Families of Choice

To say 2020 has been a rough year feels like a laughable understatement. While I sheltered in place and worked from home, trying to avoid adding to those infected with a deadly disease, it felt like the world around me did its best to make up for my personal inaction. When people ask me how I would describe 2020, I say, “It’s the year when everything and nothing happened.” Ben Folds describes it best in his song, 2020, which I highly recommend. Here’s an excerpt:

"How many years will we try to cram into one?
Who thought we'd be living 1918 again?
But we messed that up so bad, God had to toss 1930 in!
As the sun rose on 1968 this morning . . .
Please let's not add the Civil War!
How many years will we cram into one?"

As the world seems to be trying to do all the terrible things at once, we’re left trying to cope on our own. Not only have we been physically isolated by quarantine, many of us have been estranged from each other by political differences. So many of my patients have stopped speaking with friends and loved ones over politics that I’ve lost count, and it breaks my heart that ideologies could have such a devastating impact on relationships between people who have loved each other for their entire lives. I hope that we can all start to remember that disagreeing is OK and accept each other as the diverse creatures that we are.

The holidays can be a difficult time for people under the best of circumstances, but 2020 is introducing problems that many of us had never considered before. People are trying to decide if going to see family is a good idea–weighting risk of infection versus the pain of being alone. Loneliness during the holidays can contribute to depression by highlighting just how wrong the alone-ness is in a way that doesn’t happen at other times of the year.

If you’re falling into the category of isolation during the holidays–whether due to relationship or COVID problems, I would encourage you not to compare your life to the ideal. That Hollywood movie perfect Christmas is pretty unrealistic no matter what’s going on in the world, and it’s going to be even more out of reach this year. Radically accepting this fact will help.

Another thing that can help is surrounding yourself with your Family of Choice. Also referred to as Chosen Family. This term gained prominence in the LGBTQ+ community due to family rejections after coming out. Shunned by their biological families, LGBTQ+ people began surrounding themselves with people that they felt safe with in order to be accepted for their true selves, resulting in Families of Choice.

Linda Bloom, in her article “Family of Choice: Borrowing Relatives from Other Families,” describes her approach this way, “My biological family wasn’t always able to provide the kind of modeling that I needed to become a more conscious and loving person, so I decided to supplement them with members of my family of choice, a collection of surrogate relatives.”

I think Families of Choice are useful to adopt regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. An overwhelming number of people feel unsafe with their biological families. Pre-COVID, dealing with family during holiday visits was a frequent topic of therapy conversations. I did a lot of work with people on accepting their loved ones as they are, setting healthy boundaries, and coping with anger.

In addition to these skills, I often suggest that people think about who they do feel safe with, and how they can incorporate those people into their holiday festivities. In doing so, they don’t end up feeling like their holidays were nothing but stress and difficult family members, and they can have periods of feeling the warmth of belonging that we all fundamentally need. During COVID times, I think that gathering your Family of Choice around you may actually be a life saver.

You may be thinking, “but what about quarantine? I can’t have a group of friends together right now,” and you would be right. So, it’s time to get creative. Perhaps you can meet individuals from your Family of Choice outside, and one at a time. Perhaps you can do what my friend suggested to me today, and park in the same parking lot, windows facing each other, and talk on the phone so you can see in-person faces. Masked outside gift exchanges could be a thing. Do whatever you need to do to fill that need for community, but also stay safe. Yes, it’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. Community and belonging is a basic human need.

If you are alone this holiday season, please know that you still matter. The world is a better place because you are in it. If you find yourself feeling depressed and unsafe in your loneliness, please know that there is always help and support available. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours per day any day of the year at 800-273-8255, or you can simply call 911. There are also multiple online support groups available so that you can start creating a Family of Choice that understands what you’re going through. I highly recommend the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) at http://www.dbsalliance.org. They offer peer led support groups nationwide as well as education and tools on coping with depression and bipolar.

Above all, please take care of each other.

The Importance of Belonging Instead of Just Fitting In

Depressed people often tell me that they spend most of their time pretending to be happy. They feel that they must–that it’s expected of them. They say that they are exhausted by keeping up the pretense of cheerfulness, and that it feels like a mask that they wear to fool the people around them into thinking that they’re “normal.”

Every time someone tells me that they wear a mask of cheerful pretense, the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby pops into my head:

“Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

Clearly this sense of wearing a mask to fool the world is not new or isolated. In fact, I would bet that we all have done it from time to time. Some of us are better at it than others. Personally, I’m terrible at it. When I try to pretend, I come off as cold and stiff, and everyone knows that I’m not acting normally.

Susan David, in her TED Talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” says that “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.” She calls this “a tyranny of positivity.” I agree with her. Somehow pretending to be happy is seen as better than living an authentically felt life, and people are shamed for being “negative,” or displaying emotions seen as “bad.” As a result, people walk around wearing happy faces, but feeling dead inside.

You may wonder, what’s bad about pretending to be happy? Isn’t that the point of “fake it ’till you make it?” The answer is that pretending to be happy cuts us off from authentically connecting with other people, and authentic connection is one of the greatest and most basic needs of human beings.

Below is a picture of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which came up regularly in my college psychology courses. Starting from the bottom of the chart, you’ll see the most basic human needs for food, shelter, water, and clothing. Once those are satisfied, the next level is for safety. Directly after basic survival and safety comes love and belonging, including a sense of connection. Connection is not a luxury–something that might be nice to have one day. Connection is number 3 on the hierarchy of human needs. It’s that important.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background

However, there is a big difference between belonging and fitting in. Fitting in happens when people conform in order to be accepted into a group. Fitting in is that lonely feeling of wearing a face that you keep in a jar by the door. It’s the exhaustion that you feel after pretending to be happy all day when you want to cry on the inside. Fitting in does not fill that basic need for connection. Instead, it makes us feel even more lonely than being alone.

Belonging, on the other hand, is the feeling of ease that you have with a trusted friend. Belonging is the knowledge that it’s OK to show your authentic feelings, because the person that you’re with will understand and will continue to support and love you. It’s only in belonging that the basic need for a sense of connection is fulfilled.

In order to have true belonging, it’s necessary to be vulnerable, and while the idea of vulnerability may be so uncomfortable that it immediately makes you want to stop paying any attention to what I’m saying, please stay with me. This is important.

In her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown explains that “in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.” In order to feel that authentic connection that is one of our basic human needs, we have to be able to take off the mask, stop pretending to be happy when we aren’t, and show our true faces. The longer that you’ve been pretending, the more vulnerable this will make you feel.

When I work with clients on their need to belong, they often tell me that the idea of not pretending is preposterous, and that there is no way that they would allow themselves to be so vulnerable. I tell them that the fact that they had such a strong reaction tells me that vulnerability and the ability to be authentic is where the true work is for them. If you’ve had a strong reaction to the idea of being more authentically vulnerable with people, the same goes for you.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go around telling your deepest darkest secrets to everyone you meet. Being vulnerable with people is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. If there is someone that you think you might like to get closer with, reveal something small to them and see if they can handle it, and if they share something small with you in return. If so, try sharing something a little bit more personal, and so on. Creating true connection takes time, and you should only share your most personal stories with people who have earned the right, and have shown you that they are worthy. This is the way to build authentic connection with people who are safe.

Will there be times that you will pick the wrong person and get hurt? Of course there will be. However, building belonging in your life is worth the risk.

Belonging heals. In tribal cultures, when a member of the group is sick, the entire community takes part in the healing. The whole group comes out and dances around the fire, sings, or talks with the sick person. While these treatments aren’t necessarily scientific, people often do get well simply because the entire group showed up for them. Can you imagine how it would feel if your entire community showed up for you when you needed them?

Because so many people in Western culture confuse fitting in with belonging, and refuse to take the scary step towards vulnerability, the power of authentic belonging has eroded. When people are depressed or sick, they tend to end up more isolated than they were before their illnesses, and their isolation makes them sicker.

I would like to challenge you to examine your relationships. How many of them are based on fitting in and how many are based on true belonging and authentic connection? If you don’t have many authentic relationships, take the leap into vulnerability with the people that you feel have earned the right to it, and start building true belonging into your life. You’ll be glad that you did.