Too much of the work in the mental health field is focused on the mind. Or, from time to time, on the soul. By emphasizing the mind or the soul therapists and other researchers downplay, even ignore the role played by social connection, by belonging to a group. They also downplay the importance of socializing, of learning how to socialize, of making and keeping friends.
If social connections are fundamentally important for your emotional and even physical well-being, therapists have been looking at the problem from the wrong angle. They have focused on inside/ out when they should be looking at outside/in.
We know that trauma makes people feel that they are unfit for social interaction. Trauma victims feel shame for having failed—that is, for having allowed it to happen-- and they often withdraw from social contact. Unfortunately, this aggravates the ill-effects of trauma.
And yet, social isolation is far more complex. Reducing it to the effect of a trauma simplifies the problem and makes it appear that someone who is lonely can solve his problems by taking on the mantle of victimhood and having his abuser prosecuted.
And yet, people are shunned for far less. They are shunned for bad manners and poor decorum, to say nothing of improprieties. In some cases they are boors; it other cases they do not know any better. When people are suffering from social anomie, when they find themselves in a strange or foreign culture, they often make social errors unintentionally, because they do not know the local customs.
In the latter cases, most of the locals will be gracious and will instruct those who are newly arrived. In other cases, when people refuse to adopt local customs, perhaps because they are multiculturalists, they will find themselves ostracized and will consider it a gross injustice.
In the larger sense, ostracism is a primary sanction for bad behavior. Societies have two basic ways to encourage, if not to enforce good behavior. They can criminalize bad behavior and inflect grievous punishment on those who transgress. Or they can shun and ostracize those who do not conform to society’s norms.
In the one case they tell you what not to do. In the other case they tell you what should do. Note well, that knowing what not to do does not in any way tell you what you should do. For example, telling men not to rape does not tell them how to get along with women.
One needs to mention that sometimes people who do not know the local customs and norms make a fetish out of their creative individuality. They make a conscious choice not to follow the rules and then expect everyone to respect them for as much.
It feels symptomatic of the current state of the mental health field, but two recent articles on isolation and loneliness, on feeling excluded from social groups, mostly ignore how the person came to be excluded. They focus on the feeling, the emotion, the pain that people feel when they are shunned.
Certainly, some people are excluded from groups or even cliques for no good reason at all, but more often people are ostracized for failing to follow the rules that everyone else is following.
Writing in the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds explains that human beings in their primitive state were social animals, and thus, have always had reason to feel more threatened when they were alone. One must note that human beings are still social animals. As Aristotle once remarked, there is no such thing as a human being who lives his life in isolation from other human beings.
For early humans, being alone was no way to live. Those on the tribe’s periphery faced increased risks of starvation, predation and early death. And so humans (like other communal creatures) evolved what seem to be specific biological reactions to social threats. A social animal that feels itself to be isolated from its kind begins to behave nervously andexperiences unhealthy physiological responses. The body produces more stress-related biochemicals, leading to inflammation and a reduced ability to fight viral infections. These adaptations might help explain why many chronically lonely people have an overabundance of stress-related cells and weakened immune systems. But how they see the world — how loneliness affects their thinking — may be just as consequential to their health.
By calling it loneliness Reynolds puts a nice gloss on being socially shunned. But feeling isolated lacks the moral basis that ostracism has.
Nevertheless it is well worth recognizing that too much solitude stresses the body and weakens the immune system.
It is also useful to notice that when people are ostracized they are hypervigilant to threats and therefore tend to misread situations. This causes them to overreact in ways that make it more difficult to regain their social footing.
The results show that the lonelier you are, the more your attention is drawn toward negative social information, says one of the researchers, John Cacioppo, whose colleague and wife, Stephanie, led the study, which appeared in the journal Cortex. Lonely people seemed inadvertently hypervigilant to social threats. Rather poignantly, such thinking itself most likely makes the loneliness worse, he says, by nudging the lonely to ‘‘unknowingly act in a more defensive, hostile way toward the others with whom they would like to connect.’’
Reynolds has left us with a counsel of despair. Surely, she is correct to point out that people who have been traumatized are often inclined to do exactly the wrong thing, to perform actions that reinforce the pain of trauma and make it more difficult to reenter society. For example, they might take pride in being non-conformists.
And yet, one comes away thinking that there is no way out of loneliness. Certainly, if you have no idea of why you have been shunned-- whether it is for a reason or arbitrary-- then you will never draw a lesson from it and will not know what to do to solve it. In most cases, however, you should be able to understand why you are so alone so often. If your only concern is to plumb the depths of your painful feelings, you are looking in the wrong place.
In The Atlantic, Clare Foran offers a more encouraging word. She says that people who are ostracized can use their condition to improve themselves. Foran describes people who Reynolds would have called chronically lonely, but that she calls excluded for long periods of time:
There is also evidence that psychological damage results when people feel excluded over long periods of time. “When people are ostracized day in and day out, their ability to regain a sense of belonging becomes depleted,” said Kip Williams, a Purdue University professor who studies the impact of being ignored and excluded. “Eventually, people become depressed, helpless, and alienated as a feeling of worthlessness sets in.”
But then, Foran adds , one might-- if one knows how—draw a lesson from emotional pain.
Yet while rejection may hurt, there is likely a benefit to experiencing emotional pain. Physical pain tells us what to avoid in order to prevent serious injury. Hurt feelings deliver cues that may help us navigate social interaction. Research also suggests that people often seek out social connection in response to rejection. In other words, social ties may ultimately be strengthened after an episode of exclusion.
“Social exclusion hurts, but that’s not an automatic argument that nobody should ever hurt each other,” MacDonald said. “Pain transmits important information that helps us recognize what’s healthy and what’s not. When you get hurt, you reflect on that. Sometimes, that’s a sign that things need to change.”
Foran and the researchers she consulted are surely correct here. Being ostracized is painful, but it invites us to take a step back from our emotions, to look at the way we conduct ourselves socially and to make corrections.