- Mental Health
Understand Your Social Needs
#5 of 100
Are you Lonely? Join the Club
One of the ugliest patterns in modern life is that admitting any gap in your social needs, admitting loneliness makes you needy and no one wants to have anything with you. Most people are miserable and looking for someone to cheer them up and help distract them from how rotten their lives are.
Depression strikes over a quarter of Americans and antidepressants are prescribed more often than anything but blood pressure medication -- and high blood pressure is a medical reason to reduce stress in your life. So this Hub is actually about stress management. It's about a different approach to stress management.
Medication and mental health care can help a lot if you do suffer depression. In fact, many therapists will try to broach some of the subjects I'm about to go into if they spot the problems and try to help clients get past denial to deal with the reasons for loneliness and misery and patterns of living that are self destructive. Therapists themselves are at enormous risk for depression because most of their work day is spent with depressed people bringing them down.
They're human too. Spend eight hours a day talking to someone who's depressed and get frustrated at being unable to get results without months of effort on each of them, present healthy ideas only to get them soundly rejected over and over in favor of stupid self destructive ideas and eventually the sheer weight of social pressure makes some of the dumb ideas seem normal like you're making a fuss about nothing.
Be very careful that your therapist does not currently suffer from depression. When looking for a good one, try talking to former clients and find out what their track record is. Therapy is an art and some people are very, very skilled at it. Also try to find one who shares your religious outlook at least in general and understands your ethnic background and subcultures.
If you belong to a subculture or revival movement, you're doing something healthy to counter some destructive patterns inherent in American society.
American society is not a culture. A culture is generations deep and it carries a lot of information on how to live in a particular place and climate, generations worth of experience at deaiing with life in that place. It has stories and myths and habits and aphorisms and truisms that all deal with pretty much anything that you can run into on that island. The rare poisonous fish and common edible plant is well known to everyone. How to handle an ill tempered coworker has social mechanisms to bring that coworker into line. Values are shared by an entire community -- and no one is left wondering what to do on Saturday night because they know in this season that's net-mending, storytelling and eating special holiday foods that can only be harvested when ripe this time of year.
Patterns of living are adaptive.
Human beings haven't lived in a multicultural, mobile, high-communications high-tech society long enough to adapt to that yet. The lore of how to live in this environment, in the present time and in the ever-changing future, doesn't exist. It hasn't been accumulated. There are no Elder Geeks that can tell you how to adapt to Vista and what it'll do to your patterns of Internet social activity, though Internet social activity is one of the healthier patterns to emerge in the 21st century.
Religion has historically also carried culture. If you read through the Old Testament you'll learn all about how to live and survive and thrive in the Middle East because the Jewish tribe adapted so well to that region and to a nomadic existence that to this day Jewish people remain a coherent tribe with that long a history. They moved on enough times that Jewish elders know how to handle everything from anti-Semitic persecution to how to deal with adapting to a new climate to how to assimilate into a community without losing their culture.
But you're so out of luck if you're not actually Jewish and don't want to convert. Even if you are, you're faced with completely new challenges and Judaism itself has divided into varying sects of varying degrees of liberal-modern views, and the most culturally deep may also demand sacrificing many of the benefits of the modern world. Fundamentalism in any religion is turning to religion to fill the needs that religion once did in culture -- and demanding that the religion carry more than its share of community organization.
Fundamentalism is a revival movement.
So is modern paganism, before you think it's all about becoming conservative. It's possible to find revival movements anywhere on the political and social spectrum. What they do is provide an answer to what are you going to do on Saturday night, and how can you meet people you can trust more than your coworkers because you can understand what they do on Saturday night and know you share the same values.
Subcultures like the Society for Creative Anachronism, "Fandom" of just about anything, the goth movement, all sorts of patterns emerge promising cultural richness in the wasteland presented by the melting pot. If everything's in the melting pot, then nothing retains its identity. Black culture and the gay community thrive when they go way beyond seeking political equality and equal rights into defining what to do on Saturday night and sharing music that shuts out everyone else and creates a community the size a human being can handle and be happy.
The myth of romantic love crashes many marriages, because both partners are encouraged to seek everything they need in that one other person -- who cannot be parent-surrogate, child-surrogate, community elder, outside viewpoint, cousin of a cousin and just someone to talk to who isn't a child without putting unusual stress on the relationship. Intimacy is wonderful.
But sometimes human beings have a need to be social without being intimate and to have less stressful social interactions. Friendships that last are vital when kinships no longer play that role. But the patterns of living in a technological society often involve individuals relocating every few years -- pulling up all roots and destroying all habits built up, adapting to an entirely different physical and social environment, and companies would prefer they just do so in the blandest possible way so they can be pulled out of Seattle and dropped in Arizona to fit their cog in the machine place without any friction.
This also uproots the kids and the spouse, it can destroy a spouse's career, it can cause severe disruption in life -- and gets passed off as one of the routine things everyone has to deal with.
Remember what it was like being the new kid at school?
Remember feeling shut out because you were different?
How often in the past decade have you faced that situation again as an adult with everyone around you dismissing it as a minor complaint and you as a whiner who ought to be happy about the new opportunity and not get homesick for anything you lost in the change? How many times have you lost possessions you loved and lost touch with friends who were closer than siblings?
Been forced to start from scratch earning the trust of a neighborhood or community when you're an unwanted outsider who does something funny and different, have a regional accent and different hobbies, interests, politics and religious practices? Let's just look within the same general religion and its regional varieties -- a practice in one area of the country can be seen as sedate and appropriate, clean healthy church fun, community-building -- and look like screaming licentious toddler behavior to people in the same sect in another part of the country.
So move from one to the other and all of a sudden the minister is the one who's either become the worst wet-blanket depressing, critical stress on you or has gone off the deep end and become blasphemous doing loony things you'd never imagine could go on in a church.
That kind of culture shock is endemic.
I believe it contributes a lot to the suicide rate, the homicide rate, the levels of clinical depression in this country and the lack of resources individuals and families have to face any hard times or trouble or tragedy. The social mechanisms to help community members in trouble have wound up devolving into hard-sell religious institutions and humiliating screening processes for impersonal bureaucracy.
A vast number of Americans don't have a community. At all. Are dislocated recently enough that they have no acquaintances locally, let alone friends. Try desperately to maintain distance friendships while facing all the logistic problems of that and lose the immediate support of offlline shared activity with friends.
I don't mean this Hub to sound grim. But situational depression must account for a fair amount of the huge levels of American depression -- and situational depression, natural situational grief to give it a non-pathologizing word -- can be resolved by accepting that the situation is bad and doing something about it. Solutions to bad situations are individual.
They may be group solutions if you can create or find a group coherent enough to accumulate some, but no matter how much you know an extended family and community that includes even more distant kin may be a healthier way to live, if your family is fragmented and disturbed and most of its members would rather not bother, you can't make those blood kin behave that way and accept your ideas that they should all be nice to each other. You can break your heart trying and still never succeed.
In some very basic ways, affinity groups provide a support level that most people just live without -- and their misery does spread outward from every lonely person like ink in water. We are social creatures. We need the company, not of a herd, but of a tribe-sized group of other people who can be trusted not to be strangers and to be understandable, share our view of life, share our ways of life and consistent enough to keep that trust.
But technology changes everything in our lives every few years, so any group that has an unchanging way of life is going to get shattered by some tech-originated change that no one expected.
Sometimes these changes can be for the better.
Internet socializing gets condemned by some people as a retreat from social life, as pathological, as a bad habit that you should get a rein on and get out and do something real. But going out and doing something real when you don't know anyone there and don't have a group of friends to stop at a restaurant afterward to discuss the movie and talk about what costume you'll make for the next get together and joke all the in-jokes that define that specifc Trekkie group versus all the rest of them doesn't exist when you just moved into town.
Even if you find the local Trek club, they've all been a community for years and you just moved in. You're in the stressful situation of being judged. You're on your best behavior meeting strangers you want to impress, not relaxing with people you trust who know your personal quirks and like you and find them endearing.
You might show up to find out the only thriving Trek club in the area is a solid, well established Klingon group and they have been into it for thirty years, most of them speak the language and look at you like you just dropped in from Ferengi space. Ow.
Subcultures can help close the gap, but accepting that displaced-person loneliness is a real and difficult situation at least eliminates one huge aspect of the misery people put up with all the time. It's not your fault. And if it happens over and over again but you happen to have relocated over and over again, then relocatiing is a pattern in your life too and one to question -- is it worth all the trouble to relocate for an economic advantage or are you better off finding a climate you're happy with and a region whose social customs fit you better, then getting a new job when the job moves on?
In my life I took it to another extreme. I moved more often than most people, for various logistic reasons involving my disabilities I moved three or four times a year if not from region to region or state to state, across town in large cities like Chicago where you can go three blocks and be living in a neighborhood that's a different culture.
I got disproportionally good at introducing myself to new people and didn't get the chance to learn the social skills of maintaining long term friendships and settling into an area, putting down roots, keeping ties.
Then I started getting active on the Internet and discovered that socializing with people on the Internet is not the same thing as sitting in front of the television while an impersonal commercial tries to sell the idea that using their product will make me socially successful and adds whole bland patterns of interaction that would involve ceasing to be who I am and living by the template of an artificial, impossible norm. Tag is not going to make my legs long and matching or turn me into a teenager with a perfect hard body who'd attract all those girls.
It's going to make me smell like a middle aged man pretending to be a teenager, which means I'd better be funny and sucially engaging and amusing in my own right making fun of that or I'll be the butt of some unpleasant humor.
Defending the group from outsiders until they accept all its social customs is something communities do to maintain their identity -- and I've never found groups I fit well enough to stick with them as such, where I didn't have to distort myself too much to get along. Until the Internet, where it's logistically a lot easier to accept other people's habits because you're not in the same room with them. I smoke. I have a cat. Several groups I'd otherwise belong to, I don't go to their get togethers because they make such a strong point of being scent free allergen free events and I happen to love my cat much more than I want to get involved there.
My cat's been part of my life for eight years and he's an important kinship in my life. He may not be human but in every new home, he is right there sleeping with me, curls up in my lap, vets out the people I meet to warn me which ones are going to take advantage of me and which ones I should make friends with -- my cat is practically a service animal for all he does for me socially. He also breaks the ice with cat lovers everywhere, and that can build a bridge when we have nothing else in common.
He's cute. He is the cute one. If I put him forward and make it clear how important he is in my life, everyone who loves their cat is going to find him just as cool as I do and vice versa. Their cats are cute. Their cats are cool. It's great how cats know when you're lonely and come take care of your feelings.
But I have to give up some things in order to have this companion -- I can't rent half the apartments out there because landlords don't like tenants to have animals, it took about four times longer to find a new apartment than it did if I didn't have any pets. So the social support of animals within your household is difficult and takes work -- work many people don't have time to spare even if they love cats or miss having a dog. The grief of losing a pet who's a family member gets trivialized except among cat fanciers and dog buffs, a lot of people think you're making a fuss over nothing if a friend you raised from kittenhood dies after a 15 year relationship and you grieve that death.
It can help to be compassionate with others and their stresses, to notice them and be aware of them. To be a little gentle with them about it without getting enmeshed to the point you become their primary support but are not getting reciprocal support. One of the reasons groups you'd love to join and get active with may shut you out is because they don't know if you're an emotional leech, so wounded that you have nothing to give to anyone else.
It takes time to get to know people.
My life's improved in the past nine years or so, I got onto the Internet regularly around 2000 or so. I've found it easier to meet new people I have more in common with and noticed that some of my affinity groups, like <a href="http://www.nanowrimo.org">Nanowrimo</a> also have some established patterns for creating offline groups after you get to know each other on the forums. This is a lot safer social start than just going into a local writing group cold to find out that you don't fit, you're the only science fiction writer and nine of the ten members are doing romantic poetry while the only other novelist in the group does mystery and romance.
It's known because you dare to share some personal information. Not the sort of thing a stalker can track you with but the things like "I'm into Star Trek" and "I'm into Star Trek as the start of philosophical discussions and looking at how science fiction impacts society" which is very different from "I'm fascinated with Klingon culture, fluent in the language and prefer Klingons to mere humans because I can count on them to be Klingons. My connection with the Klingon group is real but looser.
The important thing to remember is that environmental pressures are not your fault. They are not a lack or a gap in your ability to be and become a healthy human being. If you live in a stressful situation, give yourself the time and attention you need to manage the stress and most of all, identify your stressors for what they are -- even if other people think they are trivial. If it's not trivial to you -- then you have a right to be who you are and care about that and arrange your life so that you can be happy.
A lot of people don't care about whether they can have a cat even if they like cats. They'll get one and give it away when relocating if they move to a place that doesn't allow them, may learn not to get that attached to pets and so lose half of the benefits of having a cat in the first place -- to have a relationship with a socially skilled being who's comforting and undemanding.
Emotionally undemanding. Your cat mainly wants you to give positive attention, grooming and food and affection. Your cat is not going to expect you to speak Klingon or to jump around and scream in church or become vegan or wear your hair this way, your cat judges your behavior on much simpler grounds and any cat person learns cat politeness early on because cats are good at positive reinforcement. Over time you start attracting cats that fit your personality -- cats who aren't clingy and are independent enough not to need much attention but still appreciative when you give them some, or a cat so passionately clingy and one-person focused that at least in one living being's eyes, you are the coolest person in the world and the one they like best of all.
But if you need exercise and getting out of the house daily, if you need to have someone look up to you for guidance and need to be in charge of someone, a dog is going to provide the support of a trusted subordinate and a set of obligations that will help pattern your life from getting you out from behind the desk to spending the time training it to behave properly. Your dog thinks you're Alpha, and if you feel powerless in the work world even when you have some authority, your dog knows you're the one in charge and does not resent you the way your subordinates do -- or blame you for policies made ten levels over your head where you never met the people who came up with those bright ideas and they're disconnected from reality.
Companies that try to create a corporate culture and make it immersive are treading dangerous ground, because they also do not provide that in the long term. They can soak a lot of time, attention, emotional energy and commitment but they are still companies there to earn money for their stockholders and they don't care about you. They do still treat you as a disposable commodity. Hearts can break on that ugly fact, you can never get comfortable in a corporate culture because the company will change direction and if you're not getting promoted, you're getting the boot.
Get promoted too far and you're no longer socially connected with the rank and file in any supported way, you've become the scapegoat for everything wrong in their lives and may well be tampering with their lives in high-handed ways that destroy some of them for the sake of profit -- or lose your job and status within a system that is not a culture or a revival movement.
Some things that can help people get settled into a new place. Take a class or several in things that interest you, at the level of your interest. Taking up a new hobby will get you into another group of beginners all of whom are looking for something cool to do on Saturday afternoons when the housework's done and start creating social circles to fill the very real need you have for a pool of casual friends, a bit more than acquaintances, from whom to choose and build the deep friendships that may last through distance and separation.
Online communities can help maintain ties with people whose level of friendship doesn't change and give you someone sane to commiserate with who is not in crisis at the time you need that support. The more supportive friends you have in your social network, the easier it is to find one of them who does have the time and energy to listen. Email friendships are pen friendships with the logistic running in your favor -- you need several hours to decompress, but it takes them ten minutes to read the email where you ranted and they either need support for their issues and take several hours replying or they spend ten minutes just saying comforting supportive things you can trust them to.
Hang onto those email friends and treat them well.
It may sound stupid, it may sound so simplistic, but one thing that does help is to invert your social priorities. Pay more attention to behaving well toward the people you actually live with and love than the people outside your house. Don't let the boss get more of your emotional energy than your spouse, even if you're in an economic crisis or in fear of losing your job -- you can lose a lot more than a job if you give too much weight to a relationship that's primarily economic. What your boss needs from you is to show up on time and do a decent job at what you're paid to do. That's the basic contract.
Anything beyond that is an unreasonable emotional demand -- and it's vital for stress management to find a job where you can fit in at that social distance, at "professional" distance where you're not relying on coworkers to be intimate friends or your boss to be a parent surrogate. You're taking a one in four chance that someone with a depression problem or serious codependence is going to latch onto you, enmesh and distort your life to put pleasing them on your highest priority doing that.
This can be worth putting in the time and effort to keep looking after you get a job till you find a good one that has good working conditions and hours you can live with. This can also make it really worth your while to find an occupation where the work itself is something you enjoy doing -- that can make all the difference in the world and is the best insurance against being the one dropped when they thin the ranks.
The happier worker who's producing more by being in harmony with the job itself, loving the work, who doesn't have to force him or herself to fit but fits by compatibility, is going to be kept on because they provide morale to everyone else. There are millions of different occupations and ways of life and who you are is an individual who can choose which direction to seek work anytime you do relocate. You can decide you want to work with animals and love cats, look for work at animal shelters and grooming salons and so on until you find a cat related job and have that in common with the job -- and you are more likely to get that than someone who just needs a job and happened into it if you love cats and make it clear that you're that familiar with them and that expert in taking care of them.
The key here is to remember that you're the one actually making the decisions in your life. Everything in school conditions people to let authorities make decisions for them -- and that may be a natural human condition for a lot of people in a lot of areas in life, they will delegate major life decisions to cultural tradition. But when you delegate them to authorities who do not have your interests as a priority, your boss is not your parent and has no reason to love you.
Avoid the blame game entirely. It may get some short term results but it automatically attracts more of the same and enmeshes you in a vicious competitive subgroup where you'll get zero support and everyone actually is out to get you.
It's harder to examine your life and question everything in it, examine your morals and values and question everything in them, examine every one of your relationships to see what its problems are and solve them at the root. But that work can make the difference between repeating a train wreck situation and resolving the problem in ways that are more lasting. You might have to move to Klingon to do it but it's possible to build a healthy, happy life with a full range of social connections and roles in it when you accept that you need to actually do so rather than expecting your culture to do it for you.