As human beings, our brains are wired for connection. The feelings of disconnectedness people are facing today, isolation within our families, digital addiction, emotional trauma are worrying consequences for our mental wellbeing. We’ve lost touch with the human tribe we were born into.
This compelling guide to navigating connection in our modern world, human connection phenom Simone Heng, walks you through the meaning of human connection as it relates to every aspect of life. Learn how to distinguish authentic connection from fake substitutes. Understand how family trauma affects the way you connect with others and discover the precise orbits of friendship you need to feel socially fulfilled.
Human connection is one of our most essential needs with Secret Pandemic: The Search For Connection In A Lonely World, you can stop searching for it and start living it, forging the genuine connections, we all crave.
This is the Author Hour Podcast, and I’m your host, Frank Garza. Today, I’m joined by Simone Heng, author of a brand-new book, Secret Pandemic: The Search For Connection In A Lonely World.
Simone, welcome to the show.
Simone Heng: Hi, how are you, Frank?
Frank Garza: I’m great, how are you this morning?
Simone Heng: Very early here in Singapore but so happy to be talking to you in the US.
Frank Garza: Well, to kick things off, could you please tell us a bit about your background and how that led to you writing this book?
Simone Heng: Absolutely. I was a radio broadcaster and did bits of TV too for 15 years and the last organization that I worked at — having worked in radio stations in Dubai and Australia prior — was here in Singapore and it was an extremely toxic organization and I started to look at the way people were connecting with each other and how this disconnection affected the way we produced content.
I think every organization has politics but when politics, bureaucracy, toxicity starts to affect productivity and creativity, it was really quite shocking to me. I had worked for Virgin Radio in Dubai before that and seen how a very open, connected and almost tolerant of failure work environment allowed us to create some of the best radio in the world at that time, and realized that if our organization, the one that I was working at was dealing with disconnection and how it could affect products, then, loads of other organizations for us as well.
At the same time as this was happening, my mother has a very rare degenerative disease and was having issues connecting with me, remembering anything in our past. Everywhere I looked, connection was kind of breaking or making my heart. Particularly, the lack of human connection and loneliness, how much that was hurting me and it started to become a very important theme. That is how I kind of came with a mentor, a speaking mentor that I have to feel that human connection, whether it be the presence of it or the lack of it in my life was the through line of my entire existence.
Frank Garza: As you went on that journey to get more connection in your life, what did you find to be some of the things that were inhibiting you?
Simone Heng: I think, as a — speaking about human connection from a very young age, the issues of trauma within my family, when a child hasn’t got its needs met by its primary caregiver, a child forms a suspicion or maladaptive behaviors to how it connects with and perceives other people as it grows up.
That is something that I experienced firsthand, which is why I think people like me are often attracted to careers in the media where we perceive fame as some sort of substitute, or notoriety, as some sort of substitute for love and belonging and true connection. That was from a very young age and then of course, entering the media entertainment industry, there’s also a whole world of pain that where you’re constantly told, “You’re not good enough, you should lose weight, you should look a certain way, you should be taller, you should be that.”
That also in itself is a kind of trauma that repeated the pattern of my childhood, that allowed me to continue to search in very inauthentic ways, unhealthy ways for love and connection. These are some of the things that was perfectly positioning me to select a toxic workplace as my workplace to continue to live that pattern again and finally, I think, just got to a point where mom got sick. I had already lost my father in 2004 to cancer and literally watched him die in front of me.
I think by the time I got to being a grown adult and then my mom going through this and seeing her own loneliness because I had left Australia where my mom is based — I had left to pursue my career, I left Australia very young, like 17. I went to live in Switzerland and then 21, I moved to Asia. She had become very lonely in my absence and what we know is that human connection is the healing balm for the burn that is loneliness.
We need human connection, it’s a basic human need and seeing some of the mental disorders my mom developed like hoarding behaviors from being alone and feeling lonely, not only as a widow but as somebody who had an empty nest and was really missing her children and hadn’t dealt with her own trauma, all of this got to a point where when I was like 31 when I was like, “I cannot hold it together anymore. There is just too much happening here.”
Frank Garza: Can you tell me more about who is the target audience for your book? Who did you write this book for?
Simone Heng: Yeah, that’s really interesting too as I speak in practice, unfortunately, you’re not the target. The target audience is really, Asian women, 35 to 50 who have either been raised in a western environment like Asian-American women or Asian-Australian women, Asian-Canadian women but also, Asian women that within Asia. Asian women who have kind of a bit of a global outlook who are searching, who are looking at their lives and feeling that things could be better, something is missing. They don’t feel calm, they feel on edge and hopefully, proposing that a lack of connection in our cultural upbringing.
Because we, as children of Asian parents, we’re not shown a few praise, we’re not given the pats on the back and the affirmation maybe in the same way as what we see our western friends growing up experience. It only makes feelings of loneliness or disconnection within our family more pronounced because we’re growing up in this environment where we’re seeing other people be encouraged, whereas we get criticism and a lack of praise and those things in tandem, can cause young people to feel that they’re not good enough, they’re unlovable and this can lead to issues connecting with people later in life.
They’re definitely my target audience and they’re definitely the people who follow me online — if I could show you some of the incredible DMs that I’ve gotten over the years, or the relationships that I’ve built with coaching clients over the years who really have lived this message without knowing it.
I’m hoping that the book becomes the beginning of their journey to healing by going, “Oh my goodness, this is just, I feel so seen by this content. I resonate with this, I have gone through this but then also, wow, someone ties it to science. There’s science behind this, why I feel this way, there are studies behind why I feel this way.”
We can go into that later, Frank, it’s all about how we evolved in tribes as early men but that’s a separate question. Yeah, they feel that they’re being seen and they’re heard and proposing solutions in their day-to-day lives as well as talking about how. All of this that I’ve just mentioned to you has been exacerbated in the last couple of years due to the pandemic.
Defining Human Connection
Frank Garza: You mentioned the book that human connection, it can mean something different to different people but how do you personally define human connection? What is it to you?
Simone Heng: Human connection to me is the energetic rapport we have all experienced when we can see, feel and discover ourselves in another human. That discover as of part of it is really important because it really points to authentic connection, which we are seeing Gen Z really struggle with right now.
Authentic connection for me has an element of vulnerability and we know that from the work of Brené Brown who is incredible but if you really want to deepen connection, that discover part has to be really emphasized and I think we’re having a bit of a crisis with the next generation where that discovery part can be quite difficult, so that’s part of it that I just want to highlight.
Frank Garza: You talked a little bit earlier about some of the science or you kind of alluded to some of the science around why human connection is so important. Can you dive into that a little bit more and just talk about why is connection so important for us?
Simone Heng: Absolutely. We are very social creatures, human beings. We’ve got this big prefrontal cortex that keeps track of all of our very complex social network and when we were evolving as early men, we did that in tribes and the tribe gave us more resources and very quickly, our brain wired our safety with connections, safety in numbers.
If we were pregnant and slowing down the tribe, other women would gather berries, feed us and our families so we could live at night when we slept, a different member of the tribe, we take turns to look out for sabertooth tigers so we could sleep in peace.
Very soon, we would have a better chance of surviving on that savannah, surrounded by tribespeople than we were alone. Even though we are now living in this exponentially digital world, our brain is to wired for that connection, which means, in the context of the book, Secret Pandemic, when we are socially distanced or forced, forced to be separated from that tribe, we become filled with anxiety because our brain requires connection to make us feel safe.
People who experienced anxiety, depression on a very pronounced level during the pandemic, it is in part, due to this. Besides of course, all the other factors and not be able to control our lives. What we know is, incidental loneliness on its own, Frank, is not bad for us. It’s like our body’s morning alarm to go out and connect with people but when we can’t do that over long periods of time, the stress hormones release anxiety, this fight or flight mode by being separated from other humans from being lost from our tribe, floods our body with cortisol, other stress hormones.
If this happens for people who feel lonely for a very long time, it damages our immunity. That’s why people who are lonely, loneliness is more dangerous than smoking and obesity. It’s a bigger killer, which is why the book is titled Secret Pandemic because the loneliness epidemic in North America actually, in other parts of the western world was happening long before the actual coronavirus pandemic, which has put a spotlight on to the loneliness issues but it was there before and we weren’t talking about it. It was the secret pandemic.
This is a bit of the science behind it and why we need to have connection but also a very specific type of connection. Deeper connections make us feel more satiated and make us feel more safe, relationships with a bit of vulnerability is shared will make us feel more safe and more connected.
Frank Garza: I’m going to read you a short quote from the book. It says, “You cannot become great at connecting with others when you don’t have a great connection with yourself.” Can you talk about this self-connection; why is self-connection so important and what are some things people can do to cultivate that?
Simone Heng: Oh my goodness, that is for me self-connection is where it all starts and probably the first half of the book is all about the journey for self-connection for myself and how when we are not fully connected with ourselves. I will get into more of that in a moment but when we’re not connected with ourselves, we really don’t know ourselves. We are living like through a prism of our own triggers and those maladaptive behaviors I mentioned before.
We are sending an avatar of ourselves into the world for other people and that with social media, I think that is even more resonant but we are not sending our real selves into the world to connect with other people. We are sending this avatar of ourselves and so how can we expect to form deep true human connection when we’re not even projecting? We are projecting a false — I can’t find a better word than avatar — a false avatar of ourselves into the world that other people are trying to connect with and can’t because we are not even consistent.
You are building a projection that is inconsistent. It means that people can’t trust you because you are not showing up fully and in your true state all the time, so if you’ve had problems really forming connections when you deeply trust the individual, this could be what is at play. For me — and I do know we use the definition by Tim Sit in the book — but for me when I think of self-connection, I absolutely think about this idea of deeply, deeply knowing yourself.
Why are you feeling a certain way at a certain time? Why does a certain situation make you feel that way in that moment? And when you don’t know the answers to these things, if you have had trauma as a child, it can be very, very difficult to connect with other people because you are sometimes at a certain stage in a friendship or romantic relationship, where you are reacting not as yourself but as something from your lucid brain, which can be really, really repellant to connection with another human being.
For me, getting in connection with yourself is firstly, if anything I’ve just said make you go, “Oh my gosh, that’s me” then it could be possibly — it started for me as a very small thing, you know? It started for me as I started to read the kind of books like the one I’ve just written. Prior to that, I would be crying for hours not knowing why a certain situation made me feel the same way. I would be calling a million friends and using them as a crutch.
I write about this in the book. I just didn’t know myself and I only knew how to fix me through leaning on people who are not professionals but who I love, who are my friends and of course, the space for that, our friends should be there for us to lean on them but our friends should not — we should not be exploiting our friends where they become a crutch. You know, true human connection is reciprocal.
Are you the one that’s just calling your friends all the time crying down the phone with the glass of wine constantly or are they also trusting you and your stability that they are calling you as well for that ping-pong of a relationship, which is very equal? I think firstly, start the journey by exploring books with titles that feel that they point to some of the issues that you might be hedging around, going deeper, finding a really great therapist or counselor, someone who can really help you in a more bespoke way.
I know for people who still want to connect with themselves further and might not have any trauma that they can think of, there is also very simple things that we found during COVID. I mean, we all knew this before but I think COVID really improved it grounding in nature, going outside and being in nature, being with — I have animals. If you have animals, they are a great sense of self-connection too.
You have this comfort of this — I am a dog mom — the comfort of these animals and being quiet with a candle on and just sitting there in peace and quiet, you know, solitude, which is our choice to be alone is a very healthy thing. Enforced loneliness is where we have issues but solitude is very healthy for human beings. It can be the place where you have a vacuum to really process.
That happened to me recently, I was in Europe for five weeks in what America calls the winter, what Australians are called the summer, but in the winter of this year and I finally had this big vacuum to really be on my own and really think and process. So many things flew into that space but I know it’s very healthy for me to have that space so, I made sure that I turned down work during that period just so that I could have that vacuum to connect with myself because I know going into 2022 with this book launch if I hadn’t done that things would really be just in automation mode and we certainly can experience that in busy lives as well.
Self-connection is key. I paint as well and painting is actually quite solitary and it is rhythmic. It’s soothing and for someone like me, who [for] meditation doesn’t always work, it is a form of meditation that has slight movement. Other people might like to work out, you know. Choose those things where you can be on your own but be processing how you’re feeling at a particular time, particularly I think post any sort of triggering moment that needs to be a moment of reflecting where those feelings came from.
Forgiveness Is a Gift to Yourself
Frank Garza: One of the chapters is called “Forgive” and you mentioned that you didn’t grow up at a house that says sorry. Can you talk about what you’ve learned about the power of forgiveness since then and how that can impact the connection you have with other people?
Simone Heng: Yeah, I think what’s interesting is forgiveness is really — I was just listening to a podcast about someone who forgave her daughter’s murderer and how forgiveness is a gift to you, not only to the other person but to you, yourself, to release you, right. I think a lot of the rage that I talk about in the book that I carried was from a lack of forgiving people. I truly believe you can forgive people without then having to become their best buddies.
I mean, I don’t think this woman who obviously had this awful situation where her daughter was killed by someone, she can forgive that individual but she is not going to go and be best buddies with the guy and I think that is something that if I look at some of the really painful things in my life that I’ve forgiven people for, one of the big things is that of course, I have forgiven them and I’ve let it go but I am not going to then go and chase to be best friends with the person and that is okay too.
There are very many different ways of forgiving and those different ways are informed by the reparations that are given after the incident. If somebody has done something to you or you have done something to someone else and you have apologized, right, depending on what the offense is, forgiveness is going to be easy for the other person to feel. It is a gift you are giving the other person as well because you cannot force forgiveness from somebody.
It is not something that you can demand or something. You can apologize and if what you’ve done is so huge then you must make reparations for that. If you bashed their car, obviously you should offer something. If there has been infidelity in your relationship, you can apologize for it. Forgiveness is not guaranteed but you can try to do the appropriate emotionally intelligent thing, which could be say, of counseling that you go for counseling together.
I think that forgiveness for the other person is much more easily made when the apology matches the offense and I think for us, feeling forgiveness is a gift to ourselves. Who wants to carry on with that rage in their heart? It’s something that was so difficult to me to learn because it was not something that I grew up with even though I grew up in this very Catholic household but for us, it was this very maybe Asian or Singaporean thing of, “Oh, someone has wronged you and then you hold the grudge forever.”
You are nice to the face but you remember what they did to you and for me that was also very much a scarcity mindset thing. I thought if I was going to live in that forever, I was going to become a very small person and I had to rewire the way that I lived and the way that I thought and that was really difficult but hopefully by my target demographic reading that book, maybe they can start thinking a little bit differently about it themselves.
Frank Garza: One of the things I like about your book is at the end of the chapters, there’s challenges that people can use to go and implement what they have just learned and I wanted to ask you about at least one of those in the “Unmasked” chapter, which is about how you use facial expressions to connect better.
Simone Heng: Yeah.
Frank Garza: The first one, the first challenge is called, use your facial expressions to improve your mood and feeling. Can you talk about that one?
Simone Heng: Yeah, so I guess is in a sense, fake it until you make it. I tell a story about how I would constantly, as a broadcaster, have [to] jump on the radio — my mother was paralyzed and in a wheelchair and have to go on air with this having just happened and having to put a smile on my face just for the duration of this one-minute talk set and then wipe the smile off my face afterwards. What I found was that after a three-hour shift of just this into minute smiling that I would actually feel more energized and I would actually feel better.
I looked into the research behind this and it does help us momentarily. Do I think you should walk through the world pretending you’re happy when you’re not? I am totally not an advocate for that but I think in certain situations to get through it, maybe your children are in the house and you just need to have a bit of a delay with something awful that’s happened and keep them safe until you can process and find appropriate response, that’s okay.
It’s incredible that we have that resource within us that by changing our facial expressions, by moving our bodies, we can put those feel good chemicals into our body and that is a resource we all have with us that might be useful to readers so I included it.
Frank Garza: Yeah, the other ones; find out how expressive you actually are, practice expressing with your eyes are great as well but I’ll let people dig into the book and read those sections. I really enjoyed that chapter there about facial expressions.
Simone Heng: Oh my gosh, I am so glad, Frank. You know, I put this book together and you never know what’s going — you know obviously, you’re not the target demo and so I am so amazed that you’ve read it all the way through and I am really grateful you did but, what is incredible about writing this book is that I know for my target demo having worked with them very closely through social media that it’s the stories for them where they see themselves reflected. But when someone is not within that demo, they see really great value sometimes in the other things, which gives me — like calms a bit of my anxiety about the book being too insular and at least having a tiny amount of view. I am glad that you got something out of the exercise.
Frank Garza: Oh yes, certainly. Well, writing a book is such a feat so congratulations on getting this published. Is there anything else about you or the book that you want to make sure our listeners know before we wrap up?
Simone Heng: Yeah, absolutely. Look, I collect stories of connection. I love hearing about your own stories of human connection. You can find me on any social media, from TikTok through LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, so please, let’s connect.
Frank Garza: Simone, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you for putting this book out into the world. The book is called, The Secret Pandemic. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you?
Simone Heng: Yeah, I am @simoneheng on Instagram and TikTok and Simone Heng Speaker on LinkedIn. You can also find out more about the services I provide by going to simoneheng.com.
Frank Garza: Thank you, Simone.
Simone Heng: Thank you, Frank.