Estrangement and belonging

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Humans are social animals, and we can all help those who are suffering from estrangement.  Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

If you have had an argument or a row with members of your family, then you may be familiar with the concept of estrangement.  We have a basic human need to belong to something.  If our close bonds are disrupted, through separation, divorce, disapproval or abuse, then it can have a detrimental effect on our mental health.

HEALTH EFFECTS

Estrangement has a profound effect, because it feeds into three or four ways we are built, and deprives us of something we thrive on.

  1. Meaning – many people find their sense of meaning in identifying with others.  For example, a soldier may find their identity woven in with the military, to the extend that leaving it causes something akin to grief.  A married partner may so strongly define themselves by their marriage, that its end deprives them of a sense of meaning.  Social groups also act as a landmark on our map of the world, and losing them can mean we lose our sense of having a place in society.
  2. Control – if we are used to having an influence within our family or social group, then becoming estranged can make us feel powerless in life. For example, a mother or father may be used to ruling the roost, and then divorce undermines that sense of control.  The world becomes something we have no control over, since it does not cooperate with us as our family did.
  3. Belonging – belonging helps the brain to relax.  It means that many of our actions can be governed by group ethics, and only a few are left for us to decide ourselves.  When we stop belonging, we suddenly start having to decide every single little thing for ourselves.  Some people can’t cope with this and fall into depression.
  4. Confidence – have you ever noticed how loudly family groups talk at the supermarket?  Being a strong group gives them confidence that they lack singly.  Many people leaving groups find that their confidence takes a dip.
BEHAVIOURAL EFFECTS

The above explains why certain behavioural problems get more pronounced when people are forced away from home groups:

  1. Depression or paranoia – the world makes less sense, and the person becomes depressed, insisting that life is not worth it any more.  If the meaning cycle breaks up too much, then paranoia can result – the person has too little familiar, trusted social reality to ground them, and resorts to personal invention.
  2. Anger – a loss of control leads to a buil up of frustration.  Estranged people, with nowhere to place this frustration, can end up channeling negative energy into violence or disruption, either against the self (e.g. self-harm habits) or against others (e.g. starting fights in public, or even terrorist acts)
  3. Indecisiveness – the lack of a supporting group ethic means that deciding even one small thing is to much for the individual.  They end up hyper-analysing everything, and fail to be proactive.  Even getting up in the morning can be difficult without a sense of belonging.
  4. Anxious lack of confidence – it is much harder to choose clothes, to stand up for yourself, to complain about things, or to enter new situations, without a group identity.
WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT

There are a few corresponding things we can do to reduce the effects of estrangement:

  1. Add meaning to our own and others’ lives by listening to them, and sharing ideas.  We underestimate how important a simple discussion can be.  Imagine you are a suffering person, living alone.  If you don’t speak to many people in your week, every conversation you have can become ultra-important to help you place yourself in the world.  Remembering this should make us very careful in all our conversations, especially with people who appear to be alone.
  2. Give control to those who often lack it.  For example, if you see that a person is often overlooked, then make a point of consulting them and respecting their decisions.  It makes a big difference to their sense of control over life.
  3. Help others to make decisions.  Try not to be impatient with others who are always asking you to help with decisions.  It may be that they are unable to support their own decision making process.  Give them the final decision, but stand behind them in support if possible.
  4. Play a part in other people’s activities, especially the before and after.  Before, listen to their hopes, and share them.  Afterwards, listen to how they did, and respond to it.  You may be the only person doing this.  It is a great confidence builder.
AN EXERCISE

Just for one day, focus on the following four skills:

  1. Listening to others and sharing their ideas
  2. Consulting others and respecting their decisions
  3. Helping others to make decisions
  4. Sharing the hopes of others before events, and their triumphs and disappointments after them.
If you think about it, they are key skills, and make the world go around.  Moreover, in doing this, you are helping to cure estrangement.

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SUMMARY

Estrangement and isolation cause mental problems, each of which we can help with.

  1. A person’s life lacks meaning, and we can help by listening and sharing ideas
  2. A person becomes disempowered, and we can help by consulting them and respecting their views
  3. A person becomes indecisive, and we can help by helping them to make decisions
  4. A person lacks confidence and proactivity. We can help by sharing in their hopes, triumphs and disappointments
That’s basically why I am a counsellor.  It is a golden opportunity to support anyone suffering from a sense of estrangement.

But it doesn’t always need professionals.  The more people there are who are skilled in listening, respect, helping and empathy, the less suffering there will be.  We can’t always stop estrangement, but we can help people to find personal happiness again.

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