Recently, my rabbit hole adventures led me to a guided meditation with Kristen Neff on warmth. One of the prompts Kristen used was to “allow yourself to notice the softening around your mouth and perhaps even notice a slight upturn of your lips in a half-smile.” I was surprised to discover how the invitation to try a half-smile led to a genuine feeling of warmth towards myself, the world, and people I care most about. Almost immediately, I was putting energy into the space between us that was welcoming. I am keenly aware that I am 100% responsible for what I say and do. And what I say and do is the food, air, water, and sustenance that fills the space between us. What I say and do and how I say or do it matter.
I imagine, we all know the difference between a genuine warm welcome and a half-hearted, reluctant gesture that is meant to pass for welcoming. We know this deeply in our nervous systems, well before our brains assign meaning to the feelings that arise from a lack of genuine engagement. Our amazing and brilliant survival system is generally excellent at gathering data and sorting it into safe or not-safe buckets. It knows the difference between warm and welcoming and fake hospitality.
Notice the myriad opportunities when you could be fully present. Every momentary incident of meeting, greeting, or passing another person in your home, on your street, in traffic, at the office, shopping, walking, talking, or on the phone. Anywhere and everywhere, we are given opportunities to welcome or distance. We can seek connection with others, albeit briefly and in passing. Or we might avoid connection, electing instead to choose the more solitary path of survival. These two biological imperatives: connection and survival are equally compelling. We must choose one or the other.
Connection or Survival.
The existential question is “when in distress shall I turn towards you or away from you?” Shall I seek you or avoid you? At my best, I am engaging, welcoming, seeking, and available. I am willing, curious, and I can see possibilities. Life is abundant, a banquet of choices, any of which would satisfy me. When I am distressed, agitated, irritable, or out of sorts, I am far more likely to attack or avoid you. My inclination towards connection is forgotten and survival, that oldest of neuropathways, opens wide before me and off to the races we go.
Just do it.
I notice that I get better at the one I practice. The more I put warmth and care into the space between us, the more I choose that pathway. I can clear the way to make it more and more attractive. Usually, this means I start with me. Offering that small half smile first to myself, then to the world around me and finally to the ones who are dearest to me. By the time I get to them, it has become a fully blooming garden of a smile.
I often open the door right after the mail has been delivered to my home. I know that the mailman (dubbed the redundancy by my father-in-law) is crossing my front yard to the next-door neighbor’s door. I cannot see him, and I always sing out “thank you!” And nine times out of ten, whoever delivers the mail that day, sings back to me “You’re welcome! Have a great day!” And I do.
In sessions, I ask my couples to look deeply and closely into each other’s eyes and send a silent message of thanks:
- Thank you for being here with me today.
Take time and stay here until you feel in your body what you are sending with your eyes and your face. Notice the difference when you invite the slightest upturn of the corners of your mouth.
- Thank you for making time for us.
- Thank you for being you, exactly as you are.
- Thank you for accepting me, exactly as I am.
- Thank you for not being me!
- Thank you for all the unsung things you do for the benefit of our relationship.
- Thank you for delighting me.
- Thank you for laughing with me.
- Thank you for your sweet smile.
- Thank you for the small moments of tenderness.
- Thank you for hugging me and holding me.
- Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Hug and exhale. Breathe together. Hold each other and now begin whatever you have ahead.
How’s that working for you?
Imagine what it is like:
- To feel this way within you.
- To send this energy out into the world.
- To beam this into the space between you.
In the space between, I am…
Your relationship exists in the space between you. What you say and do it and HOW you say and do it are the foods that feed and nourish your relationship. This is the playground of your children. This space is the foundation of the generations to come. Consider the space between you and yourself. How do you talk to yourself? Do you offer words of kindness? Are you welcoming and accepting to you? Is your voice gentle and loving?
The world is…
Notice the way you are with the world around you? Is your perception of the world filled with an expectation of connection or are you skewing more and more towards protecting yourself from unseen dangers? Do you smile at the strangers on the street? Do you greet the attendant at the parking lot? Is there banter between with your barista? Are you beaming warmth into the world? How are you feeling, now?
Attending the space between you and the ones most dear to you, notice and name the ways that YOU are putting energy into this space. Notice how much your smallest gestures change everything. Without ever uttering a word, I welcome you. I see you. I greet you. And you are AMAZING!
It starts within.
Tend and befriend the space between us. This inauspicious, indefinable area is vast. Know it and know you in it. Own your contributions to the space between. Offer what you long to receive. Make a commitment to be the best You, you have, just for this moment. Do this a moment at a time, a day at a time. The more you practice this the more you become it. In this way we will change the energy within us, around us and between us.
Looking for help? Find a Therapist here. Learn more about Hayley.
Polyvagal theory explains how our nervous system is constantly working in service to two biological imperatives: connection and survival. Based on the cues of safety and danger we are receiving, unawares, we eventually respond with connection of survival. Starting in October, the next cohort of the Polyvagal Theory in Practice will commence. If you want to join this group, learn more about it here.