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The importance of connection

One of the interesting things about being neurodivergent is the jarring feeling between wanting to be alone and craving peace and quiet, compared to the longing for connection with other human beings who deeply understand us.


Those who do get us, who make us feel happy and at peace with the world, who we can chatter with for hours and bounce our ideas off, tangentially flowing with our conversations into funny, interesting and deep conversations.


Our brains are hard-wired to seek out connections with other human beings for survival. We don’t do well alone because we can’t do everything ourselves - we need other people who have different skills.


When we were living as cave-people, we wouldn’t have survived for long alone – how do you secure your belongings or home, go out looking for food, make sure you’re not being attacked by another animal or person, all at the same time?


We need other people to survive so we have to find them.


In my trauma training, I learnt about the experience of attachment versus authenticity. What this shows us is that as babies and young children, we will forgo authenticity because we need that attachment to survive.


It goes something like this (apologies to the incredible Susanna Petche if I butcher this!):


As babies and young children, we are thoroughly dependent on adults or older children for our survival. When we’re born, we can’t walk, talk, or do anything for ourselves - we need someone else to find food, feed it to us, take care of us and keep our completely vulnerable bodies alive.


There is no debate about this, we need bigger people to look after us.


The authenticity piece comes in when we’re trying to get the things we need for ourselves. Say for example, we want food or comfort - we can’t actually communicate this so we scream or cry to get attention.


Because different caregivers have different styles, the screaming/crying may work, in which case we get exactly what we need (food, comfort etc) and all is good. In other cases, it might be hit and miss where the screaming/crying works sometimes and other times it may not. For others, they rarely, if ever, get what they need.


When we don’t get what we need, the part of us that’s interested in survival knows that we still need the caregiver to look after us. Our subconscious makes it a problem that is our fault. After all, if we make it the caregivers fault, we might have to alienate them or push them away but as a result of this, we’ll but utterly vulnerable and unable to survive at all.


I would like to note here that this isn’t a comment on parenting styles or a criticism on how to bring up a child. After all, caregivers won’t always know what to give us, especially when they’re stressed too.


Back to connections. The experience of not getting our needs met, can lead to us suppressing our authentic selves in order to get the attachment we need as a baby or young child, in order to survive. This can turn into a pattern in the way we go about getting connection as we get older.


We look at a situation, decide what the best way of dealing with it is and proceed from there. Our brains are constantly looking for patterns and trying to make sense of the data it’s being presented with.


For neurodivergent brains, they take in so much more data than neurotypical brains, it’s easy to get confused, overwhelmed and anxious. Whilst taking it in and trying to process it, there are also a dozen scenarios running about what the potential outcomes of doing something a certain way or responding in a specific way might be.


These scenarios are based on previous experiences, knowledge of the situation and an assessment of the probability of things happening. The part that takes other experiences might be evaluating those childhood attachment feelings and decide that being authentic won’t serve us this time.


And just to note that a lot of this is background work done subconsciously, even when we are aware we’re weighing up these kinds of decisions.


So, when we are in a work environment and someone asks us what we think about something and we’re not sure, we may err on the side of caution and agree with the group. Or agree with what the presenter is aiming for, rather than being completely honest and saying “well that’s a load of shit that’ll never work”.


We learn these strategies in order to not alienate our sources of security, connection and safety. We can find ourselves coming back to some of these conversations afterwards and wish we’d done things differently.


I’ve had this several times. I have been asked to resolve incidents that were previously assigned to someone else who did a rubbish job at either dealing with customers or actually resolving the problem.


At the time, I felt I was unable to push back against being given someone else’s work to do because I was told that I’d do a much better job or that there was something else going on. I’d get a niggling feeling a day or so later that I kept being given more work to do and the other person wasn’t doing their job (and sometimes being paid more than me!).


I didn’t really feel like I could comfortably say anything so I kept it in and let it niggle at me instead.


This idea of making ourselves uncomfortable so that other people are ok or comfortable, keeps us repressing parts of ourselves in order to be accepted. When we repress parts of ourselves, there is often some shame involved – whether it’s the part we’re suppressing that we’re ashamed of or just that we aren’t living up to the best version of ourselves that we hold in our minds.


Yet we keep doing it to get that connection.


So why do neurodivergent people hide so much from people? I think there are a few reasons.


There’s the overwhelming responsibility of having to pretend to be “normal” or fit in (masking) that we feel we have to do in order to be accepted by neurotypical people or society. The way we’ve been trained to be, to behave, to fit in. The consequences when we don’t get it right.


Then there’s the sheer volume of sensory input that we get all the time that our brains are trying to process. Whether it’s noise, light, the fabric of our clothes or trying to work out what people are actually saying to us. There’s a lot going on in a neurodivergent brain.


This is part of the reason, I believe, that so many neurodivergent people also like being alone is because of the way our society works right now. There’s so much noise, pressure, judgement and misunderstanding, that being alone can often feel like a relief.


So how do we go about being ourselves when we aren’t sure if we’ll be accepted? How do we break the habits of a (literal) lifetime and be our authentic selves?


Honestly, I doubt any of the solutions are going to be a comfortable ride the whole time. But then, when is learning about and improving yourself a comfortable ride? We often have to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves in order to learn and change.


You could go all out, dropping all the masks you know you have, saying “fuck you” to the rules and doing whatever feels right to you. It’s an option that can feel really inviting after a long time of cramming yourself into a little box of acceptance.


That may well end up being a little uncomfortable in itself – imagine walking into work and telling your users that you’re fed up with telling them the same thing every time they ring up and if they don’t start listening to you then they might as well stop calling.


Or telling your manager that they’re doing their job all wrong and should be getting rid of Steve in the corner because he’s bloody useless.


It probably won’t win you any friends and could lose you some of that hard-fought-for connection.


You could also just accept the way it is and carry on, but I suspect you’re not reading this because that’s an option you want to take anymore.


Some self-acceptance however may well be in order. After all, we’re whole people with a lifetime of experiences and emotions that are all held together at the same time. We don’t always have to be perfect, have the best answer or know the right thing to do. And that’s ok.


Maybe having difficult conversations could be on the agenda. Start small and remember that you can’t control how other people react.


Maybe the managers aren’t aware that Steve isn’t doing his job properly. Maybe he needs some help and doesn’t know how to ask for it. You don’t have to go in all guns blazing and blowing up your life in the process (I’ve learned from experience).


And remember:

We need connection, but we don’t need it at the expense of our time, energy and wellbeing.

We don’t need to sacrifice our mental health just to be accepted.

We can be ourselves and the people aren’t going to run away.

We can be ourselves and maybe that’s how we find our people.


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