Note: In this third part of a three-part series adapted from the upcoming book Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life after 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy, author and clinician Andrea Brandt looks at how a more intentional relationship with ourselves can lead to more satisfying relationships with others. Click here to read Part I and here to read Part II.
Most of us enter our 50s and 60s embedded in a social network: the parents, siblings, and other kin who were part of our youth, supplemented by the friendship circles we built and extended through school and careers, and our partners and our children, and even grandchildren. The amount of love and support we draw from them may vary but the links are essential.
Whatever the number or shape of our relationships, one constant emerges: that we’re innately and intensely social beings. We’re wired to form positive connections with others and suffer serious consequences when we don’t. Infants, for example, can literally die if they go too long without being held, nuzzled, and hugged enough, despite receiving proper nutrition. The elderly, too, experience an increased risk of mortality without enough social connection, as social isolation and loneliness are major factors in depression and negatively impact physical, mental, and cognitive health. The fact is that connection, love, and touch are essential to our nature and thus our well-being. Therefore, the better we are at making and keeping healthy connections, the happier and healthier we’ll be. Even though both genetics and early life experiences strongly influence our abilities in the social realm, our capacity for change in this area—at any age—is great.
Making the Connections That Make All the Difference
Our ability to have successful relationships with others starts with having a healthy relationship with ourselves. As we explore our thoughts and emotions, a magical thing happens: the better we know ourselves, the more we love ourselves. Everything else will follow. Here are some directions you can take as you prepare yourself to reach out and forge new relationships—or evaluate and modify the relationships you already have, ones that may not be meeting your desires or needs.
Develop Your Emotional Intelligence. You probably know what IQ is, and you may even have a sense of where you might fall on that scale. But how about emotional intelligence? Perhaps unlike IQ, it’s absolutely something we can develop, with rewarding results.
Daniel Goleman brought the subject into our living rooms with his bestselling 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. He suggested five components: self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, and social skills.
The connections are fairly easy to see. In order to manage our emotions, we need to be aware of them—as they are, not as we imagine they should be. Once we’re aware, we anticipate that others have similar feelings, and we develop empathy. Building this connection between ourselves and others creates an internal motivation: we want to treat others as we would like to be treated—and so we’re motivated to enhance our own social skills.
Be Yourself—Your True Self. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen. That’s the core belief of Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston who wrote the bestseller Daring Greatly. “It’s tough to [be vulnerable] when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. When we’re fueled by the fear of what other people think or that gremlin that’s constantly whispering ‘You’re not good enough’ in our ear, it’s tough to show up. We end up hustling for our worthiness rather than standing in it.” While it’s fine to work toward self-improvement, it’s not okay to become obsessed with the fear of failing or making mistakes or not meeting someone’s expectations. Journalist Maria Shriver points out in her blog that “playing it cool is overrated.” While others may warn against the danger of “wearing your heart on your sleeve,” it’s the only way people will know what you want.
Create Emotional Safety. Good relationships depend on both parties feeling safe with each other, trusting that they’re there for you as you’re there for them. This circle of trusting and trusted others is crucial to coping with the changes and anxieties that growing older involves.
Just having people around won’t do it. To feel safe, we need to feel that the person with us hears and sees us—and accepts us—as we are and that he or she wants the best for us. Our bodies need this to heal, and so do our minds and souls. Although this safety is essential in difficult times, it also provides fertile ground to interact with each other in the best of times.
We can create this safe place for ourselves—and, better still, invite other people to join us inside. As it has been so often, mindfulness is the road to a personal sense of safety: recognizing our feelings and having the intent and means to change the patterns that don’t serve us. Being judgmental is near the top of the list of these unwanted patterns. We need to look at our thoughts and feelings without ruling on whether they’re “good” or “bad.” Once we learn to treat ourselves with this compassion and empathy, we can extend the same nonjudgmental attitude to others, allowing them to feel safe.
Allow Others to Help You. Too many people are shy about reaching out to others for help in dark times. Most of the time, people want to help and are just looking for a way. When a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer—for the second time in 15 years—a circle of casual friends asked whether they could do anything to help. Instead of giving them a brave no, my friend shared with them that she hated the day before a chemotherapy treatment. So, the members of the group took turns taking her out to lunch the day before her treatments and making sure she had some fun memories to take with her. The point here is that she assumed they meant it when they asked, and she gave them something to do—something she needed that helped her feel supported through a hard time.
Seek Out New Friends. By our 50s and 60s, some of us have forgotten how we made friends—the skills that were so natural to our childhood and early adult years may have rusted with disuse. People looking for new partners in midlife and beyond often complain that they have “forgotten” how to date. In the same way, we may forget how to find friends. A strategy with a high return rate is to go places and/or do things you enjoy and see who you meet there. If you like to read, join a book club. If you’re more physically oriented, join a gym or take a class in a new sport: golf, tennis, swimming, tai chi.
As we’ve seen, all of our relationships need nurturing—which begins with our mindset and intentions and extends into our priorities, choices, and daily interactions. Moving beyond ourselves into connection with others is a crucial step in living the life we will love through our older years. It is never too late to build or repair your social circle.
Andrea Brandt, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist based in Santa Monica, California. She’s the author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness and Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom.
This blog is adapted from Andrea Brandt’s upcoming book, Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life after 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy.