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The Denial of the Social Self

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Human existences centers around our social relationships. Humans by nature are social creatures that depend on a social structure for survival. However, humans are also conscious creatures, and can develop habits and mindsets that are counter to this structure. This leads to conflict such as war, violent crime, and taking advantage of others to feel power within a social hierarchy. There are also other human conditions that often stem from false belief systems of individualism and the self-made “man”. These belief systems often cause individual pain such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, and drives some individuals to want to end their own life. However, the conflict between our nature as social beings and our false belief in individualism and individual strife, is also a natural process. Individuals must feel they have an individual sense of purpose in order to make a meaningful contribution to the social structure that maintains human existence. The term often used for this is human motivation, but again it would not exist without the need for social integration and social purpose. 

So why then if this is a natural process, do I call individualism a “false” system? It is false in the sense that it strips away the importance of the social context and world we live in and places too much emphasis on the individual. False in the sense it exaggerates one aspect of the self and the cost to the other. It also creates a situation in which we become detached from our nature towards things that artificially compensate for our lack of social understanding. An example of this includes the need to make wealth as a primary focus of success. While gaining resources is vital to human survival, human survival does not rely on excessive wealth that overly advantages one person, over the other people who work to create that wealth. The interesting part of this discussion is that even this wealth gain has a social underpinning, as it is used to display the individual’s social power and hierarchy within the social system they exist in. The falsehood is, however, is that wealth is rarely because of the individual, it requires a social system to create wealth. For example, Elan Musk would not be a billionaire without the consumer who buys the products is company produces. Taking this further Musk does not build every one of the electric cars his company makes. No this requires many other individuals to build each car, and in order to provide Musk with the idea that he is the builder we dehumanize the efforts of the other individuals by simply calling them the laborer and workers. In this redefining of Musk, he is not self-made person as we would falsely assume under the philosophy of individualism. Rather he is an individual who took advantage of the social structures within the world and exploits that for his own wealth. 

Elon Musk is just on example, as we do not need to only look at the super wealthy to see our world is not made of just individuals but rather a social system. We can look at institutions such as the family system, governmental, and religious structures. Within in any of these systems individuals can exploit to take individual advantage of the system. This can range from domestic violence justification as the “man is the head of the household” to the pastor who has a million-dollar home justifying it as a “gift for his/her service to god”. These two examples both exploit social systems, by justifying the actions under the misguided philosophy of individualism. So why is individualism so powerful?

I stated at the beginning we have two natural systems that are aimed towards one goal human survival through social structures and systems. The first system is the need to belong, and the second system is the need to feel purposeful and meaningful. The second system is what creates motivation within the individual to become socially relevant. When we “feel” relevant we feel a sense of what is commonly referred to as “power”. In this context power is one’s feeling of being in control and untouchable. It is a protective feeling, because of the problems with individualism, we often feel threat from others instead of seeing others as benign. In order then to protect the self, individuals will often exploit the social system to protect their sense of self often called their ego. The problem with this notion is these threats grow from not understanding the social aspects of the human mind and need. Human conflict does not grow from our social world, rather it grows from a broken system of individualism and the need to protect that aspect of the self-system. Therefore, in the example of wealth, money is not the “root of all evil” it is rather a compensation for our lack of social belonging and denial of our social selves, which then creates the conditions for evil to happen.

Emotional Loneliness

I have written many articles on here about loneliness and rejection, mainly because as a social psychologist I believe that these two variables are a root cause of many of our social and psychological problems in the world. One type of loneliness that I have sort of understood intellectually and partly definition wise is emotional loneliness. Emotional loneliness is defined as not have a significant emotional connection with at least one other person. I say at least because we all have different needs and a number of emotional connections. But what has perplexed me as a social psychologist is cases in which a person has several emotionally meaningful and connected relationship, but still feels a deep sense of emotional loneliness. This has perplexed me until I realized that emotionally close relationship is connected with parts of our self-definition and identity – that it is not about how many emotional connections we have, but whether or not given emotional connections bring about a better understanding of who we are and reinforce core aspects of our identity as individuals. Let me provide an example from my own life.

For the last two years, I have been plagued by bouts of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I have tried all the individual psychology techniques to deal with these issues that included: therapy, medication, self-help books, and yes even negative coping mechanisms such as drinking. But none of these were able to dull or alleviate my sense of extreme emotional loneliness and corresponding depression and anxiety. What bothered me was I had plenty of emotionally supportive and meaningful relationships: my kids and my family, but also some very close friends who would message me right back anytime I felt down or needed help – this was my mental block when it came to the loneliness that I was experiencing: I had very close and emotionally supportive relationships that I knew I could tell and experience anything with.

But recently, I started to look at core aspects of myself and identity, and asked a simple question: what part of who I am is missing and is suffering? I looked at being a dad. The answer was no, my kids love me, and we would do anything for each other. Is it my career and being a psychologist? I looked at my current research, and my current teaching position and the answer was no, my co-workers, even though I only been at my current college for six weeks, already tell me how much they valued my work and excited that I am here. Is it being a son or a brother? Well I know me, and my brothers do not talk a lot but recent events over the summer I know without a doubt we are always here there each other. And my relationship with my mom is very emotionally connected. What about being a friend? Here again, I can say recent events in my life have shown me that I am a good friend, with deep emotional connections, and my friends are amazing in return. Then I turned my attention to the importance of being an intimate partner and the value that has in my life. I know from past intimate partnerships that I placed a high value on being a good intimate partner. I came to realize that this area of my life was an issue. I realized that for the last two years I had failed miserably at keeping and maintaining a close significant intimate relationship with someone else. Indeed, at the time I made this realization, I was trying to maintain a non-existent intimate relationship with someone, and in my desire to maintain that I am a good intimate partner, a lot of dysfunction and yes emotional disconnect arose from that situation.

As a psychologist, I started to understand, my experience started to highlight that other aspect of emotional loneliness, that despite having so many emotionally connected relationship I was: (1) lacking one in a core area of who I was, and (2) I was willing to stay in a dysfunctional situation thinking that if I could make it work it would make everything okay. In addition to this, the relationship had become a self-defeating cycle, where in my mind I had to try harder, I had to impress more – which after rejection – lead to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Loneliness, worthlessness, and feelings of hopelessness are key ingredients in both depression and anxiety.

So, what did I do? I ended the dysfunctional relationship, engaged myself in other emotional close relationships, and for the first time in two years, I have lived with no depression, no anxiety, no emotional loneliness. Not only have I seen the relief of these I feel closer to my other emotionally close relationships – I see my kids, my family, and my friendship in a vibrant and fulfilling new light. I also learned something through this process, I learned that my identity as an intimate partner is not damaged, I only allowed myself to see it as damaged and that there was something wrong with me. I think all too often, especially in intimate relationships, we blame ourselves and feel there must be something wrong with me if the other person does not respond the way an intimate partner should respond.

My journey, I hope this helps others understand what is meant by emotional loneliness, and how it is connected to a part of our core identities. We can have many emotional close relationships, but when a relationship is lacking is a core aspect of who we are it can drive many of our negative emotions and even drive disordered behavior. Letting go of toxic relationships that are not emotionally fulfilling and do not support part of our own core identity can lead to better health and well-being.