Do you love individual people, but feel unsafe in groups?
Here's what to do.
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Dear ham-dels (please read here to know why I call you this),
All my life, I’ve felt deeply, instinctively, unsafe in groups. For a long time, I wondered why this was - especially given that humans are famously social animals, evolved to live in tribes. And there are many possible reasons for my discomfort. But one of the most potent explanations comes from the world of animal behavior.
In the wild, animals establish themselves in dominance hierarchies, sometimes by fighting and seeing who gives in first; surrendering is a function of whose cortisol spikes most, making the animal too anxious to fight. These subordinate animals then submit to the more dominant ones. And life at the bottom of the hierarchy can be quite unpleasant – involving a lack of mates, food and shelter.
I don’t enjoy conflict (though I’ve learned to hold my own, over the years, even as I feel my cortisol spiking like mad). And I suspect that, in some wild kingdom kind of way, I arrive at any group situation instinctively, unconsciously aware that my own predisposition to anxiety could land me at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
So, I tend to go my own way. I prefer to love people one at a time, and to love humanity from a safe distance. I show up to group gatherings with a keen interest, but a tendency to keep to myself, or to peel off one-on-one with an interesting conversation partner. And even though my station in life has turned out to be actually quite high (ironically, I’ve achieved this via my preference for solitary writing – more on this, below); even though in my daily life I’m actually pretty calm, and free of excess cortisol*; even though most groups I participate in are full of well-intentioned people inclined to show kindness no matter where on the hierarchy a given person sits - on some primal level, it makes no difference. My body knows what it knows.
This has been my reality for as long as I can remember. When I think back to nursery school and kindergarten, I was having preschool versions of these same thoughts and experiences. Which isn’t surprising. Researchers have found that small children know exactly who’s high in the social hierarchy - and those are the kids who get to play with the most coveted toys.
If you relate to this, I hope it’s helpful for you to understand some of the dynamics that underlie your discomfort. But there’s also, of course, the question of what to do about them.
And the good news is that you really do have so many life-expanding options. Here are five of them: