interview

Dopamine: Relationships are "Supposed To" Give Energy

We keep hearing how good relationships are for us, but what do you do when relationships drain you, scare you, or exhaust you? Or maybe life just feels so blah now that you're left feeling lethargic, stressed-out, weary, or flat? Maybe the idea of peeling yourself off the couch to connect with someone just sounds like way too much work? Maybe you're not getting enough life-enhancing dopamine?

In my latest class for Friendship University I had the awesome fumc-dr-amy-banksprivilege to interview the foremost authority on the combined fields of neurobiology and relationships.  Dr. Amy Banks, the author of Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships, walked us through the four ways we can improve our brain function in order to improve our relationships.

Science is continuing to reinforce that every single one of us is hardwired for connection.  Which means that when we feel loved and supported: our immune system is healthier, we recover from surgery and sickness faster, our bodies protect us from the impact of stress, we feel happier, and we live longer. And... in light of our conversation today: we feel more energy when we connect.

How Do Relationships Give Us Energy?

The human brain is designed to give us a dose of dopamine--the  chemical that not only lights up our pleasure center but also helps give us the energy to move toward rewards--every time we do something life-sustaining.

Dr. Banks says:

"Eating, drinking, water, exercise, sex, and healthy relationships are all supposed to trigger feel-good sensations, to make us want to do the things that are good for us."

She is quick to caution us that we "all live from one dopamine hit to another" (because it's natural for us to want to feel good!) but that if the human brain can't get that hit in healthy ways this is what drives so many of us to look for substitutes: shopping, gambling, over-eating, or anything that leads to addiction.

But What If Relationships Don't Give Me Energy?

In an ideal world, as babies we received love, touch, and connection that paired those actions with our dopamine producers.  Studies shows that when that link between relationships and reward was reinforced, it set us up for improved social status and social support.

But for many of us, if our childhood relationships were stressful or harmful, or if we were taught to be fiercely independent or perceived as weak for wanting connection, then relationships didn't get paired with our dopamine reward system as they were supposed to.  Which, according to Dr. Banks, means that "instead of becoming energized by friendships--even good ones--they are drained and depleted by the interaction."

Feeling disconnected provokes our stress response systems which raises our anxiety, provokes irritability, and leads us to assuming that we're being left out or rejected, even if we aren't. Which means what we need the most--connection--is unfortunately not only what we probably fear the most but also what we're least likely to feel energized to pursue.

But Dr. Banks and numerous other voices out there are encouraging us: we can heal our damaged pathways.  (If you haven't yet watched Johann Hari's TED talk reminding us that the opposite of addition isn't sobriety, but connection-- then it's a must see!)  In the book Wired to Connect she says,

But there is plenty that you can do to nourish your neurological pathways for connection. If they are damaged, you can start to heal them. If they are neglected, you can cultivate them. And if they are stressed, you can soothe them."

How To Move Toward More Energy in Relationships

Dr. Banks gives so many brain exercises and activities in her book to practice reconnecting the dopamine reward system to healthy relationships, and our GirlFriendCircles.com community is so enjoying the class, our worksheets, and our conversation this month as we dive deeper on the subject, but let me leave you with just one of her very practical ideas to try.

  1. Identify the relationships that give you energy.  Who are those people for you?  With whom do you feel the safest? What relationships in your life give you some sense of reward or pleasure, even if small?
  2. Try to spend more time connecting with those people. For many of us, depending on our jobs, we might be spending the bulk of our days around people we didn't choose, or with people who drain us. It becomes even more imperative to try to lean in to more time with anyone who does energize us.  It might mean calling our mom a bit more often, initiating time with a friend, or practicing more conversation with a safe person.

It seems counter-intuitive that when we lack energy that we need to then identify relationships to seek out, but Dr. Banks assures us that identifying our "strongest sources of relational dopamine" will give us our best shot at repairing our reward systems. Perhaps knowing that as you reconnect those wires, that what costs you energy now will reward you with energy down the road, will give you courage.

I do want to point out, what I hope is obvious, that "more relationships" aren't the answer to everyone's weariness. Much like how food is good for us and also gives us energy-- the answer isn't just eat more food! Over-eating can make us lethargic, too!  Or not eating the right food.  Or not having a good relationships to food or our bodies.  Or maybe your food is perfect and what you need is more sleep!  :) But please, when you're avoiding people because you don't have the energy, consider the possibility that sometimes, counter-intuitively, we need to connect instead of withdraw.

xoxo,

Shasta

p.s.  Interested in the Friendship University class? It comes with membership to those in GirlFriendCircles.com.  Every month we offer a new theme, a new teacher, new worksheet, and new friendship actions to practice-- join us in October and get access to this class immediately!

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An Interview with a GirlFriendCircles.com Ambassador!

With thousands of new members joining GirlFriendCircles.com in the last few weeks from across the U.S. and Canada it reminds me how many women know the value of new friends and are willing to do something about it. For some of you, just signing up and trying to muster up the courage to post your photo, complete your profile, or RSVP to an event will be all you can do to prove to yourself that friendships matter to you. And that's okay!  We all take the steps we can!

But for some of you, you may feel as though you have a bit more in you to move you forward in your friendship journey.  This is an interview with Kathy Lombardo, a GirlFriendCircles.com Ambassador, who I was lucky enough to meet at my Chicago Book Party last month!  She lives 30 miles outside of Chicago in Darien, IL and knows what it's like to feel discouraged at the lack of stuff going on in her area. But her willingness to respond with hope has made all the difference!  She's a 46 year-old Neonatal RN who decided to not only make her own friendships happen, but to also help make it happen for others! You don't have to become an Ambassador to be inspired by her story and see ways you can make friendships happen for you!

Meet Kathy Lombardo, a GirlFriendCircles.com Ambassador, whom I was lucky enough to meet in Chicago last month!

Here's my interview with her:

Shasta:  When you first joined GirlFriendCircles.com, you were undoubtedly hoping for tons of new friendships in your area, but since you live 30 miles outside of Chicago, we weren't that robust in your area, right?  So what did you feel and how did you respond?

Kathy: Yes, when I first joined GirlFriendCircles.com last Spring after hearing you interviewed, the web site told me that there were not enough people in my area to match me with. I was disappointed because I had been so excited to find an avenue for meeting other women who I thought may have a similar desire for the kind of friendship I was yearning for. I was also surprised because I did live close to one of the largest cities in the country. Thus…I got off the computer that day dejected.

Eventually, you decided to take matters into your own hands and become an Ambassador for GirlFriendCircles.com in your area!  What prompted that?  Was it a hard decision?

I do not remember what prompted me to take matters into my own hands but I know that I had chosen to continue to receive your blog and various e-mails. In fact,I ended up using one of your blogs about how you wanted people to feel in your presence as a template for the vows I used in a marriage-to-myself ceremony last Fall. Then I think I must have read something about becoming an Ambassador in one of your e-mails? Regardless of the prompt though, I remember that it was about 6 months after I had first logged on to GFC that I decided to get back on and “make this work” for me. I decided that instead of dejectedly giving up on my dream,  I was instead going to do whatever I could to make it a reality. If I was going to go down; I was at least going to go down fighting! This made my decision to become an Ambassador a no-brainer. In fact I was eager to do so, believing it would lead me down the path to what I was looking for, or I'd at least die trying……lol! After reading your book, I realized I was doing exactly what the heart of your message is, “creating a meaningful circle of girlfriends”. As you say, “friendships don’t just happen” and I clearly realized this and was going to go from wishing for it to intentional action to create it.

That's amazing Kathy. How glad so many of us are that you decided to come back and give it another shot! So, after you then signed up to help be this catalyst for friendship, what are some of the first things you did?

After I signed up I spent time navigating my way around the GFC website, which I hadn’t really done when I first went on. I created a profile with a picture and went in search of friends. I had not seen this feature previously because I don’t think I really understood how GFC worked. I then went about “friending” many women in the city and in the suburbs. I also found the Calendar and created an event. The first event I created was to a book launch party in the city last November, which I was helping out with. Four or five women signed up to go and only one was able to make it but I did meet her that night, and brought back the book for another. It was a small start but it was a start and I was very hopeful!

When did you first sense that things were changing?  What signs did you start to see that gave you hope?

I think I first sensed that things were changing when I decided to take action. There was an immediate shift in me, which translated into a shift in my circumstances. “Friending” women on my own, putting my work zip code as well as my home zip code, finding the Calendar, and creating events is when the hope really kicked into gear! I saw that there was more much for to this than actually just waiting to be matched.

Having been an Ambassador now for 6 months (is that right?), what would you say have been the pay-offs or benefits for you?

Yes, about 6 months, maybe less. The benefits have been tremendous! Just making the decision was a huge benefit. But then deciding to put my all into it is what has given me the biggest rewards. I took it very seriously and put up events as suggested and went to events and ConnectingCircles as much as possible, asked questions of Maci, became a book circle leader, signed up with Big Tent with other Ambassadors, posted questions and answered them in the forum, put up fliers, followed-up with people, and continued to do all of that over and over.

Wow.  I am so touched how seriously you took this.  Thank you so very much. You really dove in, far more than most people are willing to. But, that's everything you gave.  Can you tell me what you received from doing that?

OK...let me try this again.....personal benefits to me? A sense of hope. Feeling good about putting action and intention into something that is important to me. Seeing the truth that the things most precious to me in life take not just desire but intention, action, and commitment. I have learned that the more intention, action, and commitment I put into something the greater the reward will be. I have learned that I am able to co-create the things in life I have longed for. I have learned that giving up does not serve me. I have learned that the status quo, while safe, does not serve me. I have learned to let go of what does not serve me or bring me happiness and that the only way to have the life that I truly desire is to let go of my fear, be willing to risk rejection and disappointment, put myself out there, and be patient!

Beautiful.  Love it!  And now the flip-side.  To be fair and honest, what has been the hardest, or most disappointing part?

Hard? Nothing! Honestly, nothing has been hard. It has been sheer joy for me to be so involved. Being an Ambassador could practically be the job description for who I am as a person. It suits me, it lends itself to the gifts God put me here to share with the world, and it is completely me! It comes naturally to me and I am good at it…not to be a braggart, just to speak the raw truth of it. This is who I am. As you describe in your book, I am a 100% initiator and bringer together of people!

I think the most disappointing part has been something that you actually spoke about in your book. I appreciated reading in Chapter 6 you saying, “I cringe when I hear that….several women cancelled their attendance at a ConnectingCircle the day before-or worse, someone simply didn’t show up.”  I absolutely lean in the direction of naivety and thinking that everyone has the same jolly, happy, this-is-so-fun, let’s-do-this attitude as I do. But the truth is that even people who take the time to sign up for GFC have different levels of desire and commitment. And all I can really worry about is to continue my own level of desire and commitment, knowing it will lead me to who and where I am supposed to be. I also appreciated reading you say that, “The girl who showed up may feel embarrassed or frustrated, but she has proven to herself that she is willing to be present for something that she says is important in her life. I believe that energy will serve her.” These sentences touched my heart because that is a principle I think I have spent my life standing on even if not everyone else who has been in my life has.

What has been one of your best memories as an Ambassador so far?

Well…that is an easy one! It is at your book launch party when I asked you a question and one of the women I was with told you I was an Ambassador.  Then after telling you my name you said, “Oh yes, I know you. Maci told me I HAVE to meet you and that she thinks you are great and so wished she could have come here just to meet you!” I felt like a mini-celebrity! It was awesome to see that all the effort I had been putting in was really, really paying off….  I was with a large group of women I had met through GFC, was meeting you, was being sought after by other women there, and got to meet a woman who was there that night as the result of a flier I had put up in a Caribou coffee months previously and many, many miles away! It was an amazing night!

Look at all the friendships Kathy has helped make happen! It made me SO happy to see the love and joy among these women!

Well that was a highlight for me, too!  What a difference you've made Kathy.  It's amazing how one woman can just start reaching out, and how much others will respond to that!  What a difference you've made!  Okay, last questions, if you were to give advice to others who might be willing to be Ambassadors in their areas, what would you like to tell them?

Like Nike says, “Just do it”, or more specifically, DO IT! It has been worth every moment of effort I have put into it and has changed my life in so many ways! It is not really “hard” and the rewards far surpass any time and effort that it may take. I would also definitively say that patience is required, as is tenacity. It didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen with the first event I created. In fact, the first 3 events I created were attended by either only one other person or no one at all. But I was patient and tenacious and would not give up!! And look, I am now being interviewed by YOU!!!  :)

Oh how grateful so many of us are that you didn't give up.  Thank you for continuing to post events, for not taking it personally when people didn't RSVP, and for continuing to reach out and introduce women to each other. I'm so very thankful for you!

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If you're interested in possibly being an Ambassador for Friendship in your area, go here. But whether you sign-up or not, I hope you got lots of good ideas from Kathy's story and that it gives you the courage necessary to go post an event on the GirlFriendCircles.com calendar in your area and maybe send out a few "Let's Connect" requests to introduce yourself to other women nearby!  Make your friendships happen!