By Bradford F. Spencer, Ph.D. (Fall 2020)
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is upon us (in case you missed it). The global economic and emotional damage is tragic beyond words.
But that is not the pandemic I am most concerned about at the moment … It would appear there is a dramatic upsurge in people of all ages, particularly young adults, feeling lonely and disconnected.
How can this be when, if we search social media, we find one picture after the other of more beautiful, smiling people having the greatest fun anyone can imagine with the next picture surpassing the preceding image. This is not going to be a condemnation of social media, but rather a reflection of what is left out by us when we post.
Do you feel closer to someone when you experience a joyous moment with them or when you are there for their times of struggle? And, are those to whom you feel close and most connected the ones you only partied/celebrated with, or the ones with whom you are vulnerable? In all probability, the sense of being embarrassed and accepted does not happen online for most. And I am not certain it will or even can. I personally hate being embarrassed and have, until recently, shied away from my second-most dreaded emotion: feeling vulnerable. I have yet to find someone who seeks out either. That is what is at the heart of this lack of connectedness and it is not a new problem; just ask your mom and dad.
Combat vets will tell you the individuals they feel most connected to and often become lifetime friends with are those with whom they shared a foxhole. You would not expect it, but crying is very acceptable in the armed services. The bonds that run so deep are not because of the memories of many nights at a bar.
The next time you are experiencing the feeling of being all alone or left out, recognize that the smiling faces you are viewing are probably experiencing it also. “Misery loves company” does nothing to help the problem at its deepest level. The denial and attempts to simply make us look happy is the underlying virus that leads us to the experience of disconnection.
As an obvious caution, I am not recommending that every time you feel excluded or down, you express it. That will get very old very soon and has the impact of driving people away. You can be a very positive and upbeat individual and know that there are appropriate times to be open. Most of it is common sense. It requires a bit of risk (vulnerability) at the right time for the right issues. (As an aside, I might add an appendix with some suggestions about how to begin these conversations. For now, let me simply state they always begin with the word “I” and never, ever, ever, with the word “you.”)
The antidote is to recognize and name your struggle. Then, if possible, find a way to share it – not as a victim looking to be pitied, but rather a human being seeking the closeness that only comes from the connection of caring. It begins with being honest about a struggle.
I did not pen this as a message to your teenager, but to those in the workforce, with whom I work daily, and specifically the executives whose roles seemingly “require an image of confidence.” Think of the co-workers you feel have your back and you miss bumping into at the watercooler. Are they the ones with whom you shared only their great accomplishments and vice versa? Or are they the ones you worked with, deep into the night, concerned that you would not be able to fix the problem or close the sale?
If you know a couple who is truly still in love after many years, it is probably because they were and are vulnerable with each other. The ones who smile on the surface and attempt to hide the problems, who are not truly open to the potential of being embarrassed or hurt in front of each other, are the ones on track for divorce. But most TV shows and movies would have you believe that the happy couples are together only because of great sex. Who would deny that is a very healthy part of a marriage? But being a best friend involves much, much more. That is the reason older couples will quickly say their spouse is their best friend. Periodically, we get upset even with our closest friends.
When you are open with your concerns and fears, others are more likely to reciprocate. In my experience, counterintuitively, this is true of the bonds you form with your best customers as well.
This is not to encourage you to be a naysayer or whine; quite the opposite. It is simply a reminder that the precondition to create the herd immunity necessary to kill this epidemic is naming, and then acting on, what truly leads to you develop the deep and meaningful connections we each crave. It is made more difficult when we are separated by distance and media is our poor substitute.
Yes, it is a bit more difficult to get by today. By “more difficult,” I do not mean “not possible.” To whom do you feel closest, the co-worker who is vulnerable and admits to feelings of uncertainty/anxiety/embarrassment or the one who is always certain? It will take a little more finesse and a bit more risk tolerance, but if we get to the tipping point of a cure, it will be because many of us started the movement.
And, yes, I still struggle with vulnerability, and absolutely hate being embarrassed. But I am deeply connected to my clients and so many others because I grew tired of being a lonely man seeking admiration in a crowd of smiling faces.