Suffering From Rampant Individualism?
Suffering From Rampant Individualism?
Our modern world is built around the “island” of the self — and so it isolates us from everyone else.
By Joe Brewer /

Do you suffer from loneliness? Feel isolated and distant from other people? Do you long for connection? Strive and hope to be noticed? To be loved? To be heard? To be touched? To be seen?

Well you are not alone. Or perhaps I should say, your feeling of being alone is widely shared by millions of others.

In truth, this loneliness is a pandemic — a cultural sickness that goes by the name “Individualism” —which is the widely held belief that human beings are individual selves living out isolated lives in their own personal bodies. This belief is profoundly at odds with everything that is known about human nature, yet still it persists and has been built into the social DNA of our modern world to such an extent that it feels like common sense.

Ask any psychologist about the human mind and they will tell you we are wired for human connection. We feel a strong foundational need for belonging. This need is so fundamental that newborn children who are not given physical contact are much more prone to immune failure and can even die from the torment of their isolation.

Similarly, the sociologists among us will attest that the fundamental unit of human existence is the small group and not the individual. We are who we are because of who we associate with. This “cliquishness” is well known in high schools around the world. There are the jocks and nerds, the gamers and book worms. Every trope found in teen movies has a basis in reality.

This tendency to form groups is so automatic, so deeply ingrained, that hierarchies arise (along with the tensions that come with them) around such arbitrary things as the color of one’s skin, the uniform a person is wearing, which dialect they speak, or any of a thousand other distinguishing factors meant to separate us against them.

So what happens when a social world is built up around the false belief in rugged individualism? People in such a world will paradoxically activate their innate social tendencies to create distance and isolation — to begin feeling separate and alone because that is what everyone else around them is doing. The predictable outcome will be heightened anxiety and stress, a greater likelihood for depression and in extreme cases suicide. The pitting of one against another in the hierarchies that quickly form between people.

This happens because humans think in terms of groups. When we frame the world as comprised of individuals, these “islands” of individuality become the conceptual units on which the social world is built up. Individuals are treated as the “Us” and the “Them” of the culture in which this habit of thinking has become dominant.

The individuals ARE the groups in this kind of world. This can be seen in the “me against the world” mindset that treats the self as one group pitted against all others — a prison created within the mind of an individualist to wall themselves off from the pain of bad relationships they seek to avoid. In the end, all they really do is hurt themselves and make it impossible to nurture healthy relationships with others.

Over time, the sickness of excessive individualism gives rise to a self-reinforcing pattern of chronic narcissism. Greed becomes an exalted good and a goal in itself — rising eventually to be the principal measure of health and well-being. To be king (or queen) of the mountain is the very definition of success in an individualistic society.

The focus on materialism (he who dies with the most toys wins) is also a natural and expected outcome of social isolation. A child who cannot find comfort in the affections of family or friends will look for it outside of herself. She will seek it in the things she can acquire to fill the void left where her basic humanity was neglected. In this way, an individualistic society becomes obsessed with material gain — with all the environmental and social harms that come with it.

The first step toward healing is to recognize the problem.

We can unplug from our smart phones, look up from our tablets, and see that the tiny islands of humanity around us are actually vast webs of interdependence. Our bodies are ongoing physical exchanges of nutrients, energy and molecules with every bite we take in, exhaled in every breath we let out. Similarly, the “self” we know as who we are is made up of aspirations from those who have inspired us — the role models for who we want to be.

I am the janitor in my high school who knew how to listen when a troubled teen needed someone to talk to. I am the nice old lady down the street when I was a kid who really knew where her roots were.

I am also the people I aspire not to be. My father wasn’t emotionally present after my parents divorced, so I will be damn sure that I am there for my own children. The same can be said for the bad teachers who lectured me but were not able to convey knowledge or wisdom. I won’t be one of those when I share what I have learned about life and the world!

See how it works? The me is really a WE.

This is how it has always been. The great lie of individualism is that it masks the communities within us. It conceals how we are composites of the good and the bad in others who have touched our lives. We truly would have died if no one touched us after we were born.

Because to be human is to be connected.

Onward, fellow humans.

Want to support my work? Appreciate my writings? Make a contribution here.

Joe Brewer is a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.

[Image Credit: Flickr]

3.8 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 11,345 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 10,760 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 5,749 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 4,556 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,229 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 2,225 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 2,083 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 1,713 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 1,593 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,301 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 1,235 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
Mark Corske's Engines of Domination (2014)
60 min · 1,019 views today · Political power -- armed central authority, with states and war -- is it part of human nature? Is it necessary for human communities? Or is it a tool that ruling elites use to...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 877 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Lessons in the Calais Jungle: Teaching Life Stories and Learning About Humanity
Aura Lounasmaa · 758 views today · I am part of a team of academics teaching a course to residents in the Calais Jungle, a camp for migrants and refugees outside the French city. Life Stories in the Jungle has...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 754 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 721 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Eckhart Tolle: Your Facebook Ego, That's Not Who You Are
2 min · 389 views today · “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past: the "little me" and its story. This...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 385 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
The Untold History of Palestine & Israel
22 min · 339 views today · Previewing Abby Martin’s on-the-ground investigation in Palestine, The Empire Files looks at the long history of Zionist colonization, expansion and expulsion of Palestine’s...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 335 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Suffering From Rampant Individualism?