Artist Credit: Alexandr Milov (Burning Man Festival 2015)

When I stepped on my dance partner’s toes, they stepped on my heart.

A number of years ago, I was learning to dance, and I had a partner who responded to my mistakes with criticism and rejection. I quickly learned I had to dance perfectly or I would be dancing alone. So, to avoid the criticism and the pain of being rejected, I shut down emotionally and let this partner dictate all the steps. Over the years, I repeated that same dance, again and again. No matter who my dance partner was, as soon as I detected the first sign of criticism or rejection, my feet would keep dancing but my heart would go into hiding.

It turns out, our level of connection in relationships is directly tied to our awareness of how our past is interacting with our present.

One of the most valuable functions of our brain is its ability to remember. The brain catalogues our past experiences so we can enter into new experiences with an immediate understanding of how to navigate them. As a result, we do not need to learn how to ride a bike more than once, we don’t have to remind ourselves to not touch a hot stove every time we cook, and over time you can drive from point A to point B while paying almost no attention at all.

Relationships are a lot like dancing, and the brain thinks so too.

While dancing, it takes conscious effort and trust to stay in sync with your partner. The next right step, executed a count too early or a count too late throws off the whole rhythm. For a dance to be successful, both partners must prioritize being in sync above their own need to shine, all the while entrusting their partner with their fears about being close and even dependent. When that trust goes bad, so does the dance.

In relationships, if your heart has been dropped or your feelings stepped on before, your brain catalogues it, making it harder to dance freely the next time around.

None of us are exempt from the pain and hurt that happens when what we want is love and we didn’t find it. Because our brain does such a good job remembering, we carry these wounds with us. And if we are not attentive to these wounds, we will listen to our brain’s alarm.

Then, our pain determines the quality of our connection, rather than our love.

We narrow our focus and the dance becomes about protecting ourselves from more pain rather than allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and communicate the pain we already carry. The brain sees pain and hurt as something to defend itself against and to avoid. Love and connection are attained when we embrace and share our pain, instead of pushing it down or avoiding it.

All those years ago, burying my feelings and aiming to please my partner allowed me to ignore the pain but it destroyed my ability to connect with my partner. Our feet were in sync, but our hearts were not.

The dances we find ourselves in can be with a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend, or a coworker. Our relational wounds are there, either helping our connection through the sharing of them, or hindering our connection through the hiding of them. Perhaps you learned to over-please in order to avoid rejection as well. Or perhaps you learned to be critical as a way to guard yourself from another’s rejection. Regardless of how your brain learned to cope with your early, hurtful dances, the steps learned back then are not the steps that will keep you in rhythm with your partners today.

If you find yourself not feeling connected or in sync, perhaps it’s because a past relational wound is throwing off your rhythm.

Is it time to change the way you dance?

Are you ready to stop listening to your brain, which tells you to avoid or defend? And are you ready to listen to your heart, which reminds you that love is about sharing your pain so you can dance to the rhythm of vulnerability and trust once again?

Your brain will let your pain destroy your relationships.

Your heart will let your pain deepen them.

Let’s dance.

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