Almost 400 years ago, the clergyman and poet, John Donne, gave a sermon that included the statement that “No man is an island”. What he was referring to was the idea that humans are all connected to each other. He went on to talk about just how important connections are to both human wellbeing and survival. Fast-forward to today, and countless scientific studies back up this idea, showing that social connectedness is a key driver of human wellbeing and resilience as well as physical health and good employment and education outcomes.

Given that it is clear that being connected to other people, having support and spending time with people we care about is so very important, how come I see so many men (in particular) in my practice who struggle with some parts of being connected? To shine a light on this, let me talk briefly about some other research.

Social connectedness has been said to be made up of three parts. These are:

1. Socialising (two or more people coming together to enjoy an activity);

2. Having social support (having a group or network to get support or help from in times of need); and

3. Having a sense of belonging (feeling of being connected to and valued by other people e.g. a friend group, family, co-workers, hobby club or sports team, church or community group).

Many of the men I see have “mates” with whom they socialise and some also have involvement in a group or groups and have some sense of “belonging”. What seems challenging is being able to be vulnerable, which is associated with developing social supports and being able to ask members of that social network for help. 

Certainly, we need to celebrate “socialising”. Being with others, sharing similar interests and activities, having fun together and talking about more superficial things is important. It is often the first level of connecting. These experiences help to start to build bonds and provide good fun. Research is clear that experiencing positive emotions is important in human wellbeing and that activities are more satisfying when shared or done with others. When we socialise, we experience and interact with people, we can also get a sense of those we might warm to, or connect with, more than others. 

There are three different types of social support that have been identified as human needs. The first refers to getting practical support (e.g. help to pick up the kids, getting a ride to an event etc). The second is being able to ask for advice, information and/or guidance (sometimes referred to as information support). The third is emotional support – that is, asking for caring, nurturance, to be understood, and responded to with sympathy and empathy. 

Although asking for any form of help requires a level of vulnerability, asking for information support (advice, information or guidance) and emotional support seem to be the two most challenging. These areas seem to provide the greatest risk with regard to our “fears”. These fears include fear of the unknown, fear of failure or rejection, fear of being seen as weak or not fully self-reliant.

We often talk about what stops men developing these more intimate types of support, but instead I want to talk about a simple strategy to develop and improve these specific supports in our networks.

To develop deeper connections takes time, shared experience and reciprocity. The idea of reciprocity is important. It refers to the “to and from” of a relationship. That is, two (or more) people give and take, in the context of a deepening friendship, it means that both or all people involved want to do this or, as my colleague says, “They all have skin in the game”. 

One of the common techniques used in psychology is the idea of a behavioural experiment, or, as I describe it, trying something out in very small steps to see what happens next. This is a helpful skill when it comes to putting any new behaviour into action. It means you do things in small steps and so can deal with small, more manageable risks. In this way, you can “test out” if the person you want to develop a deeper connection with responds in a positive way, which suggests they are also interested in this goal. If their response is negative (they are not respectful, do not respect your privacy, or do not reciprocate by sharing some information about themselves), you might want to reconsider if this person would be a good fit as a close friend for you. 

To deepen a friendship, depending on where your connection is already at, the idea is to come up with a small step to slightly deepen the relationship, without baring your whole soul. In this way, you step slightly into the unknown, being a little vulnerable, sharing a little of yourself, rather than sharing your entire history. If the possible friend doesn’t respond in a reciprocal or interested way, the emotional cost is small. For example, you might ask for advice on a small practical issue, or share a small difficulty like a hard day at work. If you have already tried these with success, try another, slightly deeper step (e.g. talking about how you felt in a certain situation). Perhaps something that is coming up where you feel a little nervous. The trick is, if the other person responds in a similar way (e.g. shares similar things, respects your privacy by not telling others and shows empathy), you can keep taking small steps, upping the vulnerability factor over time.

As a last word, making closer connections is worth it. It is extremely important for our wellbeing; we cope with stress and life challenges better. We have better physical health, better quality of relationships, less depression and less loneliness. It is not easy being vulnerable in trying to connect at deeper levels, but we can take small, manageable steps to get there.

Developing connections or friends where we can be vulnerable and can ask for any sort of help is the gift that keeps giving. Remember, as John Donne said, “No man is an island” and we all need help at some time in our lives.

If this is an area you need additional support with, you can get assistance from a professional (psychologist, counsellor etc.). If we have had painful experiences in the past, it can be hard to believe it’s possible to trust friendships or deepen them, in which case some input from a professional can help. 

By Bronwyn Moth, Registered Clinical Psychologist


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