This article looks at how to build healthy and meaningful relationships by being awake and present, not sleepwalking past your loved ones.
Brains work on automation, routines and habits
Imagine your brain as a giant factory that’s largely automated. All sorts of thoughts and information are being processed without your interference. Yet, you’re a factory owner. Normally, if you want something done – create a new product for example – you will need to go down on the shop floor and actually reset certain machines to run the order. If you don’t, the factory line will just run what it always runs: an old program. The material may change, but the outcome will still be the same.
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The brain is built to run on autopilot through habits and routines. This is both healthy and efficient. It allows us to divert attention to tasks we want to focus on.
Think about how your brain helped you learn to walk. At first, it was a struggle. You had to pay attention to each move you made. Most likely you fell down a few times before your mind grasped how to balance. With each try, your brian learned how to work the legs to take each step, how to calibrate your stride, and how to speed up and slow down without falling.
Now, you likely hardly notice yourself walking or running unless you encounter an obstacle. You can get from point A to B on autopilot. But does autopilot also deliver when it comes to nurturing healthy and meaningful relationships?
Autopilot mode in relationships
Many of us are on autopilot more often than we care to admit. We can get up, make coffee, shower and do a gazillion other daily routines without paying much attention at all. We can take trains or drive cars to and from work hardly remembering how we got there. This way of being can conserve a great deal of mental energy but it is not effective in all contexts.
Imagine for example that you pass your partner in the kitchen in this autopilot mode. Maybe you say a quick good morning out of habit or ask them if they also want a coffee. You may give them a quick peck without actually mindfully noticing them and be on your way. At some point, you may hop into a shower, get dressed, make something to eat and then give your partner a lift to the train station ALL on autopilot.
You may do something similar with people at work, your kids, or your neighbors. You may see people and not notice them at the same time, hear them and not really listen. And, you may feel this is happening to you in some or all of your relationships. If you have ever felt lonely in a relationship or isolated while being with others, chances are you and/or others were on autopilot unless you consciously disconnected.
The cost of autopilot in relationships is disconnection
Autopilot has a cost in relationships. When we stop paying attention we’re essentially not there for ourselves and others. More and more people these days report feeling lonely and yet they are surrounded by friends and loved ones. Research has linked feeling isolated and lonely with:
- anxiety and depression
- physical and cognitive decline
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- a weakened immune system
What’s going on? My work shows me that while we may spend time with people, we’re not often fully there. We may be on our devices, in our own thoughts, or showing up with masks designed to cover up our true feelings and needs. This is damaging in relationships as in healthy relating, the whole point of showing up to a relationship is to be witnessed, acknowledged and seen or heard. No wonder we feel low when this does not happen.
The cost of feeling disconnected at work
The same is happening in teams and the workplace. We’re expected to separate the personal and professional but can we? And, should we? If my child is severely depressed am I to forget about it on my way to work? Would it not help if I could safely share my circumstances with a caring boss and find that work was more than just an escape? But this requires way more psychological safety in the workplace than many people feel they have.
This has a massive cost. Lack of effective relationships in the workplace has been linked with:
- performance and productivity
- psychological well-being
- engagement and morale
- job satisfaction
- brand perception.
This means that if we want to change things for the better in teams and the office, we need to start to pay attention to how we are showing up here too. We need to get help and offer help when this is needed. We need to become more caring.
How to nurture meaningful relationships
Let’s awake and connect with how we and others feel, what we and they actually need and begin to co-create more healthy relationships. Here are few practical ways to do this in your personal and professional life:
- Start to notice how you and others stand, sit, and move around in the space. Is it energetic? Drained? Disengaged? Low or high?
- Notice how people talk and what gets said and what doesn’t.
- Begin to pay attention to the emotional tones that come through what is being said. Does it sound engaged? Hopeful? Or, disengaged and perhaps despondent.
- Be curious to gently inquire how you and others are feeling about what is or isn’t happening.
- Offer to help make things better together and avoid judging.
If this sounds like work, it is. Only, it’s worth it!
Being awake in our relationships demands full attention. But, the reward is massive too. Healthy connections give us a sense of genuine connection where we feel heard and seen and where we are ultimately supported in our human experience. This means lower blood pressure and stress levels, and greater bandwidth for spontaneity, creativity and fun that comes when trust deepens.
Wake up to the people in your life
Here’s an invitation to awake to the people in your life.
- Make a deliberate choice to prioritize a real person over work or career and show them that they matter to you.
- Choose to put away other ‘important’ tasks in favor of the people in your proximity: your partner, roommate, friend, colleague, boss or neighbour, and choose to really see them! What are they facing in their life? Tune into your shared humanity with all its challenges and rewards.
- Acknowledge their presence and impact in your life and your impact on them. Is it a good one? If not, how can you change this?
- Stop taking friends and loved ones for granted and make them as important as your other projects. Take a moment to consider what would this look like in practice?
- Be brave and reach out first instead of waiting for others to tell you that they love you or to connect with you.
Being on autopilot is okay sometimes. Yet good times, worthwhile and meaningful conversations and memorable occasions happen when we pay attention to the people we’re with. And while this may seem like hard work at first, the payoffs are nothing short of miraculous. For to love and be loved, feel included and connected beats all the riches in the world. Healthy relationships give us wings to soar with and cushion downward falls.
Are you nurturing healthy relationships in your life?
This blog celebrates all those who have already achieved that state of wakefulness in their relationships. People know what they bring to others and what it is they are doing to strengthen healthy connections.
It also brings hope and inspiration to those in relational slumber, those who feel alone in spite of having friends and families and those who struggle to grow relationships.
For useful exercises to support healthy relationships check out the Get Productive book. If you would like to deepen the relationship you have with yourself, especially your mind-body connection, we recommend that you explore the Body Talk book. Becoming more attuned and sensitive to others begins with having more insight into how we’re feeling in our body, heart and mind. The exercises and practices in this book will help you learn a great deal about this experientially.
The bottom line is that people in your life deserve your attention. And you do as well!
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