It’s become increasingly apparent that we are suffering from an epidemic of disconnection. Articles on the “crisis of loneliness” in the First World and the negative health effects of decreased social connection are proliferating online and off. A recent article on PsychologyToday.com reviews some extensive research on the subject, including defining 7 types of loneliness. The idea of feelings of “chronic loneliness” being fueled by a continual activation of the parasympthetic nervous system into a “fight or flight” state particularly stood out to me, as I work with people who experience trauma. This, in turn, generates a habitual wariness of others, even close friends and family, which makes defaulting into disconnection easy …and choosing connection counter-intuitive and more challenging.
To further raise the stakes, lets move beyond a vague, somewhat neutral term like “connection”, and instead use the word ‘intimacy’, that state of interpersonal risk-taking required to both know another and be known by them at a level deeper than casual social interaction. This is what people who talk about “feeling lonely” are really longing for. A sense of safety at a profound level, ironically, one that cannot be attained without risk.
Most research into loneliness, sooner or later, points a scolding finger at the internet and social media. This is rather one-sided. The internet is wonderful. Amazing. We can access knowledge to a degree unprecedented in human history. We can read books or talk to friends in every langugae on earth. We can teach ourselves skills, that once could only be mastered through apprenticing ourselves to an expert, in an afternoon. Shoe a horse or build a house? Check out YouTube. Talk to cousin Delilah who moved to Prague last year? No problem.
Where we get lost, however, is in the subtle, but profound shifts created in our social environment that result from a majority of contact with others being moved online. In tangible, as opposed to virtual, space, relationship is the default. People’s physical presence, or absence, is an object to which we are relating, even when we are ignoring them or being ignored by them. Virtual space does not contain such objects unless we choose them. We literally have to “turn it on” to reach the virtual world. Disconnection is the default.
The action of “choosing” is two-edged. We can find communities that fit our unique experiences and definitions of self, and for the marginalized this can be, and is, life-saving. This fact alone has energized our politics, particularly in giving tangible power to voices that have previously been unheard. However, what most of us have, perhaps unconsciously, lost, is the depth of intimacy that grows from “choosing and being chosen” at our lowest (and sometimes highest) moments. In tangible social space, we see others, at times, unguarded.
No matter how carefully one chooses to “image” manage; behavior, dress, speech and so many more cues always reveal more than the “presenter” intends. Families see each other throwing up in the bathroom as well as at graduations or weddings. Friends notice the imperceptible crinkling of the eyes when you mention an old flame. A spouse sees the droop of shoulders at the end of the work week …and it speaks volumes more than your casual-sounding “fine”, when you’re asked how the day went.
We are also unaware that the virtual “water” we swim in has been tinted by sensationalism. …and the old newsprint maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” has been hopped up on the steroidal influence of clickbait. “You won’t believe (the awful thing) I’m going to reveal to you next!”. …but odds are, it will kick your PNS into overdrive. In this environment, we easily slip into the habit of witholding ourselves, in case the next “surprise” is painful or even life-threatening.
Humans have survived because we are hard-wired to notice a potentially painful stimulus before any pleasurable one. Our social media “water” exacerbates this. Under such circumstances it is profoundly difficult to choose self-revelation and real intimacy. What many of us do is “default” the decision to connect, and to eventually create deeper intimate connections, to others.
If someone does not go out of their way to “choose” us, then why take the risk of being hurt, since they “so obviously” aren’t interested? This equation neglects to factor in that our potential social connections are making their own calculations in exactly the same environment. If there aren’t enough “likes”, does what I think matter? Or worse, am I really important to anybody? Anyone? Hello???
A great deal of this “mental calculus” takes place below the obvious symptoms of loneliness, online and off. The painful feeling of being alone, and sometimes “alone in a crowd” or “alone in a relationship”, is the tip of an iceberg, an emergent signal of a profound “freezing” of our agency to create our own happiness. Paralyzed by the fear of suffering, we self-perpetuate our alone-ness by not reaching out when we could, because the risks seem so potentially painful.
For many, perhaps even for most, this becomes habitual and we no longer see that our “special circumstances” of relating online require us to “choose” actions that lead to intimacy in ways that tend to more naturally occur in tangible space, often without such a conscious process. Some of this is likely grounded in millennia of human evolution in close physical proximity, where a thousand interpersonal signals propel our actions and a dance of relating proceeds without much thought at all.
It’s worth considering that, if tomorrow, all internet communication ceased (heaven forbid), where would I go to borrow a cup of sugar or loan an exta tool to a friend in need. Do I even have the address to mail a letter to the friend in Italy or New York? Could I find the way to their house? Who can I ask for a hug, or to volunteer myself to help with their gardening? I suspect many of us might not know the answers to many questions like these. What does that reveal to us about the nature of our connections to our friends and family? Has disconnection become our relational default?
By moving our relationships “into the cloud”, we have not yet grasped the multiplicity of ways we must exert personal agency to gain and maintain the intimate connections to friends, lovers, family members and others we so naturally do (comfortably or not), in tangible space.
For all the perfectly legitimate reasons we have for disconnetion, (and really, who died and made Productivity the God of All Things?) if we are suffering from loneliness, a question we must ask, is, for part of this am I responsible for? In what ways can I choose to risk myself, even as simply pushing beyond the feeling I might be “imposing” on a FB friend, to ask for a face-to-face online call, or even in-person visit? How have I allowed my deep, and evolutionarily essential, human need for intimate knowing (and being known) of and by others to fade into an idea about intimacy, rather than risk the encounters, good and bad, needed to build a real sense of safety and love? …and, most importatnly, what strategies can I use to re-establish my connections?
After thousands of years of physical closeness to others, we are unlikley to stop needed in-person contact any time soon. Studies show that seeing the face of another helps, so choosing video calls can increase our feeling of connection. Making time to do activities together, particularly of a creative nature, can be another way to build intimate connections while lowering some of the risk we reflexively avoid.
Using our online connections to keep ourselves on track, using techniques such as “bookending”, i.e. telling a friend we are going to complete an action and then reporting back within a certain period of time, can also increase the sense that we are known by and safe with others. Just simply “being” in tangible space, whether out in Nature or quietly, with another, can increase our sense of being connected to the “real” and being less of a ghost in our own lives and in the lives of others.
Here’s the article that got me thinking, but there’s a lot on this subject: