those he cares about to be angry with him. This internal dialogue means that David will also have a high tendency to be disconnected from his own needs. This will eventually make him frustrated and angry, emotions which he projects onto others in the community. Internal judgements take form, such as “people always need something more from me, when am I just going to have time for myself?”
On a deeper level, the interaction is a reflection of the relationship Sandy and David are having with themselves. The anger is stemming from an unwillingness to honor their own needs before trying to give to another member of the community. Essentially, instead of being frustrated and angry with others always asking for more, they are frustrated and angry with themselves in a way for not giving themselves the space to ask for what they need.
Here’s what happens when Sandy and David interact. David has been playing out his usual pattern within the community, wanting to express his care and love by being available to talk with anyone who wants to talk to him. Along comes Sandy, who bravely tries to forge a deeper connection within the group. She allows herself to be vulnerable, specifically asking David for some time to talk and connect. However, David has reached his limit and shoots back a quick, somewhat agitated response that says “Sure, can we do it tomorrow?” Sandy feels the tone and energy of the reply despite the polite niceties. She feels horrified that she’s overburdening David. He meanwhile walks away from the conversation feeling frustrated and agitated: “I just can’t do this anymore.”
Both individuals are triggered into their primary pattern: Sandy assuming that she will overburden people by sharing more of herself, and David assuming if he doesn’t give everybody whatever they want whenever they want, they will become angry with him.
This is one of the most exquisite and intelligent parts of living in community. So how do you resolve the trigger? Rather than trying to sort through who is right and who is wrong, you must choose to put connection at the center of the relationship. We’ve been taught that when we get hurt or emotionally stirred up, we must take our emotions away from one another. We hide, we stew, we feel shame, we feel guilt – and we isolate.
Yet when we come to a conscious understanding that these emotionally challenging moments are a healthy and important part of building relationships, then instead of getting frightened by our emotional struggles, we can make the choice to come together and ask for the support we need to return to a sense of connection. It means we will always need to continue to ask the other about our worst assumptions. Sandy needs to ask David, “When I ask to share with you, is that a burden for you?” David has to be brave enough to reply with his whole truth. This restores the faith that Sandy can trust David to tell her the truth when he is feeling overburdened, or when he has the genuine energy and desire to connect.
David needs to ask Sandy about his own assumption: “Are you angry with me when I’m not able to show up for you?” And again, Sandy must be courageous enough to give her whole truth. Out of this type of dialogue, a true authentic connection can arise, where both individuals are seen and fully accepted as themselves. This creates the foundation for a true connection.
Having intimate relationships or a close community is not simply about striving for an ideal emotional state where everyone constantly feels happy and safe. It can be a beautifully chaotic place where the storms between us create the new norm that it is okay to be fully ourselves. The goal is not a happy, rosy ideal where everyone always gets along. The goal is authentic connection. We were never meant to try to survive in isolation, and to survive collectively means we will trigger and hurt each other.
This is a process of coming to feel safe enough to be yourself, not of spending your whole life walking on social eggshells, trying to be the image of perfection in all of your relationships. We need to make friends with the truth that in authentic connection there is a high level of messy vulnerability. Triggers give us the chance to connect with our integrity. They allow us to come to know a side of ourselves that would have remained invisible without the beautiful mirror of other people.