Finding connection to and acceptance by a community that values our unique worth and true self is an antidote to much that ails us as human beings.
L oneliness has been proven to impact our overall health and life span at a higher rate than toxic substances such as cigarettes and alcohol. Why is this? Because one of the greatest human needs is connection. Amongst the world of drug and alcohol recovery, there is a saying: “Connection is the antidote to addiction.” Some of the main reasons people suffer from substance use issues are loneliness and isolation, a feeling of nonbelonging and worthlessness. On the flip side, one reason 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous work for many people is that they provide a community to relate to, receive support from, and eventually contribute to, which gives individuals a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging. Meaning, purpose, and belonging are key contributors to a person’s motivation to show up for their life, find a sense of self-worth, joy, and overall well-being — physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
Human beings are social creatures by nature. It is in their relationship to others that they thrive, learn about themselves and life, and quite often find a reason to live. When people live in a vacuum, they begin to feel hopeless, and the struggle to get through another day looks more difficult and not worthwhile. Most people are wounded children inside as they have experienced generations of abuse and trauma. Finding worth within oneself is often not enough of a motivator for the pursuit of happiness and a full lived life. Healing through therapy, as well as feeling loved and accepted by a community, gives us a fuel for living that is impossible to find on our own. For most of human history, people have survived in tribes, villages, communities, large families, clans, etc. Relying on one another has not only ensured our physical survival, but it has also given us a sense of belonging, as every individual in a group plays a role that contributes to the survival and evolution of its people. Through these communities, people have felt a sense of taking root in their human experience. The land, the culture, the traditions, the spiritual practices helped them to understand their human experience and ensure their overall sustenance and that of their community. Being human is like being given a job without a job description. None of us know what we are doing here, what the purpose of this temporary body we inhabit is, and how to navigate through this lifetime in a way that ensures a life well lived. We have always depended on our family and community to understand how to “be human.” Imagine your consciousness being born now into the body you are in at this moment — look at your arms, your hands, your legs, and notice how your experience of life is from within this vessel. You know this vessel will temporarily carry you through life. As you grow up, you learn the many ways you can use it to experience your life in connection to all other life that surrounds you.
ONE OF THE GREATEST HUMAN NEEDS IS CONNECTION. AMONGST THE WORLD OF DRUG AND ALCOHOL RECOVERY, THERE IS A SAYING: “CONNECTION IS THE ANTIDOTE TO ADDICTION.”
The “why” of existence
As human beings, we are always attempting to answer the “why” of existence. Quite often, that “why” is answered through each community’s set of long-standing traditions, beliefs, rituals, artistic expressions, gender roles, etc. Basically, we understand ourselves and life through the guidance and reflection of the other humans around us. Each member plays a role that serves the community and facilitates life, and this collaboration provides enough meaning and purpose to live out our lives regardless of the pain and challenges it may present. In a more individualistic time in human history, where most of what was once sacred has been lost, where rituals, rights of passages, stories, songs, and traditions have been discarded, we too have found ourselves lost in the world. We are bombarded by millions of messages that contradict each other, with advertisements, television shows, political agendas, uneducated opinions, social media, etc. All attempt to mimic the guidance that community once did but to no avail; instead, it segregates us and confuses us. Individualism also demands of us independence that is impossible to sustain as we are left filling all the roles that once an entire community shared. Trying to be everything for ourselves is an impossible endeavour. The inability to do so contributes to anxiety, depression, addiction, and despair. We live for ourselves. This sense of independence and self-expression is a necessary part of our evolution but is making us sick without a community to hold space for our humanity. Collectivism has its shadow side as does anything in this life. Women have been oppressed, raped, and discriminated against for millennia in the name of a community’s beliefs or survival. Pressure to behave according to tradition has left so many people unexpressed and hidden as to not upset the community by being different or “the black sheep.” Superstitions and religious rigidity have caused more harm than good to the human spirit and the human experience in most old-world traditional collective societies. Veering outside the norms and expectations of the family and culture leaves many isolated and rejected. That fear keeps many people in line and in obedience of that which goes against their true selves. Individualism, on the other hand, allows more openly for the authentic expression of the individual. Whether it may be what they choose to do with their life, or their sexual orientation, or who they choose to marry or not marry, etc., there is a greater sense of freedom of choice. In a more Western, individualistic society, the guidelines of behaviour and expectation are much more flexible and less judgmental. I grew up in La Paz, Bolivia, and I remember wanting so badly to move to a city where I could be myself fully, where no one would bat an eye because just like me, everyone else was free to be. What I didn’t realize, however, was the suffocating loneliness that accompanies that degree of freedom. Addiction (to everything: drugs, alcohol, food, porn, social media, sex, relationships, work, etc.), depression, anxiety, suicide, and loneliness are rampant in individualist societies. This is because the more we remove ourselves from the uniformity that traditional communities demand, the harder it becomes to find belonging as well as meaning and purpose as a human being born into a world in which the “why” of our existence has not yet been understood. Existence is too big of an experience to fully understand, but without each other, it is nearly impossible to navigate.
Creating space to heal
I have found that regardless of a client’s presenting issue, the root of the problem often is a desire to express and live authentically while being accepted and finding love and belonging amongst family and friends. For so long, collectivist communities have taught us that being ourselves was unacceptable and a source of shame. Now as we begin to break out of our chains and take the risk to embrace the full expression of our personality and spirit, we continue to carry the fear of judgment and non-belonging because deep down, we know it is crucial to our well-being. I have created healing circles of men and women who come together either for a number of weeks or once a month, where they can hold space for each other to safely and without judgment express their truth, their struggle, their vulnerability and increase their sense of acceptance and belonging. They show up just as they are at that moment. Healing circles are an Indigenous tradition that, as a healer, I have been blessed to learn how to run through an elder and mentor. It has changed the lives of many women who have been searching for their freedom of expression while simultaneously searching for a place to share themselves freely. Nothing is more healing than being witnessed, held, and accepted unconditionally by a community. Many of my clients struggle with finding their independence while living with the traditional customs of their culture. This is a tightrope to walk for both me as a therapist and them as the client as these worlds often collide. The suggestion I quite often give them is one that attempts to respect both the individual and the community simultaneously. It is important they continue to express themselves freely in the spaces and places that feel safe and, in doing so, begin to heal generations of fear and trauma, hopefully arriving at a place in which they can continue to meet the needs of the community (such as, success, marriage, etc.) but in a way that feels more in alignment with themselves. For my more Western clients who either feel lonely or are surrounded by people they feel aren’t quite like them, I tell them that we must take off the mask we tend to hide behind if we are to find our real tribe. If what we present to the world is the mask of conformity, then those who identify with the mask will surround us. However, as we learn to grow the courage it takes to show up in the world as we truly are, then those who recognize themselves in us will find us. We will then belong in a community in which we feel at home, can be our authentic selves, and feel loved and supported without dimming our light, playing small, or suffocating under the expectations of a society that demands conformity. To belong as we are, to be valued for what we uniquely bring, to feel loved and accepted in the hearts and eyes of another without betraying the truth of who we are — that is true freedom and the highest form of belonging and wellbeing we can hope to find.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM OFTEN IS A DESIRE TO EXPRESS AND LIVE AUTHENTICALLY WHILE BEING ACCEPTED AND FINDING LOVE AND BELONGING AMONGST FAMILY AND FRIENDS.