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What is social wellness anyway?


Social wellness has been on my mind.  It’s a challenging subject for me.  I won’t lie. I find that a little surprising to write.  I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it quite this way.

 

If you’ve known me for any period of time, you may find that a little surprising.  But, I am very much an introvert.  What I realized during the pandemic, however, is that I really do need people.  Well – I think I always knew I needed people.  What I did not realize is that I need interaction beyond my friends and clients.  That was a surprise. 

 

You see, I adore my friends.  I may isolate a bit when I get down, but for the most part, my friends are home for me.  My friends are people that I could not see for twenty years, but our friendship will be the same when we're back together.  I’m lucky that way. 


So, when I talk about feeling awkward socially, it’s not with friends.  Most of my friends know I’m a big giant goofball, and they still love me, for some reason.  Now, if you had told my friends from high school that I was an introvert (especially back then), they wouldn’t have believed you.  I was always happy to chat with people, even strangers.  In college I learned that I was good at socializing only when my friends were around (or if alcohol was involved).  Otherwise, I felt beyond awkward.  After becoming a therapist, I realized that I have social anxiety, albeit a relatively low-level of it.

 

The interesting thing is that I think most of us have been impacted by how we grew up.  I have a client who experienced rather severe bullying and abuse when he was growing up.  Now, when others are laughing near him, he automatically thinks they are speaking about him and making fun of him.  A friend of mine mentioned feeling that he often doesn’t quite fit in; however, my boyfriend has met him and said that he seems very social and socially adept.  I think for my friend, it is due to something that happened when we were young which keeps getting replayed (in his subconsciousness) when he meets new people.    And how true is that for most of us?  That our fears stem back to things that happened when we were quite young?  That we have some fear that others will reject us based on something which is largely beyond our control?


But people are funny, right?  I have realized, as I’ve gotten older, that people care about my gaffes far less than I imagine they do.  Have you ever apologized for something that you’ve done and the person you apologize to isn’t even aware of the event you’re apologizing for?  Yeah.  I have.  What has continuously blown my mind, however, is that I’ve had people reach out to me and tell me they appreciated something about me when I wasn’t even sure they knew who I was.  How weird is that?  But, once again, we think our flaws are on the forefront of everyone’s minds, but that no one notices any of our other traits or behaviors. 

 

So, let me get to this idea of social wellness.  I realized over the pandemic, that I need to socialize beyond my friends.  I need this because I need to be exposed to people who think differently.  Don’t get me wrong, my friends don’t agree with everything that I think.  We have differences of opinions.  But, most of my friends do think similarly to how I think.  They have been raised in similar ways.  We have more in common than not. However, I’ve realized that I need to stretch myself.  I need to learn about other ways of living and believing.  Through travel, for instance, I’ve been exposed to people who grew up vastly differently.  But, it has helped me understand and appreciate other ways of living (and has helped me pick and choose from my history what I want to hold onto and what I don’t). 


The pandemic has been an interesting time frame though.  I was telling my friend the other day that during the pandemic, my boyfriend was away for an extended period, and I realized I hadn’t left my home for three weeks.  My friend was shocked (and I think a bit horrified).  I didn’t think it was so strange.  I spent my days on back-to-back zoom meetings – often for more than eight hours a day.  By the end of the workday, I was utterly drained from people, even though I hadn’t been outside (and perfectly capable of working out without going outside).  I started to understand that social interaction with strangers was important.  In some ways, I needed that interaction to remind myself of my humanness.  I needed to communicate outside of a computer or telephone.  I needed to interact in person. 

 

But, the pandemic has altered our social fabric.  Interactions seem different now; although I’m not entirely sure this is true, or whether it is just true for me.  However, I hear of fewer parties and get-togethers; less people casually socializing.  When I’m out driving, sometimes it seems people have forgotten how to interact.  Maybe it’s not just the pandemic, but the heightened social conflict that has happened over the last eight years in the US (I can’t speak for other countries).  I think that has added to the distrust of others.  We don’t interact in the same way. 

We need others though.  We are literally pack animals.  We need socialization.  We need intimacy.  We need physicality.  I understand that the degree to which each person needs these things is person-dependent.  But, the fact that we need them has been scientifically proven.  (Don’t believe me – here: https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-the-benefits-of-being-socially-connected/,https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/intimacy/the-intimacy-definition-and-why-it-is-important-for-your-marriage-and-health/# , https://www.webmd.com/balance/touch-starvation ). By the way – that article talks about intimacy in our sexual partner, but we need intimacy whether or not we are in a sexual relationship.

 

So- for me, interacting with friends is easy.  That’s the good stuff.  Interacting with strangers is terrifying.  When I get together with a stranger, it is like my brain stops functioning.  I cannot think of anything interesting to ask or to talk about.  I get stuck on weather, and then my brain freezes.  A friend of mine laughed at me.  “You’re a therapist!” she said.  Ah – but, there is a logical fallacy in this assumption.  She thinks because I can have intimate conversations with clients about their history, I know what to ask a stranger when I meet them.  WRONG!  She doesn’t understand that I picked professions where every social interaction is organized and structured!  I have perceived control.  Even in diving!  When I teach – I talk about dives.  When I dive – I don’t have to talk at all!  It’s perfect.  After dives, I can talk about what I saw diving.  I don’t have to think of many non-diving questions.  When I do – it’s all about weather! I've tried to get better at this. I've researched. I took an improv class. Sigh. The fear is real!


Soon after my boyfriend and I got together, he suggested we do a speed-dating activity.  He had previously done it and thought it was a fun way to meet a lot of people.  Honestly, I could think of nothing more gut-wrenching than having to meet 60 people, each for one to two minutes at a time.  Just the idea of that makes me queasy now. 

 

And, why is it so terrifying?  Well – because ultimately we all have some fear (I think – again, this could just be us socially-anxious people) that others will reject us.  This is why people spend so much time and money concerning themselves with their appearance (and this is worse with the advent of social media/zoom).  I amused myself the other day by looking up, “how to look better taking a selfie.”  Thousands of pages of advice popped up, for everyone from kids to older adults.  But, it isn’t just physicality.  I know many people worry about saying something awkward, or feeling stupid or uninformed.


Years ago at a training, Albert Ellis’s wife, Dr. Joffe Ellis, told a story about him that served as the basis for his development of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy.  Apparently, when he was a young adult, he had significant fear of talking to women.  He made a decision that he would ask out 100 women over the course of a summer.  He did.  Although not many dates came from his efforts, he decided that getting rejected was ultimately unimportant.  He concluded that rejection was neither “good” or “bad” –  those were merely labels that the individual created.  Rejection did not hold a meaning anymore.  He had enjoyable conversations with some of these women even if they did not result in dates.  In the process, he overcame his own social anxiety.  Moral: put yourself out there. The "bad" is simply a self-induced label. Even uncomfortable interactions have some positive outcomes.

 

In my moments of social anxiety, I go back to asking myself the question, “what did I learn from the fish?” Honestly, the fish have taught me, it does not matter one bit what you look like (or even act like).  Some people will like you; some might hate you; some might fear you; some might not care one way or the other (and some might want to eat you... wait, no.  Just kidding).  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  We’re all in it together.  If someone rejects us, that has no long-term meaning.  We’re all in it together.  We need each other.  If we reach out and talk to people and interact, we grow.  It’s good for our mental health.  It’s good for our brains.  It’s good for us.  It might be terrifying, but we need to stretch, grow and develop.


How are you stretching today?



"We need joy as we need air. We need love as we need water. We need each other as we need the earth we share."

~Maya Angelou~


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