It's been a while. You know how it is: summer happens, kids aren't in school and want more time, you spend a couple weeks at the beach, habits fade away.
Well, I'm back. It took some effort to roll out this letter, because I felt like I had broken a promise. I said I would write regularly, and I missed a long period of time. What's the right way to come back from that?
How about writing about just that? I realized recently that I wrote about the benefits of reactivating dormant ties some time ago, but just hand-waved about the reality of reconnecting. I gave the what, but not the how. And the how matters.
Part of what I spent my time away doing was reading. One of the best books I read this summer was Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. Brown is a PhD in Social Work who has done extensive research on shame and vulnerability. You can see a TED talk of hers where she tells the story of her research here. It's a great book, with amazing insights into universal experiences about how we treat ourselves and our relationships to others.
Brown defines shame as different from guilt with a simple twist of phrase: guilt is feeling bad because we did something. Shame is feeling bad because of how we define ourselves. Shame is the internalization of guilt. We feel guilty because we haven't called in a while. We feel ashamed because we are a bad friend.
This was the insight that struck me when reading the book: I felt guilty about violating the pattern of newsletters over the summer. Then I felt shame because I was not a good newsletter-writing-person. And we do the same thing with relationships that we let fade away. At first, a twinge of guilt over our lack of connecting creeps in. Then, we start defining ourselves through our guilt: we are ashamed of ourselves as friends, as colleagues, as sons/daughters/siblings. When we feel shame, we define ourselves as not being good enough for whoever we faded away from. In fact, Brown describes shame at its root as an issue of connection:
Shame is the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.
Ironically, when it comes to maintaining connections, shame leads to deeper disconnection. When we are ashamed, we avoid the thing that inspires that shame. In the case of faded connections, we put off reconnecting longer and longer. At some point, our shame-filled mind tells us, "It's been so long, she will start the conversation with blaming you for not calling," or "How can you write him now? You don't have anything to share or give," or "You can't just call because you need something. You haven't called in ages." As time goes by, the situation recycles on itself and "you haven't chatted in days" slowly morphs into "you haven't chatted in a year", with an even deeper sense of shame.
So what can we do? Brown has a wide collection of tools for overcoming shame, but three that she uses herself stand out for getting beyond having not reached out:
1. Own the story
2. Talk to yourself the way you would someone else
3. Be courageous and reach out
When you "own the story", you make yourself a protagonist instead of a bystander. You become the actor who drives what happens instead of waiting for something to happen to you. Owning the story includes taking responsibility for what has happened so far, which isn't fun. But taking responsibility and making things happen are better choices than sitting on the sideline in your own life.
We are often hardest on ourselves. In this case, imagine how you would react if someone you hadn't heard from in ages reached out. Would you be annoyed at the months or years gone by, or would you be interested in what's happening in their life and how they are doing? Echoing back to my previous post on dormant ties, people like hearing from old friends, they have been distant themselves and you taking the time to reach out means something.
That leads to the third point. While "Do it anyway" (warning, music and Muppets) feels like hollow advice, your reaching out is a sign that you are engaging with the relationship. Reaching out makes people feel good. It takes some courage to get past the voices in your head, but reaching out begins the rebirth of the connection.
So this is me, ignoring the voices in my head that are saying that I blew it when I stopped sending newsletters over the summer. Reaching out, sending letters. I hope you continue to enjoy them.