Why we need each other — the power of shared experience

What is it about seeing someone as authentic and vulnerable that is so compelling?

It's a feeling that can be heightened, if the person is someone we admire or look up to, or someone in the public eye.

Why is it so powerful to admit we are vulnerable and to see that vulnerability reflected in others?

And when others share their experience, what is it about the human psyche that draws us in to wanting to know more?

When actor Angelina Jolie revealed that she was carrying the breast and ovarian cancer gene which had claimed the life of her mother, people around the world were moved by her honesty and openness.

Similarly, when Australian author and I Quit Sugar entrepreneur Sarah Wilson recently wrote about her lifelong struggle with crippling anxiety, she described the reaction as overwhelming, saying she was literally getting hundreds of emails a day from readers who could identify with her story.

In my own life, at times I have delved into my own experience and written from the heart, about feeling adrift and wanting to live an authentic life.

When I wrote about how to move from the crushing grief of losing my mother to a place of peace, in my book Roadtesting Happiness, the reaction was overwhelming.

Then last year, people reached out to me after I wrote How I started to bring meaning to my life:

"I realised what happens when you fight feelings of anxiety and vulnerability and are not being your 'true self'. 

When you shut those feelings off, you are disconnected from what brings meaning to your life. 

The gap is the disconnection between values that are important to you and how you are living your actual life, day to day.

More than any other stories, it was after writing these reflections that the audience reached out to me, with a steadying hand on my shoulder, offering comfort but more importantly, telling me that they felt exactly the same way.

That my experience mirrored theirs and that they took solace in feeling there was a way forward.

Wired for empathy

From a neuroscience perspective, it makes sense, that we can empathise with others in a similar situation.

Neuroscientists have focused on a system in the brain called "mirror neurons" as a possible explanation for emotional empathy.

These are a small circuit of cells in the brain that are activated when we perform certain tasks, but also when we see someone else performing the same action.

Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, from the University of California in Los Angeles, explained how mirror neurons work in the Scientific American.

"When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile," he said.

"I don't need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly [in a milder form, of course] what you are experiencing."

'That's how I feel'

The real connection comes from seeing what others experience and being brave enough to say, yes I feel that way too.

For many of those living with conditions like anxiety and depression, what's harder than living with the illness itself is the burden of having to put on a brave face and pretend everything is OK.

A friend likened it to carrying a huge sack of rocks around over her shoulder.

But when we read the stories of people who own their imperfections, and embrace them, it gives us permission to say, "You know, that's exactly how I feel".

There's a power in that sense of shared experience, that you are not alone. That someone understands how you are feeling and feels the same way.

As you go about your busy life, why not think about the following:

  • Whose journey has inspired you?
  • What action can you take to reach out to others in the same situation as you?
  • How much better would you feel if you let go of the need to be perfect and embraced your vulnerabilities and flaws?