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The Social Self & Isolation

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The Social Self

Connection with others is an intrinsic quality of human development and maturation. Leading research has been able to illuminate its vitality to a person's mental health as well as their physical well-being. Research studies, reported in a new book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection was co-authored by John Cacioppo and William Patrick and recently published by W.W. Norton. The findings in this book show that a sense of rejection or isolation disrupts not only skill sets and capabilities already established but also will power and perseverance. Research has linked the damage of loneliness to key cellular processes deep within the human body. John Cacioppo's research suggests that chronic loneliness belongs among other important health risk factors such as smoking, obesity or lack of exercise. According to John Cacioppo:

Loneliness not only alters behavior, but loneliness is related to greater resistance to blood flow through your cardiovascular system. Loneliness leads to higher rises in morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also can alter gene expression in immune cells creating poorer immune function with higher blood pressure and an increased level of depression.

Other research findings in this book linked loneliness to a difficulty in getting to deeper sleep, pointing to a faster progression of Alzheimer's disease. Cacioppo, one of the founders of a new discipline called social neuroscience, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scans and advanced scientific techniques to document the roles of loneliness and social connection as central regulatory mechanisms in human physiology and behavior. Cacioppo and Patrick have traced the need for connection to its evolutionary roots noting that human survival depended on social bonding in order to rear their children and flourish. Other studies of very young, early ambulatory children, with few verbal skills have also evidenced that special attributes such as altruism and the cooperative impulses exist and operate long before a child is able to verbally participate in the social aspect of family life. This indicates that altruism and the cooperative impulse are early evolutionary pathways of action, hard wired in the brain for the necessity of survival. These studies show that this initiative predates a child’s self-interest and knowledge of immediate kin through double blind studies, drawing an intrinsic link to evolutionary adaptation best described as the only real safety was safety in numbers. Cacioppo goes on to explain in recent interviews that just as physical pain is a prompt to change behavior (such as moving a finger away from the fire), loneliness evolved as a prompt to action, signaling an ancestral need to repair the social bonds.

Cacioppo describes the core aspects of loneliness below:

"There are three core dimensions to feeling lonely—intimate isolation, which comes from not having anyone in your life you feel affirms who you are; relational isolation, which comes from not having face-to-face contacts that are rewarding; and collective isolation, which comes from not feeling that you're part of a group or collective beyond individual existence."

Solitude or physical isolation in and of itself is not the issue. Cacioppo clarifies that it is the subjective experience of isolation that is found to be so profoundly disruptive. Many of us experience loneliness as a result of external circumstances (things beyond our control) such as a job that requires excessive travel, yet we comply because we aren't able to optimize a better choice. As a clinician, I found this research validating and enlightening in the treatment of young professionals who find themselves isolated as a result of their career choices. Many women and men, who endure the loneliness of their business travel, find this impingement on their social self to be a very destructive force in their life and interpersonal world. Finding new strategies to mitigate the after-effect of business travel isolation has been a key component to their inner work. Many other clients find the loneliness related to relocating to a new community also very intimidating. And all of us are aware of the heightened loneliness and isolation related to the profound loss of an intimate partner or spouse through death or divorce.

There is another aspect thwarting our interpersonal world and the building of a healthy social self related to the cultural derivatives of our contemporary world. It was written about many years ago by Christopher Lasch entitled, The Culture of Narcissism in American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, 1991. Lasch early on pointed to the unbridled narcissism of the me-first generations and its impact upon culture. The no longer current trend but entrenched aspects of narcissism that go unregulated in the work place as well as our life in institutional affiliations and the academy is staggering. Our current culture has become much less conducive to promoting strong social bonds. The problem of social isolation will likely grow as conventional societal structures fade. The average household size is decreasing, and by 2010, 31 million Americans—roughly 10 percent of the population—will live alone. Sociologists also have found that people report significantly fewer close friends and confidants than those of even a generation ago. The amount of twittering and My Spacing that occurs in the fast pace world of the internet is no substitute for relatedness and connection to others, but rather a peep show for others to display rather than relate. Relationality requires the ability to introspect and in the age of instant messaging there is very little room for self-reflection or the struggle to be understood by another.

Cacioppo and Patrick have found a way to construct how loneliness creates a feedback loop that reinforces social anxiety, fear and other negative feelings. In my own practice I have found that by learning more about what underlies the subjective experience of loneliness through the inner work being engaged, we are then able to reframe these responses. Individuals who find them selves isolated and detached from others can reverse the feedback loop, overcome fear and find new social strategies of connection and intimacy.


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