When we think about creating a healthy and successful relationship, we tend to focus on how we can best bridge our differences. We want to allow room for both of us to be our different selves; we want to be able to openly communicate about the ways in which we see things differently; and we want to learn to see and even appreciate the world from the other person’s perspective.
This is especially true when the relationship is between a woman and a man—we want to allow ourselves to revel in the vastness between us. The messages we receive in the culture tell us, after all, that we are worlds apart: Venus and Mars have different orbits, different gravities, different wavelengths of light. Negotiating this vastness seems so gloriously inclusive. But now scientific observations using new scanning technology suggest something even more fascinating: That view simply isn’t true.
In a brain-imaging study conducted at Tel Aviv University, scientists found that the brains of men and women are very similar. In fact, they had a hard time finding areas of the brain that were not similar.
Probing further, the scientists tried to find men who tended to be stereotypically "male" and women who tended to be stereotypically "female." Again, the scientists came up short. Their scans revealed that only 0.1 percent of the male population is stereotypically male or female. The rest of us—essentially all of us—are a combination of male and female characteristics. Think about it: If you were to describe yourself, you would probably admit that you have male and female qualities in your personality. And so would just about everyone else.
Our Greatest Need: Social Connection
If you dig into the literature on human wants and needs, you’ll find the same story: We are all extremely similar. After food and shelter, our greatest need is for social connection—a sense of belonging. Whether you are a man or a woman, and no matter your age, having positive relationships with other people is incredibly important for your health, well-being, and longevity. That's presumably why we seek each other out and build relationships in the first place.
Yet we also see that there is a growing epidemic of loneliness: One in four people say they have no one to talk to about personal problems. That’s enormously sad and unhealthy. The helpful news, however, is that social connection doesn’t come down to the number of relationships a person has—it stems from inside. If you take care of yourself and are happy from within, you will find that you feel connected to others. It shouldn't seem like such a strange concept that a good relationship with yourself predicts better relationships with others.
Stress and anxiety, for example, make us self-focused and less empathic. No wonder you have a hard time connecting with others when you are on edge. So the first step toward having better relationships is to learn to reduce stress and anxiety—to have a better relationship with yourself.
A Better Relationship With Yourself Predicts Better Relationships With Others
The hardest thing we can do is love ourselves. There are a million other things on our list ahead of self-care. And we fall for the false notion that self-criticism is essential to self-improvement. Not so. Sure, self-awareness is a critical skill, but research shows that self-criticism is equivalent to beating yourself up: It only brings you down. It is when we exert self-compassion that we become happier and more resilient, that we have less anxiety, depression, and stress, and that our relationships with others improve.
Having self-compassion doesn’t mean not taking responsibility for yourself and your actions, or letting yourself be a lazy sloth. It simply means that you don’t berate yourself at every turn. The self-compassionate person bounces back more easily from setbacks and has a ready smile. The self-compassionate person knows when to take a break from work so she can be energized and full of life. The self-compassionate person knows how to have good boundaries due to self-respect. The self-compassionate person will teach you how to love yourself.
How do you exert self- compassion? Simple: Treat yourself as you would a friend. When you make mistakes, comfort yourself. When you fail, remind yourself what you would tell a friend: “Everyone makes mistakes.” When you’re overwhelmed with sadness or emotion, observe these emotions as you would those of a friend, and hold yourself with love. Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff even advocates giving yourself a hug.
The best part? By developing a loving relationship with yourself, you become happier, you better connect with others, and your relationships with others thrive. Even better, perhaps, by living a life of full self-acceptance and love you give others permission to do the same—and that it is the secret to a more fulfilled and connected life.
For more on happiness, relationships, and living a successful life, check out my latest book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (HarperOne, 2016).
A version of this article first appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine.