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The Importance of Connection and Belonging – Loneliness is as Fatal as Hunger

As social beings, humans derive strength not from staunch individualism but from collective abilities rooted in planning, communication, and cooperation. Our neurology, hormones, and genetics favor interdependence over isolated autonomy. "For social animals, including humans, the goal of growing up is not to be autonomous and solitary but to become someone upon whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brains and biology predispose us to contribute to this outcome." Thus, connection is vital for us. This is why the feeling of shame is so "painful and vulnerable," and why a sense of belonging is innate.

The brain's biological mechanism issues warnings when survival is threatened. Hunger signals low blood sugar; thirst warns of the need for hydration; pain alerts us to potential damage; and loneliness informs us of the need for social connection—a necessity as crucial to our well-being as food and water. "Refusing to acknowledge one's loneliness is as meaningless as denying one's hunger."

Loneliness is not just a "sad" state; it also poses risks. In the evolutionary mechanism, if social animals, like humans, face exclusion from their social circle (become outsiders), the brain enters defense mode. When we feel isolated, lose connections, and experience loneliness, we attempt self-protection. In this mode, we seek to establish connections with others, but the brain tries to self-protect instead of connect. This leads to reduced empathy, increased wariness of others, numbness, and a decrease in sleep. In the book "The Power of Vulnerability", it is noted that the brain's self-protective mode often leads to exaggerations, storytelling, or amplification of the deepest fears and insecurities. Uncontrolled loneliness makes us afraid of contact with the outside world, making us increasingly isolated.

To overcome loneliness, one must learn to recognize it and see it as a warning signal. However, we often refuse to admit feeling lonely. As a researcher studying shame, I find myself back in familiar territory. We feel shame about loneliness, as if experiencing loneliness indicates a problem. Even if loneliness stems from sadness, loss, or heartbreak, we still feel ashamed. Cacioppo suggests that much of the shame associated with loneliness comes from how people have defined and discussed shame over the years. Loneliness equals shyness, sadness, being a loner, or antisocial behavior. Also, people often use terms like "marginalized" to describe criminals or bad people.

If, like me, you doubt that loneliness can threaten life as hunger does, let me share research that helped me piece together the full picture. In a comprehensive analysis of loneliness studies, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton found the following: air pollution increases the likelihood of premature death by 5%, obesity by 20%, and alcoholism by 30%. And loneliness? It raises the risk of early death by a staggering 45%...

Even in difficult situations of poverty, violence, and human rights violations, the most dangerous harm is the lack of a sense of belonging within a family, as it can tear apart a person's inner self, soul, and self-worth. When these crumble, there are only three possible outcomes, as I have demonstrated in life and work:

1. Living in constant pain, numbing oneself, and/or inflicting pain on others to seek solace.

2. Refusing to acknowledge pain – this mindset will spread pain to surrounding family, friends,

and children.

3. Summoning the courage to face the pain, cultivating empathy and compassion for oneself and

others, and perceiving pain in a unique way.

Extracted from "Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” by Brené Brown

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