Connection is a fundamental human need.
As children, we need connection / attachment in order for our needs to be met - to survive in the world. As adults we still need connection - no longer necessarily for our physical survival but because we evolved as social beings and we cannot thrive without relationship.
Because the need for connection / attachment is paramount to survival when we are younger, we learned ways of connecting with others, of getting attention or validation - of being in relationship to others.
I call this our ‘connection strategy’.
This is not something we actively chose, but an adaptation which was the best we could do at the time to maximise connection / attachment - even if this meant sacrificing or ignoring other needs we have like authenticity or integrity.
If our parents allowed us to have our own needs, desires, emotions, and were able to provide appreciation, attention, affection, acceptance and allowing (David Richo’s Five A’s of relating in his book How to Be an Adult in Love), we are probably able to connect with others in a healthy way, equal to equal, where we can balance our own needs and those of the other person.
Healthy connection means staying in our own internal village with solid enough boundaries while also opening up to connection. We probably have a healthy sense of trust and discernment and know when and how much to open to connection and when to walk away or put a boundary.
This is not always the case unfortunately, and many of us learned to sacrifice our own needs to be in connection with others, weakening our own boundaries in order to connect with others. Alternatively, we may have learned to cut ourselves off from connection to protect ourselves, leading to boundaries that are too solid. Often, we swing from one extreme to the other.
As adults, we can now bring awareness to this behavior and change it if it is no longer working for us but it is important to go about this gently and with compassion. There is always a good reason why we do what we do - it made sense at some point in our life.
Below are three common ‘connection strategies’ I see in my work with clients. We may have several styles depending on the context we are in and who were are interacting with.
When connection = caretaking
In this connection strategy, connecting with others means taking care of them and putting their needs before one’s own needs.
This may have come from having a parent who ‘parentified’ the child - putting the child in the inappropriate role of confidant, caretaker or mediator in the parents’ relationship.
Or maybe the child was expected to take care of a sick, needy or younger family member - was expected to be the ‘responsible’ one, the grown-up in the family.
Growing up in this context makes relationships feel like constant work - these are often people who seem to be carrying a burden of responsibility.
They come across as capable and strong, yet connection is not one between equals but of care taking, fixing, being there for others - of being the strong one.
At the same time, care taking can act almost like a shield, keeping people at a distance while still connecting with them in a safe, controlled way. Vulnerability is avoided in an attempt to help / take care of / fix the other person.
This connection strategy often leads to periods of burnout, withdrawal, isolation as giving without receiving is a recipe for depletion.
This connection strategy can be summed up as: I give you what I think you need in order to be in connection with you.
When connection = people pleasing
In this connection strategy, connecting with others is about trying to please them, often at the expense of one’s own needs or authenticity.
This is a style that was often learned with parents who were quite strict, distant, unpredictable or critical.
People pleasing can look very different - it can vary from being the nice guy / girl, being perfectionistic to being the clown or a chameleon.
Robin Williams once mentioned in an interview that he learned to be funny because it was the most effective way to get his distant mother’s attention.
It can also be a way of trying to appease a punishing / critical / unpredictable parent by trying to be perfect, by trying to predict what they want or need before they can explode.
This connection strategy is about adapting to what they think the person / group across from them needs - almost like a shape shifter. They often come across as easy, charming people who are often super sensitive to other people’s facial expressions or the energy in the room.
With this connection strategy, it can seem easy to connect with others, yet this connection is often about adapting and sacrificing a sense of self rather than a connection of equal to equal.
This connection strategy often leads to confusion, anxiety, loss of identity, depression, feeling inauthentic or fake. In romantic relationships, these are often people who are very good at initially being the perfect partner because they are so good at knowing what others need - but then there is a brutal rupture and they disappear or ghost you.
This connection strategy can be summed up as: I become the person I think you want me to be in order to be in connection with you.
When connection = neediness / pity
In this connection strategy, connecting with others is about allowing them to take care of you.
This is a common pattern in environments where the child was overprotected, controlled or sheltered. The child learns they are not capable of getting by on their own and that connection is based on others taking care of you or telling you what to do.
As adults, this connection strategy is about being needy, vulnerable, child-like. They learn that there are people who get a sense of validation from taking care of them (hello, caretakers!), that they can get what they want by stroking other people’s egos, making them feel superior to them or putting them on a pedestal.
They often come across as needy, yet charming, knowing how to flatter others, or put themselves underneath them in order to connect with them.
This connection strategy may also use pity and a victim like position to get people to take care of them or do what they want. This works very well as pity is one of the most powerful motivators.
Here also, connection is not one of equal to equal but one where vulnerability is used in an attempt to get help / care / connect with others.
This connection strategy often leads to anxiety, anger at self, insecurity, staying in abusive relationships.
This connection strategy can be summed up as: I allow you to take care of me or see me as beneath you in order to be in connection with you.
This might look or sound like manipulation
But it isn’t. Most of the time, we are not aware of these strategies. They are simply the learned responses we have - we are on autopilot so to speak.
Even if a behavior is no longer working for us, it is not ‘wrong’ - it is an adaptation we learned at a time when it made sense, like a survival strategy helping us make the best of the relationships we had in the past.
If you recognise yourself in one or more of these connection strategies, the first thing to do is stop the autopilot by bringing awareness to your actions.
Also bring a sense of validation that it makes sense that you learned this behavior, given the context in which you grew-up AND that you no longer need to connect with people in this way, that it is now safe to interact with them from a more authentic place.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” - Maya Angelou