COLUMNS Word & Wisdom

The Tribal Instinct… our need for others

When I was in grad school for my counseling degree, I remember a professor talking about how it is a human need to be “known.” We, as humans, have an innate desire to bond with others, share our stories, and express ourselves. To be known and appreciated for what we think makes us unique. (This also is the basis for many religions, but that’s a different column altogether.) This idea stands out for me because I see evidence of it in so many arenas. Art, literature, dance, music….all personal expressions of who we are. And then there’s FaceBook. FaceBook is a prime example of people putting stuff out there for others to approve (“like”) or  “share” with others.

Clients often come to counseling to seek relief from loneliness. Loneliness within a marriage… loneliness from death of a loved one… loneliness from some form of separation from others. All are a reflection of this need, a desire, to be known and cared for by others – or even by just one other human life form. Not just known but appreciated for our finest qualities but forgiven for our less desirable traits. Why is it so important? Where did this need come from? Since I’m fairly religious, I’m going to throw in the short version which goes like this:  Because that’s the way God made us. The long version is that it is a trait that probably once served our need for survival. My guess is that when people were utilized to their strengths, the survival of the group structure was maximized. Sort of like this – John is really good at shooting arrows, let’s make him leader of the hunting crew.  John feels happy that his innate skill is recognized by those he lives with, cares about and depends upon. Since he can’t do things like maybe make leather shoes, he’s grateful to do his part for group survival and in return he reaps love, acceptance, and maybe…. shoes.

Loneliness. It could be the sense that no one really knows or appreciates the “real” you. It could be a physical distance from others. The bigger and deeper primitive need  – subconscious, of course – is that we  (the human species) once depended upon approval and love within our group for physical survival. To be ostracized or abandoned by the group was tantamount to death by starvation or some other solitary fatality. We need each other, in other words. While these are not the days of rustic survival, the need for shared identity is ingrained as a remnant of survival skills.

I’m going to suggest that, like everything else we get handed in this life, loneliness has a place and purpose. It is a symptom that we are somewhat separated from sources of love (giving and getting). We live in a culture that values independence. People are quite well equipped to live solitary lives. Our primitive minds and bodies, though, have not totally weaned out the survival part that says:   “I am sure to die if I live alone.”

Maybe that’s why FaceBook is so successful It satisfies that part of our tribal-loving human nature. We get to shine our little light on a daily basis, if we so desire. We get mostly positive feedback- 5 likes, 2 comments, for example.  Our friend count is specific. Our feedback is nearly immediate. We connect.

Counselor’s words:  Being part of a tribe or group feels good and right on a certain level, but  being alone, feeling lonely,  is not the life-threatening event it once was.  It is a symptom of needing more appreciative connections with others. If lonely within a marriage, get counseling. Communication is key. If lonely in life, make efforts to connect with others. Share coffee or join a group that interests you. The connections will occur naturally.

By Tobi Nason

Tobi is a Manzanita counselor.