One of the most critical protective factors which is very well known to help people who are struggling with life is the amount of social support and connection they have in their lives. Or to put it another way, the amount and quality of relationships that we have to others is very important to emotional resiliency in all of our lives.
For men, in particular, a lack of social connection and support is a well known contributing risk factor for suicide. This is, of course, an important risk factor for women as well. However, the difference is that women are naturally more inclined to be social and to reach out, make connections with their friends and build new supportive relationships than men are. Women will often maintain their friendships and social support quite well during and after a relationship or marriage breakup. Men, on the other hand, can tend to not be particularly good at maintaining those connections.
Having said all of that, social connection and support is critical for EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US, no matter if you we are eight or eighty. We all need to have a few good people around us.
There are multiple reasons why we need this human interaction, connection and companionship.
One of the reasons we need the support of others is that we cannot really exist in a vacuum – or at least we cannot really thrive in a vacuum. As the old saying goes “no man [woman or child] is an island”.
From our earliest and formative days on earth, research in psychology shows that babies who do not receive love in the form of care and affection will be stunted in their emotional and sometimes even their mental and physical growth. This care and affection needs to come from SOMEONE, it doesn’t really matter who it comes from. It is not just an initial human need that we have for this nurturing during those formative years, but it is an ongoing human need we all have as was highlighted by Abraham Maslow in his famous hierarchy of needs pyramid. Our need for love, care and compassion never goes away.
Another reason that we need human connection and interaction is because without the ability to express our thoughts openly to others, it becomes extremely difficult to reflect on our own life situation and process what is happening for us. We all need people who can listen to what we are saying to them and reflect back to us with objectivity and equanimity.
The most highly skilled and experienced counsellor, psychologist, minister or supporter of others in any field cannot process their own lives in a manner that will lead to great insight and movement forward without the empathic and caring response from another human being. Some of these other human beings may be connected to us emotionally in the sense that they are part of our lives – these are our closest friends and family, however there is always a caveat when it comes to relying on support from those who are closest to us which is:
Although, having close friends and family can be a literal life saver at times for us, it can be critically important to our mental health and psychological growth and development that we engage with and connect with someone who cares but who is not connected to the drama of our lives.Being able to reflect with someone who can provide an empathic response to our pain and struggle is one of the most important ways that we can heal our lives. It is sometimes very useful that the person who does this is not someone who is just going to tell us what they think we want to hear; or even worse, tell us something based on their own needs (both conscious and subconscious) because they are very much a part of our own life drama.
There are, of course, many other steps we can take to heal ourselves both mentally, physically and even spiritually, particularly when it comes to anxiety and depression. However, as most psychologists will tell you, we all need our own counsellors to help us through those difficult and often extremely trying times in our lives. Why? Because psychologists and counsellors, helpers and healers are not immune to the principle I have just written about which is that in a vacuum, we human beings can really struggle to accurately process the events of our lives and to make objective sense, meaning and effective and long lasting changes. All good psychologists practice what they preach. Why would anyone ever see a psychologist who didn’t engage with counselling if they needed help themselves?
As Dr. Carl Jung said:
“Only the wounded doctor can heal”
It is unfortunate then that we so often find those people who, for one reason or another, find themselves in a position where they have become estranged from human connection and who struggle to navigate this life effectively for this very reason.
It seems that some have the capacity to fool themselves into a false sense of security that they do in fact have people around them who they can rely on. This may be by virtue of family who they believe will be there for them, or acquaintances who they think are really their friends. However, it often comes as a very rude awakening when the chips are down and their world has been shaken to its very core and they are trying to dust themselves off and they look around them for support and connection but end up finding….nothing.
And perhaps the first thought that may go through their mind is: “Where did everybody go?” Where are all those “friends” and family who I thought I could rely on to be there for me when the time came?
Without wanting to sound cynical at all, people can be very fickle. Some people don’t want to know anything about our struggles. Others don’t like it when they are confronted with actually needing to “be there” for someone else. They may not know how to be there without realising that sometimes all it really takes is a genuine desire to want to be there and then taking some action that shows that they care. This could range from the simplest act of making a call or sending a text to say, “how are you doing?” through to taking their loved one out for a coffee or hot chocolate or whatever and showing them that the world is still there, waiting for them to feel better and reengage with it, when they are ready.
It becomes very clear, sometimes a little late but never too late, for those who are struggling that they need people around them. It certainly does not require a volume of people. Nobody really needs more than a select handful of good people who they are connected with who they can talk to when they are feeling down or struggling in life. We all need a few good souls who we can laugh with, break the silence with or be in silence with, and who we may ultimately end up being there for when they need us, which is inevitable in this life. What goes around comes around.
So now, what of those who don’t already have these few good people around them? What of those who have travelled to live in distant countries and left their friends and family back “home”? What of those who have lost most of their friends and family over the years for a variety of reasons? What of those who have been through separation and divorce and who have lost their “couple friends” and the very social fabric they had become so accustomed to?
To all those I say, “If you do not have a few good people around you then go out and find them”.
It is not nearly as hard as you may think it is, or imagine it to be.
As Shakespeare famously wrote:
“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt”.
We must attempt at least to reach out and connect with other human beings. There are a myriad of ways in which we could do this whether it is through engaging in a sport or a hobby, joining a walking group, heading over to a local community centre, connecting with the people we work with in a more meaningful way, putting ourselves “out there” and dating once more and this list is not exhaustive in any way. We may also need to reach out and engage with those out there who have found their lifetime calling in helping others – just like us.
The care and compassion that is most needed when we are truly down may not come from any place that we may have expected it to come from. It may come from a teacher, a coach, a stranger on a train, an old lady who happens to get her coffee from the same place you do every morning on your way to work, or from someone who may be ready and willing to become your friend if you would only just open to receive the friendship they have to offer and then be willing to give the kind of friendship they may so much need in turn from you.
I will close with the last line of one of my favourite Aerosmith songs which says very poetically and poignantly:
“So from all of us here at Aerosmith, to all of you out there wherever you are, remember, the light at the end of the tunnel…may be you. Goodnight”.