164) From Shitty-ness to Well-ness, Part 17: “Feeling Seen”

As with our discussions of both Competence and CONTEXT, the fact that social validation is important to us, is pretty obvious.  Of course it feels good to be validated, to be accepted, to feel “Seen”! We’ve known that since we were kids and needed, very deeply, for people to pay attention to us.

We all know by now that human are social animals. We know that major patterns in our evolutionary survival strategies have been to bond together in tribes and families and various collectives of “we”. Being socially interdependent is built right into our DNA.  It’s our existential evolutionary heritage; it’s the Wisdom of our Ancestors, shaping our very essence over the generations, giving us our strengths and the abilities we rely on for resilience in an often-harsh world. 

In such fundamental ways, we are our Ancestors, and I feel this more and more as I get older.  

So okay — we’re on the same page here.  Social validation and stuff is FUNDAMENTALLY important to us as humans.

“Feeling Seen” is one of our deepest emotional needs.

And the flip side is that “Feeling Seen” in a way that is unsafe, that is outside of what we consent to, that violates our privacy and safety, is one of our very deepest and most horrifying fears.

So, I wonder, I just wonder, if I stretch my imagination, how deep this might go.  Because this is Deep Shit.  The emotions that are bound up with human intimacy, vulnerability, social acceptance and validation, or at the horrible opposite end, social rejection and even violence?  Obviously, these things affect us profoundly. 

We are deeply emotionally sensitive beings.  Even though we armour ourselves against it for much of our lives, everybody cracks, everybody breaks down, everybody has those moments when loss and grief and sorrow, or whatever-it-is, just overwhelms them. And everybody needs love and acceptance. It’s just what we are.

(And hopefully??  I pray to the gods that people have these moments more often, even moments of breakdown, so that they get softer, and feel MORE grief.  Because we really, really need that in the world right now.)

We also have abundant evidence now that emotions are tied into our physical and mental health in a gazillion different ways. Therefore,

“Feeling Seen” <—> Physical & Mental Health <—> all sorts of good (or bad!!) outcomes

Goal Pursuit and Behaviour Change, back to that ol’ topic for a moment….

You would expect that the social animals that we are, would probably do better at stuff like achieving goals and gaining skills, if we did these things as a “we”, and not as isolated individuals. 

Of course we already know that! Support groups, exercise buddies, yoga classes, jogging groups, fishing buddies, beer drinking crew, activist groups, musician friends, stoner friends.  Whatever you want to be doing with your time, having other people doing that thing with you, or in some way validating you is a huge part of making it a Thing You Keep Doing! Even solo nature photographers would be kinda sad if nobody ever looked at their pictures (not to mention they wouldn’t make any money). 

The opposite of sharing with people, is isolating yourself.  You can isolate yourself from doing things with people or communicating with people much, if you become a hermit-recluse person. I did that for a while here and there in life. It’s not the greatest long-term plan, as it turns out. Who knew?

But even when we do hang out with people, involve ourselves in the social world, and all that jazz, it is still very very common that people don’t really show their “real selves”. They show their positive, jovial selves, their funny selves, their “strong” selves. This inevitably requires some version of “keeping it all inside”.  (NOTE how easily this slides into the “personal responsibility” mantra we eviscerated previously.)

We commonly “fake it”, to some degree at least, presenting a front to people of the best things in our lives, the happy times, the Instagram brunches and fun vacations and births of children and weddings and graduations, but kind of sweeping under the carpet the really deep struggles, the breakdowns, the addictions. Not entirely, of course. People are reaching out more now, I believe, than in the past; the stigma has been lifted at least in part, and this is really great. Because we need to shift society towards a more peaceful, sustainable, ethical, life-honouring way of living on this planet. And to do that, we do need to be authentic with each other, and show our hearts.


Here’s a crazy thing though — as powerful as it is to understand that our socially interdependent nature means that we function better, in general, as a “we”, than as disconnected individuals, and as easy as this is to implement (getting exercise buddies, and support groups, and talking about our feelings with friends more, etc.etc.), this is still barely scratching the surface.  

We have to think really carefully here about just what it means that “social interdependence” is “built into our nature”. If you extrapolate from the evolutionary fact that so much of our survival has depended on group-level factors, then qualities such as empathy and compassion, emotions like sadness and joy and cultural patterns like language and humour, are all, in a sense, programmed right into our biology. Or at least, their capacities are. (E.g., you don’t have any particular language hard-wired into your biology. But the capacity to learn languages through immersion in a social environment, IS.)

The emotional experiences of feeling Seen, and accepted for who we are, are practically as important for our sanity as oxygen and water.

It follows directly that sharing with each other, especially those things that we keep to ourselves out of shame, is the path forward to better lives, to feeling more fulfilled and happy, and ultimately, to a better world.

* * * * *

But herein lies the problem —

Because we are uncomfortable with our own tender, emotional vulnerability, and even more uncomfortable sharing that vulnerability with others, we have built a whole explanatory framework around why it is “not good” to share your vulnerability with others “too openly”, and that people who do share are….to be distanced from.  “Healthy Boundaries”.  Right?

This all makes quite a lot of sense too!  This explanatory framework has a solid logic to it.  There IS a limit to how much you can “be there” for other people, without getting sucked dry yourself.  Obviously.  And there ARE people who regularly overstep boundaries, are insensitive to others’ needs, and simply aren’t respectful of other people’s preferences.  This is simply true, and it’s unfortunate, but hey, such is life sometimes.

Which is why you need boundaries!  

Now, figuring out exactly when to “be there” for others, versus having boundaries and basically “being there” for yourself, is one of those balancing acts we repeatedly and continually have to navigate in our lives.  There’s no easy answer to “what is the right balance,” because, again obviously, it depends on CONTEXT.  Sometimes, people need more support; sometimes you need more space or support yourself.  It just depends.  

Figuring out that balance, surfing that dilemma sensitively, mindfully, lovingly, is….well, that’s pretty much what Wisdom is.

* * * * *


But this is huge.  This next piece is possibly the biggest, and certainly most “personal” insight that I have ever shared. To be honest with you, I’m super-nervous about it. And I guess I’ll tell you why up front, so that I kind of get this out of the way. I am going to describe in some detail a quality about myself that I deeply think is Good. And….as we’ll discuss, that brings up a lot of difficult feelings. You know how it is….

So….yeah. The full exploration of our socially interdependent nature, how that can be lived in a “Be the change you want to see in the world” kind of way, and the consequences of that for one’s life and the lives of people around you??

The power of this is actually hard to believe. Which is also why I feel nervous talking about it.

So, I will do my best. And I hope it is received in the spirit in which it is intended.


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