In my posts, I regularly focus on the importance of good relationships with others as a core ingredient of feeling good. Why? Because many studies from a variety of fields have all shown that people who are connected to other people in positive relationships have significantly lower rates of depression than those people who are not.
People in happy marriages, for example, have a much lower risk of developing depression than people who are unhappily single. People who have a network of positive and supportive friends have much less chance of becoming depressed than those who have no such network.
Good relationships can provide us with the basic needs we all have for love, intimacy and support. When you’re depressed, though, it sometimes seems too huge a task to engage with other people. When you’re hurting, you want to be left alone, and for those who try to support you, they often end up getting less than your best. So, why bother to try?
Most people sense intuitively how important it is to have positive and healthy connections to other people. Yet good relationships don’t “just happen.” People who don’t fit in well with others for any number of reasons, often become accustomed to being socially isolated from others. They may erroneously believe that others will never accept them, will always reject them, will never find them even marginally worthwhile, and will always consider them essentially useless.
Or, they believe that about others – no one can understand my pain, no one is worth confiding in, no one can help. Such damaging beliefs make developing good relationships impossible, and so the social skills necessary to make positive contact with others and build satisfying relationships never have occasion to develop.
The general health and mood benefits of good relationships now duly noted, let’s get a little more personal. Why should you bother to try to build relationships with anyone? Why should you expend any effort in the direction of getting connected to other people, especially if other people have been a source of hurt and pain in your life?
If you’re depressed, socially isolated, feeling emotionally scarred by what’s happened in your relationships, afraid to trust anyone again, yet also long for friendships or a caring, loving relationship with someone, you are in a dilemma. It’s what psychologists call an “approach-avoidance” conflict. It’s when you want something (“approach”) yet are afraid of it (“avoidance”), and the usual consequence is behavioral paralysis, or “freezing,” i.e., doing nothing at all.
How you resolve this dilemma (or don’t), will determine what happens next. If you could filter the fear out of the dilemma, the “avoidance” part of the “approach-avoidance” conflict, what would be different for you? Would you be less afraid of or even less hostile towards others? Wouldn’t it make a huge difference to focus on what you want, the “approach” part of the equation?
In the realm of relationships, when people put their fear of hurt or rejection ahead of their desire to be connected, withdrawing for self-protection seems to make sense. But, it’s a formula for keeping things the same, not for changing or improving things. It’s how time passes, but not depression. It’s a mindset that keeps you afraid, believing something bad will happen to you that you won’t be able to handle. Caving in to the imagined future hurts instead of learning how to prevent or manage them keeps depression the only constant companion in your life.
No one wants to take the time to develop skills without good reason. Well, you have good reason: When people get out of themselves, connect to others in a way that directly says there’s something about “us” that’s more important than just “me,” they feel better, get better, and truly are better. When you care and are cared about, you’ll feel better. That, in a nutshell, is the answer to the question, “why bother?”
Photo by Linh Ngan, available under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial license.
Last reviewed: 8 Dec 2010