I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the human need for social acceptance and the difficulties that result from feeling rejected or excluded socially. Much of my pondering of this has been related to my own tendency to feel invisible that often comes from my introvert tendencies to spend a lot of time alone. It’s also come from my own struggles to determine how much of my need for social acceptance and approval comes from an innate human need for connection and how much of it stems from personal insecurity that causes me to place too much importance on what other people think of me as a means of trying to feel a sense of worth or value that really should be coming from within.
In other words, what does it look like to have a healthy need for social connection without relying on those connections to fill unhealthy needs for self-esteem? Where is the balance? And what do I need to do to move toward that healthy point?
With those thoughts foremost in my mind, I have been more aware than usual of blog posts and other information coming my way that addresses these topics. One particular article caught my attention this last week and sent me looking for more opinions and data on the topic, and I am sharing some of the highlights from that research here.
Going in, my opinion was largely based on research I have read over the years about the health benefits (both physical and mental) of being closely connected to others. A recent post by Emma M. Seppala, PhD, on Psychology Today‘s Feeling It blog called Connect to Thrive: Social Connection Improves Health, Well-Being & Longevity describes a lot of the research (with lots of good links to other sources) that had informed this mindset of mine. It reports of various studies showing that the amount of social connectedness a person experienced is positively correlated with good health measures, longer lifespan, and greater mental health and enjoyment of life. In fact, this need for social approval is presented as a core need, like food and water, without which people do not thrive.
However, the post that started my exploration this week was one called The Benefits of Social Rejection by Debbie Mandel on the Intent Blog, and she reported on a recent study from researchers at Johns Hopkins and Cornell Universities that found a positive correlation between social rejection and creativity among people who had highly independent temperaments. She gives a quick summary of the research but then focuses her piece on positive ways to deal with a situation of social rejection by reframing it to find the positives in the situation. Her tips are all valuable ones that I can focus on during those times when I am feeling particularly invisible or isolated, and I will be coming back to this post frequently.
I was particularly intrigued, however, by this idea that—at least for some people—social rejection can have such a positive effect on creativity. In fact, much anecdotal evidence exists that indicates that the most creative people in history were often socially isolated or rejected, so this finding should not be as big a surprise to me as it was. As I continued researching the topic, I found a number of other posts all referring back to this research paper, but none of them added a great deal to my understanding, so I located the original article. The article, Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought? by Sharon H. Kim, Lynne C. Vincent, and Jack A. Goncalo, is available through Cornell University’s Digital Commons site and is very interesting reading.
The key point I noted in this research is that the enhancement of creativity in those experiencing social rejection was seen only in those who displayed this highly independent nature prior to the rejection. That, of course, leads to the question of whether this level of independence is an innate trait or one that can be increased. At least one post I found indicates that it is an innate trait that cannot be influenced. Blogger Dale Davidson of the Dale Thoughts blog wrote a post entitled The Advantages of Being an Outsider that is based on his experience of being an outsider in several situations and expressed his belief that his “non-joiner” tendencies that led to his feeling of being an outsider were an innate personality trait. His description of being a “non-joiner” sounds very similar to what the researchers described as an independent personality. While he does not call it social rejection, the experience of being an outsider is very similar to that caused by social rejection. He is also primarily focused on benefits within a job situation, but they can be more broadly extrapolated into other areas.
So where does this leave me? I am still exploring how this plays out in my own personality. I do have a very strong independent streak that doesn’t mind being different from those around me, but I also have this strong need for connection to others. It’s not yet clear to me whether this need for connection is separate from what is described as social acceptance or not. I think that finding a small group of supportive friends would be enough to allow me feel connected (not isolated) without me feeling like I needed to completely fit in and be accepted everywhere. So I do think I lean toward an independent personality-type. (I, too, am terrible at joining groups.) It is unclear to me, though, whether my need for connection is a healthy drive toward having that small group of supportive relationships or whether it’s an unhealthy drive to feel accepted as a means to validating my worth.
However, I am feeling encouraged that my relative isolation during this season in my life could prove to be the spark toward a very creative period, especially if I can adjust my mindset to see it as a blessing instead of a curse. I still have lots to ponder, but this feels like good news for my writing future.
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