"Loneliness isn't the physical absence of another it is the fact that you are not sharing anything that matters" - Johann Hari, Lost Connections;
We are more lonely and disconnected than ever before and it is having a significant impact on our mental well being. In the age of individualism, how do we remain connected at a level that matters? Is our emphasis on self care over collective care part of the problem?
I was fortunate growing up that I could share everything that was going on for me with my twin sister. We sometimes didn't even need words to know exactly how each other was feeling. We were peers at school, best friends and sisters in life. When we went our separate ways and went to University I struggled to find that level of shared care and understanding. For the first time ever I felt very alone and it forced me to deal with things on my own. This was a hard but necessary lesson. However, there were many times I struggled as I longed to talk things through and let out what was burdening me. No one around seemed to be talking openly about their struggles and I didn't feel brave enough at the time to open up and be vulnerable. It seemed the way to support your emotions was to do this on your own.
This largely stems from the individualistic culture we have in the west.
"In individualistic cultures, people are considered "good" if they are strong, self-reliant, assertive, and independent. This contrasts with collectivist cultures where characteristics like being self-sacrificing, dependable, generous, and helpful to others are of greater importance."
In terms of struggle people in more collective cultures tend to go to their family and friends for support. In individualistic cultures, the preference is to do it alone. We are taught to pull ourselves up and get on with it.
This view that we must deal with things on our own and prove our resilience can put immense pressure on us to solve our own problems and not get the help we really need. If the societal norm is to sort things out on your own then you would not want others to know you are not coping. When we are struggling it is sometimes hard to help ourselves. Someone who is not emotionally affected can provide a different perspective, they can hold space for us to help us feel validated and heard. If you look back at the times when you have struggled, how many times was it what someone said or did to comfort you that got you through? I know I have found the most relief and support from others more than I could give myself. We are not always kind to ourselves or know how to pull ourselves out and the listening ear and supportive words from another can be all we need.
The individual and collective view of care also stems from the different types of stress responses we have. The typical responses to stress are fight, flight or freeze, which evolved as a survival mechanism to life-threatening situations. When we "fight" we can respond with anger or agitation, with "flight" we are more withdrawn and "freeze" becoming stuck or unable to move forward. The response we have will determine the type of care practices we use like meditation and breathing for fight or high energy exercises for freeze. These techniques typically fall into the self-care way of dealing with stress.
Another stress response made known in a paper by University of California psychology professor Shelley Taylor 2000 paper, is the Tend and Befriend response. "Tend and befriend psychology argues that in response to a threat, women will have a greater tendency to reduce distress by tending (protecting and nurturing the young) and befriending (maintaining and strengthening social networks)". https://insighttimer.com/blog/tend-and-befriend-response-psychology/. This type of response will lead us to talk things through with our loved one's. It is also why after our own stressful experiences we are more inclined to reach out to help others. A tend and befriend response moves our focus away from self and towards caring for others.
In Kelly McGonigal's book "The Upside of Stress" there are many examples of how helping others and focusing less on ourselves is a good antidote to stress. One study uncovered the costs of being driven to prove your worth. The focus on how you must be better than anyone else and that you must always try to impress others leads to burnout. A different view was to see yourself as part of something bigger and how you are there to serve your community. The study found that people that were connected to bigger than self goals felt: more hopeful, curious, caring, grateful, inspired and excited. The self-focus in contrast made people feel more confused, anxious, angry and lonely.
Johann Hari's also provides research in his book, "Lost Connections" on the benefits of caring for others. It was the coming together of people in Kotti (a neighbourhood in Berlin) that saved a number of people's lives.
"What solved their problems? it seemed to me it was other people standing by their side, committed to walking the path with them, finding collective solutions to their problems".
They moved from an individualistic way of how to live to a collective we are all in this together view.
He mentions part of us overcoming our struggles in life and the one most crucial is coming together. The lives we have been pressured to live in an individualistic society don't meet our psychological needs for connection, security and togetherness.
So how we do help create this shift and place less emphasis on self and more on togetherness?
I think we need to create more opportunities and space for togetherness and to better understand what holds us back from sharing.
A way I have started to do this is by having emotional support dates with friends. Rather than our normal catch ups, it is a space to talk about what is going on emotionally for one another. We are both vulnerable which takes away the feeling of burden and we reciprocate care and support. I think a lot of the time we don't always share is that we are too busy or it is not the time and place for "those" conversations. I also think reciprocal sharing builds more trust and makes us more likely to reach out.
What makes the space work is that they are dedicated for emotional support. They are reciprocal which brings a level of equality and trust, a feeling of "we are in this together". They also have the benefit of being 1 to 1 which can help us feel more heard and supported.
It is not about being an expert in support or giving advice but about really listening and being there for one another. This can take the pressure off from needing to find the right answers as it is by true listening we can help someone find those answers within.