Monday, April 6, 2020

Overcoming Social Isolation

What with the forced distancing of social isolation, many people are feeling unmoored, their daily routines disrupted, their social bearings lost. It’s not about having a shoulder to whine on, but we have lost the multiple everyday interactions that designate us as social beings, belonging to social groups. 

Naturally, therapists are all over the problem. When people are suffering emotionally they see it as a business opportunity. In truth, many of those who have weighed in on ways to overcome the feelings of social isolation are simply prescribing therapy. They want you to feel your feelings, to share your feelings, to express your feelings, to become an emotional basket case. They have not noticed that if you are gazing in rapt attention at your soul you will be unable to navigate reality. You are more likely to walk into walls.

They rarely say that they want you to turn your everyday relationships into therapy, but if you follow their advice, that is the net outcome.

With some exceptions, of course. Writing in the Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan explains that social disconnection is bad for your health. And she shows how we can go about maintaining social connections:

Psychologists are worried about the long-term effects of our new, socially distant reality. Decades of research has shown that loneliness and isolation are associated with high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, weakened immune systems and a host of other health issues.

But there is also hope in the data. Studies have revealed that human connection — something as simple as getting an offer of help from a stranger or looking at a picture of someone you love — can ease pain and reduce physical symptoms of stress. People who feel supported by their social networks are more likely to live longer. One experiment even found that people with many social ties are less susceptible to the common cold.

We feel connected to other human beings when we perform actions that designate us as members of a group. It is not about sharing your fears, your doubts, your insecurities… thus treating the other person as an ersatz therapist.

As it happens, corporate America has largely missed the point. It has been veering toward therapy and has been enticing staff to share their feelings, openly, honestly and shamelessly. As I noted yesterday, its girl talk.

Rachel Feintzeig brings us into the corporate loop in the Wall Street Journal. In one sense companies seem to be trying to adapt to the fact that their younger employees have been indoctrinated in the principles of therapy culture. Said employees might be very bright, but they are chronic complainers:

Companies have been paying more attention to how employees feel for a while. Younger workers, many of whom attended colleges with beefed-up counseling services, are already comfortable talking about things like therapy and workplace accommodations, and expect their employers’ support. An always-on culture has left some employees prone to burnout, while a hot job market led many employers to show they cared.

The result, even in a great corporation like Google, is that employees are being trained to be first responders for mental health issues:

At Google, employees can take Mental Health First Aid training or enroll in the company’s “blue dot” program, where workers affix a blue sticker to their employee badge or laptop to show they are open to talking about mental health. They can also take a 45-minute “compassionate listening” course that certifies them as someone their colleagues can talk to about their problems.

And of course, the therapy-addled culture teaches people to wallow in empathy. They will be the last to understand that empathy is not necessarily a positive emotion and that when people wallow in empathy they become pathetic and dysfunctional.

“People are looking for empathy. They’re looking to feel like they are being seen and heard in the moment,” says Amy Costello, an employee who works on Google Cloud and runs the blue-dot program. She says colleagues reach out to her several times a week to talk about everything from conflict with their managers to issues with friends.

At marketing agency Rapp, seven employees in the U.K. offices serve as “mental health first aiders.” The team offers an email address for questions and concerns during this period with everybody working from home.

Of course, most employees do not want to share their deepest feelings with strangers. And they certainly do not want to do so with colleagues or co-workers. It’s like sharing intimate pictures of yourself. Those who do so risk diminishing their stature in the company and being made to looking like mewling children:

Some workers would rather keep their problems to themselves, or fear overstepping when it comes to helping a colleague. At Deloitte, where nearly 2,000 employees have taken the online or in-person versions of a mental-health training that was first offered last May, some worry about the ramifications of intervening, says Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer.

The company recommends employees escalate more serious mental-health issues to its human-resources department. People don’t want their direct bosses to know what they are struggling with, Ms. Fisher says, adding, “There’s a fear they may be judged or it might impact their long-term career.”

Duh… why did it take them so much time to figure this out.

The problem is, this version of therapy is not about solving problems. It’s about promiscuous self-exposure. To be clear, if you have a problem it is good to find a professional who will help you to solve the problem. Venting about your soul’s travails will not do very much of anything, though, in the short run it might provide some emotional relief.

The therapy business has been rationalizing its failure to help anyone to solve problems by finding an ancillary value in whining and moaning, but once you walk out of the therapist’s office, your newly acquired skill at complaining will make you insufferable.

As for the therapy culture nostrum, Eric Ravenscraft explains it in the New York Times. 

What all of these forms have in common is that they are conversations specifically designed to examine and express the emotions you are having, rather than building to a specific solution. Figuring out things you can do to improve your situation is certainly good, but just verbalizing how you’re feeling can, itself, be part of the solution as well.

Funnily enough, sharing your feelings with the utmost of empathy-- because that is what the researchers call co-rumination-- does not help:

Crucially, not every form of talking about problems aloud can help. In fact, multiple studies examining college students, young women and working adults suggest that co-rumination — or consistently focusing on and talking about negative experiences in your life — can have the opposite effect, making you more stressed and drawing out how long a problem bothers you. 

The problem is, if you talk too much about your problems, you will be identifying yourself as a problem. You will be burdening people who have better things to do with their time than listening to you whine. You will be imposing yourself on others, and telling them things that they do not want to hear. As Aristotle wrote, friends want to see you at your best. If you regale them with your worst, they will soon cease to be friends. And then you will feel an even greater social disconnection.


UbuMaccabee said...

I read recently of a man, a remarkable man, who though a misdiagnosis, had one and 1/2 of his lungs removed at the advice of his doctors. They removed his perfectly healthy lung and half the other one.

From the account I have, this man never spoke about it or complained or otherwise made an issue of it. He simply endured it quietly and turned this very real suffering into a life of incredible passion and self-development.

That is a real man.

Sam L. said...

I'm a hard-ass. GET OVER IT.

Anonymous said...

This isn't a great time to drain other people and suck the life out of them.