4. Fill the Emptiness with Love (Ways to Build Relationships and Be Likable When You’re Struggling and Not Feeling It)

Psychoanalysts Karen Horney and Rollo May, respectively, said these things decades ago:

“…the same competitive forces in our society that generate anxiety, making our relationships so important as a coping mechanism, also undermine those very relationships.”

“The culturally accepted method of allaying anxiety is redoubling one’s efforts to achieve success . . . But the more competitive, aggressive striving, the more isolation, hostility, and anxiety. This vicious circle may be graphed as follows: competitive individual striving > intrasocial hostility > isolation > anxiety > increased competitive striving. Thus the methods most generally used to dispel anxiety in such a constellation actually increase anxiety in the long run.”

Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score credits Steve Porges with helping him realize “that the natural state of mammals is to be somewhat on guard,” and that we as social animals relax only when other humans make us feel comfortable.

A 2006 paper, Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Event Disclosures, cites “An abundance of research [that] shows that the perception that one has supportive others to turn to in times of stress (i.e., perceived support) buffers against the harmful effects of stress (e.g., Cohen, 1992; Collins & Feeney,2000; Sarason, Sarason, & Gurung, 1997). Of the different types of support, emotional support may play a particularly important role in the stress–adjustment link (Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996),” and hypothesizes that “it is quite possible that capitalization exchanges serve as a primary mechanism through which traditional social support networks are built,” meaning capitalizing on positive events by sharing them with others and being mirrored.

It’s hard to do that when you’re depressed. You may not have much to be happy about, and it’s not much fun to hear about other people’s good times when you’re miserable.

Although John Gottman is writing about the same effect, this description puts less emphasis on positivity:

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that. […]

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.

When you can’t be happy, you can still…

Appreciate Little Acts

This is just a short excerpt from a great article, outlining the three steps of “Positive Alacrity”:
Recognition: Think of something positive that happened within the last 24 hours, then ask yourself: “Who was the cause of (or involved in) this experience that I could thank or compliment?”
Specificity: Ask yourself: “What specifically did I like or appreciate about this experience/situation?”
Action: Now, voice it. Pay this person a face-to-face visit. If that doesn’t work, call them. If you can’t call them, then text or email them; immediately, before you finish reading this.

Be Interesting

“Did you know…” “Today I learned…” “I’m reading about…”

Be Real

When you need to get some bad feelings off your chest, give your listener something concrete to comment on — for example, “I’ve been depressed and John saying that really hit me hard” — and gently invite them to share something similar: “What about you?/How are you feeling?/Does anything like that ever bother you?” The less you judge or question people for being vulnerable, earnest, or strange, the more comfortable they’ll be sharing themselves with you, and many people will value that.

Go to Part 5: Make a Strategy