Are social disconnection and our experience of God linked?

Are social disconnection and our experience of God linked?

Many of my early relational experiences left me feeling fundamentally defective in some sense. I wasn’t conscious of this feeling a lot of the time, but I developed a set of implicit beliefs about relationships and deep feelings about myself. These included the notion that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, which would always cause others to reject or abandon me in some way. This feeling is what I would now call shame, although I couldn’t name it in my early life.

I quickly developed strategies to avoid my emotional pain and secure a kind of pseudo-connection with caregivers and authority figures in my life. The main strategy I landed on was to constantly search for others who might see me for who I truly am in my uniqueness. The subconscious hope was that I would then feel truly known and experience a sense of personal significance.

When I activated this strategy in relationships, however, I often engaged in one of two patterns: (1) I didn’t allow others access to my internal world, hoping they would somehow see and validate it without me having to take the risk of revealing it; or (2) I expected too much of others in managing my inner angst. This contributed to people either not perceiving my needs and reaching out or to them withdrawing due to feeling overwhelmed by my emotional turmoil.

These strategies might have led to a superficial “pseudo-connection” (meaning, not secure, stable, and healthy) but they sabotaged the goal of a deep, healthy connection characterized by being seen, known and understood. In striving to manage my pain, I ended up feeling more disconnected.

When we grow up in an environment in which the important relationships in our life are breaking down, how does that impact our relationship with God and our overall spiritual well-being? It would be nice if we could shift into the “spiritual” realm and not deal with patterns of disconnection in our relationship with God. Unfortunately, that’s not the way human nature works. It turns out that social disconnection has a profound impact on our experience of God and spiritual community. The connection crisis we’re experiencing at a broader societal level reverberates throughout our spiritual lives.

I experienced the link between social disconnection and spiritual disconnection in my own life. Even after I understood intellectually that God had forgiven me, I still felt defective before God. My gut sense was that God simply wouldn’t give me the time of day. As in other relationships, I often didn’t share my true feelings with God, or I expected God to immediately take my pain away. This led to a painful cycle in which I was left feeling even more distant from God. Those early experiences of social disconnection shaped a strong sense of spiritual disconnection with God and my spiritual communities.

I’ve observed this link consistently in practicing therapy for 25 years. To a person, I’ve seen my clients’ emotional and relational struggles with parents, family members and communities play out in their relationship with God.

We are relational beings and are loved into loving, therefore we develop unhealthy relational patterns to protect ourselves from the pain of disconnection and to create a pseudo-connection with the important people in our lives. These patterns may reduce our emotional pain, but they come at great cost. They cut us off from our own emotional truth and create disordered beliefs about how relationships work. These beliefs then drive our relationships and hinder us from being able to connect authentically with others—including God. If we are relational beings, then we would expect the connection crisis in our society to infiltrate into our spirituality because Christian spirituality is all about relationships. Indeed, this is exactly what we see.

Social disconnection has a profound impact on our experience of God and spiritual community. The connection crisis in our society has led to a spiritual connection crisis. We all develop strategies (albeit mostly unconscious) to cope with the emotional pain of disconnection and to maintain pseudo-connections to the important people in our lives.

These strategies, or defense mechanisms, inevitably backfire and hinder the very connection we most want and need. This happens because the strategies require us to sacrifice something necessary for healthy relationships: connection to ourselves. We do this in all kinds of ways, although there are broad patterns in terms of how we cope with pain. When we are unaware of these patterns, allowing them to operate on autopilot, they hinder our spiritual growth. To further complicate matters, as believers these strategies often play out in the context of our spiritual life. They have the same defensive function and the same negative effects, but they can be more difficult to see, shrouded in spiritual accomplishments and experiences that look very positive on the surface.

Adapted from “The Connected Life” by Todd W. Hall. Copyright (c) 2022 by Todd W. Hall. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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Todd W. Hall, Dr.

Dr. Todd W. Hall is professor of psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University, where he teaches courses on the integration of psychology and theology, psychodynamic psychotherapy, and positive psychology. He is a faculty affiliate at the Harvard Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and a founding partner at Flourishing Metrics. Hall is an award-winning researcher, focusing on relational approaches to spirituality, virtue and leadership.