Loneliness has been proven to impact our overall health and life span at a higher rate than toxic substances such as cigarettes and alcohol do.
Why is this?
Because one of the greatest human needs is connection.
Amongst the world of drug and alcohol recovery, there is a saying: “Connection is the antidote to addiction.” Some of the main reasons why people suffer from Substance Abuse Disorder are loneliness, isolation, feelings of not belonging, and worthlessness. On the flip side, one of the reasons 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) work for so many people is because it provides a community of people that one can relate to, receive support from, and eventually contribute to, which gives individuals a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging.
Purpose, meaning, and belonging are key contributors to a person’s motivation to show up for their life and find a sense of self-worth, joy, and overall well-being (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual).
Human beings are social creatures by nature and it is in their relationship to others that they thrive, learn about themselves and about life, and find, quite often, a reason to live.
When people start to live in a vacuum, they begin to feel hopeless, and the struggle to get through another day looks more difficult and not worthwhile. Most people are wounded children inside as they have experienced generations of cycles of abuse and trauma, and finding worth within oneself is often not enough of a motivator for the pursuit of happiness and a full life. Healing through therapy, as well as feeling loved and accepted by a community, gives us a fuel for living that is impossible to find on our own.
For most of human history, people have been surviving in tribes, villages, communities, large families, and clans. Relying on one another has not only ensured our physical survival but it has also given us a sense of belonging as every individual in a group plays a role that contributes to not only the survival but also the evolution of its people. Through these communities, people have felt a sense of taking root in their human experience. Their land, culture, traditions, and spiritual practices helped them to understand their human experience and to ensure their overall sustenance and that of their community.
Being human is like being given a job without a job description. None of us know what we are doing here: what is the purpose of this temporary body we inhabit, and how do we navigate through this lifetime in a way that ensures a life well-lived?
We have always depended on our family and community to understand how to “be human.” Imagine your consciousness being born into the body you are in—take a look at your arms, your hands, and your legs, and notice how your experience of life is from within this vessel. You know that this vessel will temporarily carry you through life, and as you grow up, you learn the many ways you can use it to experience your life in connection with all other life that surrounds you.
As human beings, we are always attempting to answer the “why” of existence, and quite often that “why ” is answered through each community’s set of long-standing traditions, beliefs, rituals, artistic expressions, and gender roles. Basically, we understand ourselves and life through the guidance and reflection of the other humans around us. Each member plays a role that serves the community and facilitates life—and this collaboration provides enough meaning and purpose to live out our lives regardless of the pain and challenges it may present.
In a more individualistic time in human history—where most of what was once sacred has been lost; where rituals, rights of passages, stories, songs, and traditions have been discarded—we, too, have found ourselves lost in the world.
We are bombarded by millions of messages that contradict each other, with advertisements, television shows, political agendas, uneducated opinions, and social media. All of it attempts to mimic the same guidance that community once did, but to no avail; what it does instead is segregate and confuse us. Individualism also demands of us independence, which is impossible to sustain as we are left filling all the roles that once an entire community shared. Trying to be everything for ourselves is an impossible endeavour, and the inability to do so contributes to anxiety, depression, addiction, and despair. We live for ourselves, and this sense of independence and self-expression—although a necessary and important part of our evolution—is making us sick without a community to hold space for our humanity.
Collectivism has its shadow side, as does anything in this life. Women have been oppressed, raped, and discriminated against for millennia in the name of the community’s beliefs or survival. Pressure to behave according to tradition has left so many people unexpressed and hidden as to not upset the community by being different or “the black sheep.” Superstitions and religious rigidity have caused more harm than good to the human spirit and the human experience in most old world, traditional, collective societies. Veering outside the norms and expectations of the family and culture will leave so many isolated and rejected. That fear keeps so many people in line and in obedience of that which goes against their true selves.
Individualism, on the other hand, allows more openly for the authentic expression of the individual. Whether that may be what they choose to do with their life, or their sexual orientation, or who they choose to marry or not marry, there is a greater sense of freedom of choice.
In a more Western, individualistic society, the guidelines of behaviour and expectation are much more flexible and less judgmental. I grew up in La Paz, Bolivia and I remember wanting so badly to move to a city where I could be myself fully and no one would bat an eye because, just like me, everyone else was free to be. What I didn’t realize, however, was the suffocating loneliness that accompanies that degree of freedom.
Addiction (to everything: drugs, alcohol, food, porn, social media, sex, relationships, and work), depression, anxiety, suicide, and loneliness are rampant in individualist societies because the more we remove ourselves from the uniformity that traditional communities demand, the harder it becomes to find belonging. Without community, it can also be harder to find meaning and purpose when the “why” of our existence has not yet been understood. Existence is too big of an experience to fully understand, and without each other, it is nearly impossible to navigate.
As a therapist, I have found that regardless of what the presenting issue is with any given client, the root of the problem often is a desire to express and live authentically while finding love, belonging, and acceptance amongst family and friends. For so long, collectivist communities have taught us that being ourselves was unacceptable and a source of shame; now, as we begin to break out of our chains and risk embracing the full expression of our personality and spirit, we continue to carry the fear of judgement and non-belonging—because deep down, we know it is crucial to our well-being.
I have created healing circles of men and women who come together, for weeks or months, and hold space for each other to safely and without judgment express their truth, their struggle, and their vulnerability and increase their sense of acceptance and belonging. They show up just as they are at that moment. Healing circles are an indigenous tradition that, as a healer, I have been blessed to learn how to run through an elder and mentor. It has changed the lives of many women who have been searching for their freedom of expression while simultaneously searching for a place to share themselves freely with. Nothing is more healing than being witnessed, held, and accepted unconditionally by a community.
Many clients of mine struggle with finding their independence while living with the traditional customs of the culture they belong to. This is a tightrope for both me as a therapist and them as the client to walk, as both these worlds often collide.
The suggestion that I quite often give them is that one should attempt to respect both the individual and the community simultaneously. It is important they continue to express themselves freely in the spaces and places that feel safe, and in doing so, one begins to heal generations of fear and trauma, hopefully arriving at a place in which you can continue to meet the needs of the community (such as success or marriage) while doing so in a way that feels more in alignment with you.
For my more Western clients who either feel lonely or are surrounded by people they feel aren’t quite like them but it is all they know, I tell them that in order to find their real community, we must take off the mask that we tend to hide behind. If what we present to the world is the mask of conformity, then those who identify with the mask will surround us. However, as we grow the courage it takes to show up in the world as we truly are, then those who recognize themselves in us will find us and we will end up in a community in which we feel at home, can be our authentic selves, and feel loved and supported without dimming our light, playing small, or suffocating under the expectations of a society that demands conformity in order to reflect back at us our worth.
To belong as we are, to be valued for what we uniquely bring, to feel loved and accepted in the hearts and eyes of another without betraying the truth of who we are—that is true freedom and the highest form of belonging and well-being we can hope to find.