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I was listening to the radio last week. The presenter was interviewing a man who rescued injured birds of prey and nursed them back to health. A noble cause, certainly, but one that the man admitted came at a cost. His personal relationships had suffered as a result of his dedication to the job. His wife had filed for divorce, he never saw his children and didn’t even attend their birthday parties. Something about the way in which he dismissed relationships left me feeling very sad, and here’s why: I believe that healthy relationships with others is one of the most important factors of positive mental health.

We humans are relational creatures. Our great societies and civilisations were not formed from individuals all doing their own thing, but from people coming together, helping one another and working as a team for the benefit of everyone. Ten or twenty thousand years ago, our distant ancestors depended on their communities (whether that be families or the larger ‘tribe’) for their very survival. Back in those days, being cast out of the tribe would have been seen as a great punishment. Even today, one of the worst tortures used to break someone’s spirit is that of solitary confinement. Human beings need contact with other people. We thrive on it and suffer ill-effects when deprived of it.

One possible explanation for this is that we only have a sense of who we are from our relationships and interactions with other people. Our sense of self, our very identity, is inextricably tied up with how other people respond to us. From this perspective, it could be said that other people’s responses to us are the “mirror” by which we view ourselves. Take away those all-important interactions and we lose the means to see ourselves. Think of Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway”. Alone on a desert island, the isolation begins to drive him to despair. When he creates a companion in the form of the volleyball “Wilson”, he gives himself an other with whom he can interact. Wilson becomes the man’s salvation and we know that without this companion, the man would probably have lost all sense of his identity, and with it, his rational mind. To put it another way, the loneliness would have made him go crazy.

Social isolation is a bigger problem than most people realise. The modern world means that we are able to go about our business with far less ‘real’ face-to-face interactions than 30 years ago. Emails, mobile phones, texts, instant messaging, social media… all these tools mean that we are now able to get in touch with many people at the touch of a button, but they do not meet our need for relational depth. Ironically, whilst we now have many more means of communicating with other people, many people are experiencing a greater sense of disconnection and loneliness. For some people, the counselling relationship between therapist and client can meet this very human need to be seen and experienced by another. The therapist’s non-judgemental acceptance and empathic manner enables the client to experience positive relational depth through which a greater understanding of the self can develop. Through the relationship, we start to see ourselves more clearly.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy

Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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