Five Disconnection. Social Ruptures
In the following sections, the significance of interpersonal relationships and the various roles that people occupy within a social context are explored. These affect the way a person feels about himself, how he locates himself within a more global context, and the ways in which he relates to others. People can become depressed when social support is perceived to be either withdrawn or lacking. In addition, the ways in which depression is manifested vary depending on a multitude of sociocultural factors. Therefore, depression is examined in terms of gender differences as well.
RELATIONSHIPS DEFINE US
Subjective darkness can be seen as a manifestation of a high level of sensitivity to social nuance, to the desire for human connectedness that is juxtaposed with intense feelings of being singular and separate in one’s existence. Human beings are social creatures. They thrive off of human contact, and without relationships, people wither away like plants without sunlight or water. As Shabad says,
Perhaps because the very meaning of our lives depends on the manner in which
we surrender to and receive each other, the exposure of our most profound
vulnerabilities is exquisitely sensitive to the touch of rejection and consequent defense. When we search for a resonating, containing response to our desires from an Other, and none is forthcoming, we become painfully conscious of our exposed vulnerability as creatures who are profoundly dependent on others for meaning. (2006, pp. 415-416)
In many ways, depression is the mourning of a lapse in human connectedness, the grieving over a life that must be lived in complete psychic and emotional isolation from others; ultimately, this separation and impossibility of connection can culminate in a sense of alienation from one’s self.
That is to say, people who have a heightened awareness of their separateness and a tendency to monitor failed attempts at connecting with others are also at risk for attributing that sense of isolation and loneliness to something innate about themselves. The constantly observing critical superego can come to feel like a detachment from one’s self: instead of being, feeling, thinking, and interacting with others in the present moment, there is an ongoing loop of overly self-critical dialogue regarding those thoughts, feelings, and interactions that take the person away from herself; in this, it is as if she is watching and negatively judging another person in herself. Shabad (2006) describes this as a form of self-consciousness that is developed to unconsciously protect oneself against rejection and criticism from others, which is psychically shaming and can feel like a struggle for life over death.
The experience of exposing ourselves to a relational void boomerangs on us as a negative introject, like an autoimmune system out of control, and we learn to deflate and demoralize ourselves before the outside world gets another chance to induce shame. The irony is that in our defensive determination to forestall being shamed by the outside world, we become the perpetual instigator of our own shame through our self-conscious putdowns. (pp. 422-423)
Thus, understanding the effects of social interaction, as well as rejection, shame, and social isolation, plays a pivotal role in understanding the development of identity within an interpersonal context, and this in turn lends itself to the work of healing from depressive states.
Social relationships have a significant influence on our subjective experience and sense of self. Burris and Rempel (2004) use single-celled organisms as a metaphor for human identity, growth, and threats to development. For amoebas, “identity” is all that is encompassed within the confines of the cell wall. For human beings, that sense of self is more complex, as it includes elements that extend beyond the physical boundaries that contain the body; it also includes the relationships that comprise the social realm of our existence. These relationships can either nourish or hinder our growth, and the roles that we embody within these interpersonal contexts contribute to the various facets of our identity. Returning to Burris and Rempel (2004), they compare human beings’ social needs with the basic needs of amoebas. Both organisms need to find nourishment and to protect themselves against external threats. Amoebas find nourishment in food, and anything that restricts their growth, or “self-expansion,” is considered a threat. In this context, the amoeba’s
“self’ is considered what is held within the confines of the cell walls. A semipermeable protective membrane serves as a divider between what can be identified as the cell and everything extraneous.
This basic model can be applied to understanding human existence, with the amendment that self-expansion refers not just to what lies within the physical body but also to what extends to the mind, emotions, thoughts, creations, goals, possessions, and relationships. Therefore, these too must be taken into consideration when examining human growth. In addition to food, which is the basic source of self-expansion for amoebas, social relationships function as both potential sources of growth and potential threats to human beings’ self-expansion.
People can form strong bonds with those whom they trust to further their well being, and they can avoid those whom they perceive as threatening. Thus, social relationships facilitate as well as necessitate the development of the sense of self as a distinct entity. (Burris & Rempel, 2004, p. 20)
People need social networks to nourish them. With strong support structures such as family, friends, romantic relationships, group membership, and interpersonal acceptance, an individual can thrive. However, these relationships can be damaging when they restrict personal growth or self-expansion. Their distinct absence can also create a void with detrimental effects. Not only do interpersonal relationships affect our emotional well-being, but they help shape our identities as well. According to Burris and Rempel, “relationships can be conceptualized as symbolic identity markers as well as interpersonal interactions. . . . In this respect, intimate relationships and group memberships may similarly serve to orient and establish an individual” (2004, p. 23). Social aspects of our experiences, such as gender, age, religion, and membership in a variety of associated social communities, contribute to our sense of who we are, and can in turn play a major role in depression. “Without the social space to create meaning for oneself from the culturally available symbols, it is impossible to gain a sense of individuality and of belonging to the community” (Oliver, 2004, p. 35). Like the cell membrane, human beings have a multitude of barriers separating them from the external world, including physical distance, bodily boundaries, psychological defenses, and more. Therefore, it becomes even more important to create and emphasize the distinction between “self” and “not-self” in order to protect a developing sense of identity and well-being from external forces that might infringe on that growth.
In his work Psychic Deadness: Freud, Eigen (1995) discusses Freud’s description of pain as external: “Pain is Other, alien, not-I. . . . If pain comes from inside the body, then the inside of the body becomes Other, Not-I , something that is happening to me, an alien, hostile, or indifferent you” (p. 280). When this violation of self-other boundary occurs, there is an added betrayal in which the internal world has turned on itself and no longer provides refuge, but instead contributes to the persecutory pain felt by the suffering individual. In this way the person’s very identity becomes alien to itself, and even solitude does not provide solace. This sense of betrayal is evident in the self-loathing recriminations of many depressed individuals; it is the self that possesses negative characteristics, who is inferior, empty, and socially awkward. Proof of this for the individual lies in the fact that any retreat within his or her heart, body, and mind does not provide relief because the internal world helps to construct its own torment. Eigen (1995) elaborates on this self-other boundary when he says,
The I versus you runs deep in Freud’s picture of psychic life. The Freudian ego originally reacts with hostility to the external world. Externality creates discomfort. The ego tries to avoid it, to wish it away. From the outset one escapes, even annihilates reality. The you is partly an enemy from the beginning. (p. 279)
However, when the “I” becomes persecutory, it transforms into the threatening external “you,” constantly criticizing and berating the self like an incessant, hostile commentator.