Disconnection & Depression in the Wider World

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What does it mean to be “disconnected”?

Maybe you see the title of this article and you get the spiritual meaning, before reading another line. Yes, I feel disconnected: from my kids, my partner, my neighbors. Detachments and interruptions make us lonely and depressed. They steal our natural zest for learning and experiencing. And depression closes us into our smallest and least hopeful spaces.

But depression and disconnection occur on multiple levels throughout our world – in ways you may not have considered:

  1. interpersonal (between us and other people  . . . even our dogs),
  2. intrapersonal (disconnection from our true selves – real feelings and desires and opinions, our bodies’ true cravings for nutrients, movement, and rest),
  3. environmental (between us and the earth or even our home or backyard), and
  4.  spiritual (between us and our higher power).

We create artificial separation from important people in our lives – in order to maintain our sense of safety (“If I pretend his drinking doesn’t bother me, he won’t get angry with me.”). We cut off connections with our inner selves by ignoring our gut instincts, our needs for rest and closeness. We withdraw from Mother Earth and look the other way as she is raped and pillaged by human practices. And we stop the flow of spiritual energy in and around us by working too much, resting too little, ignoring urges to help others, and allowing anxiety to command our waking moments.

All this separation leads to profound depression.

Here’s a short list of signs you may be living a disconnected life.

  • You have trouble thinking of a person who knows your deepest wounds and imperfections and loves you anyway.
  • You avoid finding out where your recyclables go when they leave your bin.
  • You have no idea where your hamburger meat was raised or how.
  • You need a few drinks or a pile of ice cream or a few cigarettes to help you unwind after a long day.
  • You can’t remember the last time you sat quietly outside and listened to the crickets and frogs.
  • You avoid spiritual traditions because they’re fraught with hypocrisy, flawed people, and general weirdness.
  • You have trouble admitting when your feelings are hurt by someone you love.
  • You have trouble putting words to your emotions. If asked, you mostly say, “I’m frustrated.”
  • You have no idea where “palm fruit oil” comes from.
  • You believe your anger is a waste of time.
  • You think it’s up to the government to monitor our use of the environment (e.g., fracking, deforestation, waste disposal).
  • You have trouble taking a deep breath.
  • You feel vaguely guilty or worried about something, but can’t specify what.
  • You back away from civic and political engagement because you have no time to help kids, educate the community, or improve the environment where you live.
  • You feel burned out and bored with your life – trapped in a job or relationship that doesn’t meet your needs for creativity, closeness, and spontaneity.

What to do about it? Just Notice.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve taken a first step toward reconnecting your life – allowing the natural links between you and your environment to show up in your consciousness. We are all connected to every other being in our surround. But we deny this out of deep societal conditioning.

Now, just notice . . .

Notice the mysteries of what goes into your body; this starts a process of inquiry, even if it’s just reading grocery labels.

Notice your relationship with your pets; this opens a new awareness of how your moods affect them and how their natural play helps you relax.

Notice how you pull away from closeness with your partner; this begins a subtle change process that could lead the two of you into deeper conversation.

Notice the similarities between an oak leaf and the palm of your hand; this starts a re-valuing process that can draw you into greater awareness of – and closeness to – all things good and beautiful.

The Beauty Bind, Chapter One

In the mirror at Pilates class, I discreetly scan the line of women in workout attire. I perceive I have the widest hips in the room. I feel a downward tug of tension for the rest of the day. Low back. QL muscle. To shake it off, I seek another comparison in which I emerge the clear winner. The stranger on the sidewalk in size 22 jeans. I’m not proud of this.

I learn I’m not alone in this unflattering habit. A few friends and clients admit they do the same, under cover. We compare ourselves. We notice other women, their clothes, their shoes, their hips, their wrinkles, their handbags. How they carry themselves, how they do their hair, how they look in jeans. And as we do, we can’t help sliding out the invisible rating scale.

If I come out with the lower score, I say, I’ve got to work harder. If I win the comparison, I say, Whew.

In 2003, I started a research project that looked at women’s relationships: mom, daughter, sister, friend, acquaintance, co-worker, stranger. My students and I wanted to learn how cultural beauty pressure shapes the relational space between us. This was hard to explain to people.

So, you’re studying body image? my friends asked. Self esteem?

Not exactly, I’d say.

How the media affects our sense of attractiveness?

Well, sort of. But more like how we relate to each other – with beauty culture in the background.

Oh, they’d say. Like when you hate your sister because she’s skinnier than you?

Exactly.

Hahahahah . . . They laughed, because of course we don’t really hate her. Right?

We took our recorders and notebooks and headed off to Oregon, Texas, New York, Arkansas, and back to Missouri. We talked to women in groups around kitchen tables and in living rooms and sorority houses. We collected their stories and agonized over them for a few years as we tried to make sense of a confusing tangle of threads.

I eat whatever I want. I hardly ever work out.

            Yeah, me too. I don’t give it much thought.

            I care about my health – as in sun protection. But beauty takes too much work.

The circle of social workers laughs. We listen to their recorded banter and scratch our heads. The following week, Ms. Eat-Whatever emails me and admits she’s getting Botox. She is 25.

I used to care more when I was younger, but after 40 you kind of realize there’s more to life than cute outfits and perky boobs.

            I agree totally. Health is my focus now.

            And don’t you guys think those women who get all the surgeries are kind of pathetic?

The retired teachers and librarians affirm each other with deep nods. They make jokes on the shaving of the legs.

I don’t like to see women who try too hard. The Barbie Dolls bug me. They must take hours in the morning.

            I feel sorry for them.

            Me too. Of course, my mother would like me to look like them.

            Oh gosh, mine too. But she’s had to settle for an average daughter.

            Hahahahahah . . .

The urban Texas moms agree their mothers have ordinary-looking daughters. Most of them look amazing to me. So put-together. I feel confused.

Okay, I kind of despise this woman – our realtor. She works it. She’s bodaciously beautiful and she knows it and she flirts with Darren.

            I’m glad you said that. My mother always compared me to a cousin who’s like that. And I despise my cousin to this day.

            To admit you have these feelings is like the most shameful thing. I don’t understand it. But I have them too.

            Just the other day, I saw an old friend who’d had some “work done,” and I pointed it out to my friend and we jointly ridiculed her.

            I had a nose job in high school. It was my sixteenth birthday present. I’ve never told another woman that before.

The New York literary agents dig into the problem. We listen and feel hope and say – Let’s keep going. We listen to more groups. We read their follow-up emails. We go back with more questions. What does this mean? What is happening between us? Are women’s relationships being eroded by the diet industry? By the advent of the mirror? By Miss America and the Prom Queen?

Here’s the upshot of our investigation.

  1. We (women) are ALL involved in beauty culture. Even resisters participate through their unshaven legs and plain faces.
  2. We compare ourselves to each other, whether consciously or not. None of us truly escapes this phenomenon.
  3. We follow a damned-if-you-do choreography. Opting in or out invites judgment. We all feel this – unless we work very hard to tune it out.
  4. We act as if we don’t all know what we’re doing. We feel shame about it.
  5. Our silence feeds an underground competition, which feeds more shame, which feeds more silence.

Every garment choice, every weigh-in, every application of mascara is tinged with relationship. Beauty is social. I’m NOT saying fitness or fashion keep us estranged. But I am saying the silence we keep about beauty culture gives it power, keeps Big Business in the midst of our relationships (think elephant under dining table), and stiff-arms other women who might have otherwise been our friends.

I think conversations about The Beauty Bind are long overdue.

How Relationships Heal Us: Connection, Health, & Energy

My husband calms me. Joe and I entertain ourselves with art and home improvement projects. We brainstorm tile mosaics on long car rides. We consult about family therapy (he too is a psychologist). We talk about good books and he gives me ideas for topics and language. We laugh really hard at things we both understand on a level of deep bodily knowing.

After a few hours with Joe, I burst forth into my writing or collaging – or repaint a room or finish a redecorating project I’d started months before. I calm down, feel more focused and comfortable in my skin, breathe deeper, sleep better, think more clearly, drive more safely, exercise more consistently, and experience improved digestion and elimination. Yes, I said elimination. And it’s true.

It’s all about relationship. There’s a blue paperback I require all my students to read called, “How Connections Heal: Stories from Relational Cultural Therapy,” edited by Maureen Walker and Wendy Rosen. I discovered it quite by accident in a textbook pamphlet I received in the mail. In this blue book, I RE-discovered a treasure box of ideas from graduate school – and learned them again in a whole new way. Here’s the essence of Relational Cultural Theory.

  1. We all crave human connection. This is universally true. We need genuine, emotional connection so much that we’ll do just about anything to get it.
  2. We try so much to “belong” or “fit in” that we compromise our own values, comfort, and boundaries to do so (think of high heels and cosmetic surgery here).
  3. We even hide our true selves from the very relationships we most want to preserve – because we fear that revealing our inner feelings will jeopardize what connections we have (e.g., “I don’t want to start a fight with him.”).
  4. As we contort our true selves to maintain even a shallow version of these needed connections, we’re more likely to become depressed, abuse alcohol, eat too much, or get sick in some other way.
  5. On the other hand . . . when we feel understood by someone and feel we can share our true feelings, we stop twisting ourselves into images of perfection. We relax. We relate. We get energy. We get ideas. We do our best work. And our bodies respond with all sorts of happy neurobiological benefits.

How does this work? Through a number of channels. From one angle, evidence shows we pay less proactive attention to our bodies and health when we feel rejected – while people who feel accepted by others tend to regulate their eating and other self-focused behaviors. From another angle, the vagus nerve plays a huge role in lowering heart rate and blood pressure when we feel connected, loved, and understood. In fact, researchers call it the “smart vagus” because of how well it works to inform the whole brain/body of our relationship safety, or lack thereof.

When Joe and I are at odds with each other, I get stomach aches. I feel distracted. I sleep fitfully. When I feel disconnected from him, I lose track of why I was going to the store. I get stuck in my writing projects and stare gloomily at the computer screen. Unused paintbrushes stand up in a jar and call to me while blank canvases lean against a wall and collect dust.

I think the body perceives safety and deep connection as conditions for creativity and release. When we feel understood, we get free to imagine the possibilities in everyday life. When we feel accepted for who we are (instead of who we pretend to be), we have more energy available for digestion and metabolism, exercise, self-nurturing, and learning.

When our bodies tell us we are known and loved, we are free to know and love our bodies. We are free to learn and grow and create.