Monday, January 11

Socio-Emotional Armor

There are only a few things that make me hurt deep inside. Most of the time my emotional grief, while I may write about it passionately here on (G)MG, is fleeting. Tears dry, my memory somehow disappears, and the only proof it ever happened is stored on a blog server who knows where.

I sometimes use the metaphor of social armor. Some people have thick armor that keeps them safe from social blows (intended or not), and others don't. It's not a perfect metaphor, because there are different types of social impacts that can have dramatically different effects depending on who you are... but it sort of works. In my case, I don't have much, or any, armor - so even a grazing blow will probably make me bleed. Disappointment, betrayal, grief, frustration, and pain all hit me hard enough to make me concerned about melodrama. But underneath armor there's another part to the metaphor - how does your social self respond to actual injury? Does it allow deep cuts to fester and scar for a lasting memory? Does the pain cripple you for days or weeks? Or does it do something totally different? In my case, I feel like I heal quickly. So the grazing blow that caused minor bleeding or the vital strike that made me want to die stops as fast as it began, and it's like nothing even happened. And, in most cases, I honestly don't remember it.

Over the last few years, I've developed a set of social armor that deflects at least a few of the things that used to hit me hard, but there are some things that bypass the outside and hit me no matter what.

People are one of those things.

Specifically, watching people develop relationships. Watching people make friendships, fall in love, get married, have families, or just grow closer to the people around them... it's one of the most beautiful things to watch, and one of the hardest.

It's beautiful to watch my best friend with his family. To listen to their bantering, hear their jokes, know exactly when his mom is going to be exhausted with it all, watch them laugh, and feel the incredible bond between all of them.

But that beauty is bittersweet. My family is close. We talk and banter, joke and laugh, and when I'm with them, there are times that I feel like I belong. There are even times when I smile with my best friend's family. Yet the same socio-emotional body that stops the bleeding within moments rejects positive emotion as it does negative. Somehow, again within moments, all the feelings of belonging drain out, leaving only emptiness. I forget the experience just as quickly, and the emptiness pervades, no matter how many people are around me and no matter how deeply I draw on the emotional reservoirs I try to keep alive.

I think that's why being around people, and watching people develop relationships, is so hard for me. I've thought before that perhaps I just never felt like I belonged, and my life has been a constant search for that feeling - and that I envy people their progression because I've never felt anything like it. I've even written that here before. But I think reality is different. I think that sometimes I do truly fit in, that sometimes I do find situations where everything feels right. Life is literally perfect, and I'm simply happy to be with the people that surround me... but, for whatever reason, the feeling disappears just as fleetingly as it comes, and my memory wipes it just as fast.


I have tons of blog posts that explain social pain that I can't remember anymore... and hidden in the archives, I have others that talk about intense happiness that I've forgotten just as completely. I'm sure that I don't fit in as much as I wish I could, but perhaps the conflating factor of my experience isn't just not fitting in - maybe it's that fitting in doesn't have the lasting impact on me that I, or others, would expect.

If that's the case, and my bucket is constantly draining, that could potentially help me understand how to find greater emotional impact from situations that can be guided or structured.

Let's go back to the armor metaphor. 

If I have heavy armor, the best way to ensure minimum pain is to spread social trauma out over time. As long as everything is somewhat minor, and never more than just a grazing blow, nothing will get through. I'll be whole at the end of the day without much effort. Major blows cut right through and will probably leave major scars, give me motivation to make even thicker armor, and may take me out of commission for a while.

If I have no armor, or really light armor, the best way to minimize pain is actually the opposite. Grazing blows throughout the day would maximize pain, and even though I may heal quickly, they still happen. If there are ways to structure the social experience such that, instead of frequent grazing blows, I deal with infrequent massive ones, then the pain is actually minimized. Major blows will hurt, but disappear quickly and leave no mark.

I feel like socio-emotional armoring is designed to minimize pain. I've seen armoring grow as an effect of prolonged difficult situations like verbal abuse... and also as a result of major trauma like rape, betrayal, sexual abuse, or even catastrophic accidents. Armor can give people the ability to function in a difficult world while they work to heal major wounds. 

But oftentimes the socio-emotional armor that people create for themselves doesn't just affect the ability of social trauma to get inside. It also restricts positive social impacts... and so, perhaps, the armor metaphor doesn't just help me understand how to structure difficult social situations. It could also help me see how to structure positive ones to gain the greatest possible benefit.

I'm somewhat skeptical of this. But let's see where it goes. For those of you new to (G)MG, usually I don't write knowing where my thoughts are going to take me. I just write.

So if I have major socio-emotional armor, and I'm protected from minor negative situations, then perhaps I am also insulated from positive emotional ones. To maximize my personal happiness, I'd want to seek out major positive experiences, then draw out the deep, lasting impact of those experiences over time. Little daily positive things aren't as likely to give me joy as events or situations that can bypass the armor and get inside.

For me, since I don't have much socio-emotional armor, and good feelings disappear just as quickly as bad, it's more important for me to have small, frequent positive encounters than to have major ones. Big experiences may bring big happiness, but they won't last for long, and a handful of smaller experiences could bring the same total result with potentially much less planning or effort.

That was definitely not where I was planning to go with this post.

I was thinking it would be about the difficulty of watching people develop relationships, and then introspection into how I could improve my own relationships, how I could be a better friend, or how I could overcome my fears. I even wrote a paragraph about all the different people that made me envious thinking it would fit somewhere later in the post. It didn't.


I don't have any desire for social armoring. But I do want to be happier in my life. I have some control over negative social situations, but I heal quickly, and controlling negative social situations is about pain mitigation, not improving happiness , so that's probably not the most important place to put my focus. So maybe I'll try to work on the positive side... and find lots of little things to make me smile.


I wonder how it works for everyone else. Maybe it works the same way - and some people will need big, planned events, and others will need little ones that happen all the time. And if I can match the ways that I serve people to their personal needs - whether big or small - then I can have a greater impact on their lives. I think I'll talk to my best friend about that and see if it matches... then figure out how to structure positive and negative experiences in our friendship. 

I think I may already know the answer.

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