We often read reports on how loneliness is the real pandemic we are facing today. Loneliness is a negative feeling where an individual experiences a lack of intimacy and friendship and as a result resorts to negative self-talk, self-blame and rumination. Loneliness to my mind is also a product of a larger socio-cultural malaise that is more recent in its making. Increasingly, we are being driven by a punishing sense of hyper-individualism and hyper self-reliance. We go through life assuming we are going to be enough for ourselves and put extreme pressure on ourselves to meet all our needs. Unfortunately, psychological needs are such that they crave to be met by someone else.
If you read the latest psychology literature, a lot of the talk is centred around topics like boundaries, prioritising your needs, asserting yourself and learning how to say no. There is so much wisdom in all of it. And yet, some of us find it difficult to put to use the knowledge that is freely available today. Negotiating salary, telling a friend that they had paid for their cab last time and somehow never really got the money back, saying no to accompanying a relative for their grocery shopping — we have encountered instances when we have put energy into something that we didn't want to do.
Most of us lack the skill of skirting these issues tactically. Some of us fear negotiating and having difficult conversations so much that we simply give up on people altogether. And, this has nothing to do with people per se. It is mostly about our lack of skill for clear communication. Many people today identify as introverts or misanthropes — although these two are entirely different categories of personalities, yet they share an aversion for socialisation and people in general.
One way to unlearn everything we know about communication, intimacy and expectation is to simply share our living space with some with do not share a history. Today, most healing paradigms ask you to retreat to a safe space, to a meditation centre, or go on a solo trip for self-discovery and self-understanding. While these are perfectly valid tools of gaining self-knowledge and simultaneously healing ourselves from toxic behavioural patterns and toxic relationships, healing also resides in learning new ways to communicate with others. That happens when you share your living space with an individual daily for a prolonged period. They can be a friend, a colleague, an acquaintance, or a member of a spiritual community you are part of. Living in an ashram often helps us improve our people's skills because there is a shared responsibility for the well-being of all inhabitants and no pressure of outperforming each other.
Self-knowledge is not a mere exercise in analysing our past and knowing our triggers. They are equally about knowing how we project our desires, why we feel connected with some while experiencing a sense of anxiety in the presence of others. Does safety mean familiarity or comfort? Why do some people make us feel uncomfortable and is it necessarily a red flag? People are always going to be anxiety-inducing simply by the virtue of being a separate sovereign entity that we can't access fully. Knowing about our attachments styles — (secure attachment, anxious-insecure attachment, avoidant-insecure attachment, disorganised-insecure attachment... More in a future column) go a long way in forging healthier relationships.
Similarly, focusing on the kind of psychological material we can sift through and sort our conversation with other people gives us an insight into our broader thought patterns. Do we tend to be needy in relationships? Do we reveal too much of ourselves too soon? Are we too careful in revealing ourselves? Do we enjoy being challenged in a conversation or do we always like to be friends with someone who thinks like us? Do we like to act as victims? Do we take the role of an agony aunt in our group? And what is the core belief that drives these thoughts and behaviours that we tend to repeat? What is the role we assign ourselves while interacting with others? Such inquiry into our interaction with other people throws extraordinary psychological insight into who we are and how we want to be perceived by others. Human companionship is to be cherished not just because it tends to make us feel less isolated but also these relationships tell us a lot about who we are. Risking a conversation, a relationship, a random chat with another person is certainly worth the while.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)
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