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We might say we spend time on social media, the web and watching the news to connect with the wider world, to have fun and to express ourselves. Consciously, we’ll therefore think we’re most often using them to enhance our relationships with self and others and life generally. If this is the intention though, I think it’s important we know that it’s the opposite of what our brain is likely to be doing.
If we combine our default human predispositions with everything we see, hear and read, we’re in fact naturally more inclined to get frightened and angry and therefore disconnect from self and others.
The main reason for this is that we’re programmed to survive rather than to be happy; programmed to disconnect to protect ourselves rather than to be in the state of connection with self and the wider world that constitutes happiness. Our survival preoccupation is the primary need we’re going to meet, forcing our attention out to identifying any frightening, and therefore annoying, events around us.
These are all then fast-tracked to our below the radar memory, with no similar inbuilt mechanism for good or neutral experiences. This can generate distressing core beliefs like the world’s getting more unsafe, or we can’t actually trust anyone.
Our brains are then programmed only to notice information that backs up the underlying worrying beliefs. And to top it off, evolution has layered imagination over all this, giving us an unmatched capacity to imagine problems even when they’re not there.
Remember also that we can’t be both connected and disconnected at the same time. Connection and disconnection, love and hate, creation and destruction can follow each other in quick succession – but they’re mutually exclusive in any one moment. Moreover, fear and anger also usually send our attention out to the environment rather than dropping it down into our internal experience. We can’t therefore be paying attention both to an external problem and to our internal state simultaneously. In this way, holding on to fear or anger inevitably means letting go of self-reflection and, therefore, self-care.
Now imagine the result of the above processes being confronted by all the problems we see on social media, TV and the web. Whereas hundreds of years ago they were only applied to what we could immediately touch, see and hear, we now have access at our fingertips to every difficulty, past, present and future, real and imagined, affecting every one of the billions of people around the world. Not to mention all the animals, plants and every other part of our planet.
Whether it’s the rise of populism, extremism, global warming, Brexit, toxic masculinity, racism, rising crime, immigration, sexism, lack of diversity and inclusion, rain forests burning, single use plastic, being ‘woke’, veganism, animal welfare, cultural appropriation, white saviourism, political correctness, virtue signalling etc. the list goes on of what we can get triggered by. And all this on top of any other problems at work, or with friends, family and our own physical and psychological well-being. No wonder many people feel overwhelmed and often disconnected.
The key point is that, without conscious management, we’ll automatically prioritise and preoccupy about whatever the survival part of our brain pushes forward to insist we must care about. If we don’t test it, this will be without any assessment of whether we can do anything about it, whether it’s in our best interests to react or whether it’s actually any of our business.
If we’re always subject to this part, reacting to every internal alarm it sets off, most often problem focused and outward looking, all of that energy and attention won’t be directed towards ourselves. This might be at the expense of building our sense of who we are, our meaning and purpose in life, what we need and want out of it, what we enjoy doing, our boundaries, attachment and communication styles in relationship, among others. And, to be clear, it’s being aware of, and content with, the latter that mostly creates and sustains our happiness.
By saying this, I’m not in any way trying to tell anyone who or what they should, or shouldn’t, worry or get angry about. I’m suggesting that if we want to take care of our own well-being and that of our dependants, this being our primary responsibility, then whenever fear and anger leap forward, we ought to try to notice it’s happening.
We then need to drop inside and really consider whether it’s self-care to follow a path of getting triggered and reacting. If we don’t do this, I believe we’ll be unnecessarily adversely affecting our quality of life by paying too much attention to things we have little or no control over and/or that are really other people’s business and not therefore taking sufficient care of our own.
John-Paul Davies is a counsellor, therapist, and coach. He is the author of Finding a Balanced Connection.