The ability to touch people around us in deep, meaningful and long lasting ways is a gift we all have. We need to remind ourselves of the powers and strengths of human connections and use them wherever we see an opportunity. We also need to be mindful of the fact that, in the same way that we can have a positive influence on people, toxic connections can have traumatic repercussions, hurting people very deeply.
And how long do the effects of emotional connections last? There may be a huge difference between the length of contact and their half life. Half-life is the period of time it takes for a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half. It is a term typically used to measure how long medications work after we take them. Paraphrasing the above definition, I apply it to the period of time it takes for the effects of connections to be reduced by half in people’s minds.
Some connections, the most important ones in our lives, live on forever, their “decaying” never taking place. At times, a very brief encounter can touch and affect us in very deep and transformative ways that can also last a life time. Others may fade through time, with varying degrees of speed in “decay.” Others have very brief half-lives, lasting but a few seconds.
The relationships we develop with our primary caretakers during our childhood years continue to have a very powerful influence throughout our lives, possibly the longest half-lives of all connections, regardless of whether they were good or bad. They mold us into who we become as human beings. They teach us rules and ways of being that eventually become second nature to us. Even when not consciously thinking about them, they influence our views, decisions, choices and our emotional reactions to events around us.
Relationships with friends also affect us deeply, molding our social personae into who we want to be. Our emotional partners hold a special place in our hearts, and our connections with them affect what we seek, value or fear in intimate relationships. Their half-lives vary according to the quality of these relationships.
Other relationships also can have long lasting half-lives, even if we may not be aware of them. As a psychotherapist, I feel privileged to be in a position of touching people’s lives in very special ways. When my patients first get to my office, they are in pain. This facilitates their opening up to me and allows me to see through some of their defenses and resistances. When they leave, I often wonder what they will retain of our work together, and which part of our relationship will hold special value for them and will have the longest half-life.
We often don’t directly know how we affect other people. When, after a long time of not hearing from them, I hear from my patients again, they tell me which part of our relationship is still alive in their minds. This part is no longer mine, but has become part of who they are. After all, we are all made of bits and pieces we took from people who touched and influenced us from birth on. All these people become parts of our identities. Holding on to these bits and pieces keeps us connected with those who influenced us, even when they are no longer present. When someone dear to us dies, we remember some traits of the departed, as they have now become part of who we are. This process is called internalization and it is very useful in making the grieving process more tolerable.
The fact that we can touch people’s lives in meaningful ways is the reward that makes our work as psychotherapists and counselors well worthwhile. There is nothing like it. The feedback that our help may have contributed to improve the lives of some of our patients is absolutely priceless. This feeling is so powerful that it keeps us in the helping professions motivated to continue what we are doing. It is our biggest reward.
If I touched even only one person in all the years I worked as psychotherapist, my entire career will have been well worthwhile.
So, let’s be grateful for this gift of touching each other in ways that can be transformative and healing, and let’s use it generously with all the people in our lives.