There is a loneliness epidemic. The US Surgeon General sees this and has a plan. I’m grateful that our top Doc is talking about more than physical issues, though loneliness contributes to all kinds of physical issues including premature death. Dr. Murthy’s antidotes to loneliness are valuable, necessary, even essential. But they fall short of what’s needed to heal the epidemic.
Intimacy is foundational to human thriving; when we don’t experience it, the sense of lack is palpable.
When you hear the word intimacy, what comes to mind? Most people think of sexual intimacy. That makes sense, but I would suggest that what people think of as sexual intimacy isn’t intimacy either. People equate sexual intimacy with sexual activity, any sexual activity. But most people aren’t really intimate when they’re having sex.
So, what is intimacy? The most common definition of intimacy is closeness. This is why people think of sexual intimacy as intimacy, because I am close when I have sex. But the closeness being referred to is physical closeness; the intimacy we crave is so much more than just physical closeness, though it certainly includes physical closeness.
The intimacy we hunger for is psychological, emotional and spiritual. People have sex all the time without these essential parts of real intimacy. In fact, people sometimes use sex to avoid being truly intimate. This is what love and sex addicts are learning in their recovery program, but you don’t have to be an addict to hide out in sexual activity.
Years ago a friend suggested to me that intimacy means IN-TO-ME-SEE. Intimacy is being seen, really seen, and seeing. Dr. Murthy, and many others, are offering ways to connect; connection is a salve for lonely hearts but it is not intimacy.
Being fully seen and seeing others fully is as courageously vulnerable as it gets.
I suggest that intimacy is important because the more intimate we are, the more love we experience. And love is the real deal. I’ve sat with thousands of people over the years and listened to them unpack their lives to get down to what it is they really, really want. I see that what humans want is peace (a deep seated sense of being OK) and love (being fully seen and accepted for who and what they are).
The story of creation from Genesis ends with this line: “And the man and the woman were both naked and unashamed.” They were fully seen and completely accepted: INTIMATE. Shame— the deep seated sense that I’m not OK—affects almost all of us. When we have shame, when we think we’re not OK, we hide (of course). But our hiding makes us feel even less OK. It creates the belief that “If they only knew me, they wouldn’t love me (like me, accept me, want me). What’s true is that as long as I’m hiding, not fully seen, I can never know for certain that I’m fully loved. Down deep all love feels conditional because I believe that it would go away if all of me was known.”
This doesn’t mean that with intimacy there is always unconditional love; it’s necessary, but not sufficient. When we are fully seen we might not be fully accepted. We might be rejected. This is the great risk, the terrifying risk, of choosing intimacy. But without taking the risk we can never know for sure that we are loved.
If you’re willing to take the risk, what do you do? Plain and simple, you reveal. You allow others to see into you; In-to-me-see. You eventually say what you’re scared to say and you show what you’re afraid to have seen.
For years we, at CLG, have brought people together in small groups called Forums. Forums are a place to practice living and relating authentically; playing with the 15 commitments of conscious leadership. In the first few hours that a new group is together, usually a group of strangers, everyone is invited (if they want) to complete these sentence stems:
People get to wade into the pool of intimacy as slowly or quickly as they like. Almost without exception, people who risk being seen report that they feel closer to a group they have known for less than a day than they do to people they have known for many years. Why? Because they chose intimacy over hiding out.
As I shared above, intimacy has two parts: being seen and seeing. What we know from our experience is that one feels more intimate when one sees another. Seeing another with an open heart and mind creates a profound sense of closeness.
It is in being seen that we are healed, so that we can fully see another. When this becomes clear it becomes obvious that intimacy flows two ways. If I just see another without making myself seen it’s voyeurism, objectification, pornography. It can be titillating, but not transformational.
What the data suggests is that people on your team and in your organization are lonely. They want connection. Smart leaders get this and they create connection-rich cultures. Conscious leaders understand that at a deeper level what people want is intimacy; to see and be seen.
When conscious leaders fully present themselves, others feel seen. When they do their own deep work and heal their shame and fear they are able to see others without shaming or being judgmental. Conscious leaders take the risk of revealing themselves so that they can be seen.
We believe that intimacy, along with love, belongs in the workplace.