It is well documented that social isolation is bad for our mental health and, for many, this has been the high price of lockdown. Covid loves a party and those who love partying have been stuck at home for much of the pandemic as a result.
Social distancing has forced us all to take a step back from our friendships. With restrictions being lifted, social anxiety has returned to being a significant mental health issue which affects even the most confident to some degree. For some, it’s a passing discomfort during an awkward conversation. For others, it’s a debilitating condition which can be so overwhelming that any social interaction is terrifying.
Self consciousness is deeply embedded psychologically and starts when we first begin to notice the way others react to us. Acceptance and approval are genetically hardwired necessities. Anyone cast out from their community in primeval conditions would be killed by predators or starve.
As well as learning the three Rs, primary school children experience rapid development of behavioral skills which determine their position in the social hierarchy throughout their lives. Friendships formed at this stage are often transitory because of other developmental changes. Most children will have their feelings hurt by friends by the time they reach adolescence. This is an essential part of learning resilience and adaptability. The social landscape is rarely stable, influenced as it is by the multiple personalities in any friendship group.
Most children will also have encountered bullying behaviour. This can be a nasty shock for those raised with the Christian values of ‘do as you would be done by’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. The idea that other people will be nice if you are kind and caring can be shattered by the casual cruelty of a bully who will only go for the softest targets.
And bullying is learned behaviour. Someone with bigger, older siblings who pick on them will have been on the training course and will take out their classmates. Whilst smacking is no longer considered good parenting, children can still be bullied by overbearing parents who rule by fear. So bullies are victims too.
During adolescence, the need to belong and fit in is powerful. Peer approval and acceptance is far more influential at this stage than the guidance of parents, teachers or other authority figures. This is why it is so difficult for schools and parents to intervene in an effective way when a child is being bullied or has social anxiety because of exclusion or conflict with their peers. It’s also the reason why bullying doesn’t stop when we leave school. Look around any workplace and you’ll find examples of bullies getting their own way.
Friends for life
By adulthood, the harsh lessons of those early years are embedded in our beliefs about ourselves and continue to influence our reaction to the behaviour of others. This means that none of us have intact self esteem and friendships can be a minefield of insecurities. They are also essential to our wellbeing and mental health. A good bunch of mates is about the best therapy anyone could wish for.
Restricted human contact has created more dependency on social media which doesn’t nurture the same connection as hanging out with friends and fuels ‘FOMO’ or fear of missing out. For many, it has also been an opportunity to reflect on which friendships are important and to focus on those. It’s wise to periodically audit friendships to weed out those which are toxic and be cautious around ‘frenemies’ who may not have your best interests at heart.