Sometimes our self-esteem sinks so low that we have no room to move. We want to contact people, but we have fallen out of touch with most of our old friends. If we are depressed, then there is an additional sense of withdrawal. It is as though we are reaching out of a big black hole, but with little hope of achieving contact.
We may still crave engagement with others, sometimes more than ever. The feeling of loneliness is so intense that we can be angry and wishful at the same time – angry at others for neglecting us, but also wishing that something will happen to enliven us out of our doldrums. When we do get contact with others, a chat or some time together, it can be brief, and we are left wanting more, but also strangely disconnected.
Into this prison comes the fear of rejection by others. We become sensitive to the things people say and do regarding us. If we hear or suspect anything negative, then it is hard to bear. We can barely support ourselves, and so the thought of anyone else feeling badly towards us breaks the camel’s back. Quickly, though, we can put a protective shell around our self-concept. ‘I don’t care,’ we can say, like a petulant child. But really we do care.
There is also the fear of failure. Part of us, our inner police officer, judges ourselves by our achievements. We remember that we don’t want to die without leaving our mark. We want to be respected in some way. But this seems miles away. In our current state, we can barely get through a day, let alone build a sense of achievement. Life feels like it is leaking away.
But what are acceptance and rejection, and what are success and failure?
We are programmed by our evolution to seek acceptance into our tribe. We have an inbuilt fear of social rejection for this purpose, to keep us wrapped in, to stop us getting too isolated. However, if this fear of rejection gets too great, it can inhibit us so much that we stop being able to integrate. We stand on the sidelines, watching, but unable to make the first move.
In the same way, we are programmed by our evolution to impress others, to justify our existence by having something to show. We can see it in people’s love of nice cars, houses, jobs with status. Ultimately, though, the accumulation of material benefit doesn’t lead to lasting happiness. We can even get further out of touch with others by putting ourselves on a pedestal.
So the quest for acceptance and success can lead to isolation and loneliness. In a descending spiral, we continue to fear rejection and failure, and we continue to get more isolated and lonely. The tactics that helped to propagate our species don’t really work terribly well to create individual happiness.
What’s the answer? Can we overcome the neediness that propels us into such a lonely, fearful life? Yes we can. But it takes a bit of alteration in our thinking.
Firstly, we need to lose the acceptance-rejection model of engagement. Placating others for fear of rejection means that we are fear-led, which is not a happy place to be. We need to replace defensive fear with something more us-led: compassion. If we are led by the desire to help others, then we have a connection with them that is entirely within our personal control.
Secondly, we need to lose the success-failure model of happiness. Trying to keep ourselves happy by avoiding failure means that we are again fear-led, a very difficult place to find contentment. We need, instead, to focus on the essential emptiness of all our so-called objective measures of achievement. Achievement is a judgement, but happiness is a feeling.
So try, today, to help others. Also understand, to your bones, that there is no success or failure – it’s all imaginary. From a billion-year view, all that will be forgotten one day. Helping others gives us a unique sense of engagement and connection. And the perspective of wisdom reminds us that achievement and status are illusory.