While humans are social animals, not all people benefit from these social interactions. Often there are some changes that can be made to address this, sometimes it is valid to just be alone.
Humans evolved long before what we recognise as civilisation existed. The ancestors that branched off from the other Primates 6 million years ago were not very big, strong or scary in comparison to the animals who thought of us as food. Humans who existed on their own did not live for very long, while those who cooperated with other humans for mutual survival thrived.
Benefits from social cooperation include safety from predators, greater hunting and gathering ability, collective access to people’s strengths, communal joining of effort, collective support for people’s weaknesses, and more efficient use of resources. To be in the group, you need to be a part of the group. When times are lean, there is a risk that the group may need to downsize, and those who do not contribute enough, people who are redundant or people who are not liked are the most likely to be kicked out. If that is you, then you are on your own.
When you are on your own, you are at risk of predation. While you may be safe enough while you are awake, you have to sleep at some point, and there is always a predator hunting for meat – you are, after all, made of meat, and we are very vulnerable when we sleep. Without a group to support us, our personal strength is the limit of what we could achieve. Even if you were the strongest person in your old group, you are not as strong as the whole group’s combined effort, so your effective strength is now reduced. There is no one who can compensate for your weak areas, and that can be fatal. To survive the old times for long, you need a group.
This is part of the terror of being alone, and part of what drives social anxiety and social phobia. Our biology recognises that we are at risk if we are without a group, so we will put up with much to keep it.
We evolved mechanisms to work well in groups. Tuning in to your group allows you to know when to act without having been told. Imagine that you are with a group hunting an animal. There is a good implicit time to act that helps to catch the prey, and a bad time to act that scares it off before people are ready. Tuned in people will act in support of each other, without having to explicitly hand wave or yell. A more modern example of this tuned in cooperation is moving furniture. Trying to lift and move a heavy bit of furniture is a vastly different experience with someone you are tuned in with versus someone that you aren’t.
Feedback mechanisms exist to help guide us in the group.
We evolved to take on characteristics of the group to further knit us into it. When we belong, we implicitly get a feel for what the rules of the group are, we take on some of the same dress fashion, we pick up speech mannerisms, adopt behavioural mechanisms and pick up group habits. This is what peer pressure actually refers to in psychology – the personal pressure to pick up the behaviours of our peers, not the pressure of others to conform.
Perceiving negative signals (generally feelings) in others indicates we are making the wrong assumptions. Perceiving positive signals in others helps us feel at home, safe and nurtured. Negative signals push us to invest energy into changing and conforming, while positive signals reward and recharge. How we perceive our group can change whether we feel drained or recharged by the encounter.
We are not the only factor in this relationship. A group of toxic people will have constantly changing rules such that you can never win, always perceiving negative signals and always feeling draining. They will misinform you so you always perceive negativity and they will take advantage of the drive to invest energy and conform. An incompatible group will always feel wrong, even if the people themselves are nice enough, you’ll feel like you are in a group, but not of the group. A group of compatible peers will feel safe, comforting and invigorating. An incompatible or toxic group will have you acting out of fear or anger, driving you to change, hide or do actions you don’t really want to. A group that is good for you will inspire you to grow and be greater. Look for the people who inspire you towards being more, avoid the groups that drive you.
Sometimes we are toxic to our own minds, where either due to bad experiences or biology, our perceptions are distorted and we can’t pick up the true signals. Therapy and reality checking can help this.
Humans are very malleable. We can flex in lots of different ways to fill the niche and adapt to and overcome the problems we come across. In a stable and nurturing group, this grounds us and guides our growth in healthy ways. In a toxic group it can teach you terrible habits and badly damage your self-esteem. Toxic groups push you to do things you think are wrong, and then claim they are the only ones who will now accept you. Toxic people lie. There are fundamentalist ideological groups who have some very strange beliefs, and people who are immersed in those beliefs can take on those values and errors. After surviving toxic people for a while, one can develop quite an aversion to people.
People who are on their own for too long start to lose track of what is important to them, of the framework that helps to guide their lives and strange beliefs can start to emerge. There is a reason why isolation is used as a punishment and torture. We humans do not do well on our own.
There are some people who do not feel refreshed and recharged after interacting with others. This isn’t necessarily due to a history of trauma, or just not finding compatible people. It is just a difference in mental mechanisms from the norm. A divergence, if you will. That isn’t to say that all neurodivergent people fundamentally struggle with feeling rewarded and recharged from good socialising, but some do have this trait. While many neurodivergent people do struggle to find their niche group and there is a strong representation of people with traumatic pasts to overcome, most neurodivergent people do find their niche group, their village.
People who still find no significant reward in their village can struggle to justify why they should expend the energy to socialise, since it only costs them and doesn’t benefit them. There is a truth to this idea, it is mostly just cost. There are some benefits that are harder to see though, that these hermits need to consider and add back into this cost benefit analysis. Two important parts of having a good social network are that when you do need help, it is good to have people who will come; and a good social network helps you not to become too strange from isolation. The challenge is to find the correct ratio of enough energy invested in social to allow for these benefits that does not cost more than these benefits can give.
When every social interaction costs you, or even if just many of your social interactions cost you, it is very important to give yourself non-social recharge time. Social batteries are an excellent metaphor for allowing them to recharge again before expending them.
While most in this group of people who find no significant reward in their village will find an equilibrium between enough social for protection of self and not too much that it is too expensive, there are some who find it better to just be alone. In those situations, this is valid. When you need village support, there are professionals who will do this. To keep yourself from drifting too much from yourself, there are mechanisms to account for that too.