Cocooning's web of mental dysfunction
Human beings are social creatures, so cocooning will warp their nature. Rather than explore every possible dysfunction that might stem from social isolation, I thought I'd take a look at how a handful of them are inter-related.
These thoughts began to cohere after looking more deeply into the culture of the mid-20th century, roughly the mid-1930s through the late '50s, although leaking into part of the '60s as well, since the shift away from the mid-century during the '60s was not instantaneous. It's uncanny how similar that zeitgeist was to today's, as well as to the Victorian era, although I'm not as familiar with that period.
What these periods all share is a falling crime rate, which goes along with a tendency toward cocooning. Indeed, it follows shortly after cocooning begins -- fewer people out-and-about means slim pickin's for predatory criminals, and even heat-of-the-moment crimes won't happen as often when, for example, fewer young males hang out in bars.
The psychological impulse toward cocooning comes from having a lowered view of other people -- who needs 'em? Either they're inferior and can't do anything for you, or they're liable to exploit you if you let down your guard. In the helpful framework of Attachment Theory, we'd say that people first become more avoidant emotionally. That then leads on a behavioral level to fewer and shallower social connections being maintained.
Now for the web. First, cocooners develop a higher free-floating level of anxiety because, deep down, they still sense that social isolation makes them ultimately more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They don't confide in others, or allow others to confide in them, so they may feel like they're the only one -- or not? -- they can't tell, and that uncertainty about where they stand relative to others only compounds their anxiety.
In fact, that point generalizes: lacking the feedback that comes from lots of social interaction, they don't know how they measure up on all sorts of dimensions, not just nervousness. Are they funny? Are they charming? How can they know without interacting and judging the results of how others respond? They don't exactly feel worthless -- that is, having a keen sense that others do definitely have a low view of them. It's more like a pervasive self-doubting.
The mid-century was the "Age of Anxiety," and the Victorian era popularized the notion of "nervous illness" and "neurasthenia". We don't have a handy name for what we've been suffering from over the past 20 years, but we could just as well call it the Age of Anxiety v.2.0, or perhaps the Prozac Years. During more outgoing times like the Romantic-Gothic period before the Victorians, the Jazz Age before the mid-century, and the New Wave Age before the current period, it's hard to find people who have a generalized and gnawing self-doubt, unsure of who they are across most dimensions of human identity.
In the psychological literature, it's known that self-doubt is associated with obsessive-compulsive thinking and behavior. The obsessions stem directly from the self-doubt because the cocooner feels uncomfortable accepting feedback from others. It all comes down to their own individual appraisal -- does my hair look OK like this or like this or maybe like this, are these carpets really clean enough, am I putting in enough time at the office to get that promotion, does this essay have enough examples to hand in and at least get a B?
The compulsions follow as a way to relieve the stress of obsessing so much about so much of life. Let me just put these hairs over here or maybe there or maybe there, let's just vacuum the room one more time just to be sure, what's another 30 minutes after hours anyway, let me add this example to make the point, no I mean this one, or how about this one, and why not that one too.
Have you been in a college computer lab lately? It's amazing how long they fuss over a simple 2-page paper, forever deleting and re-writing, and pausing for long stretches to beat themselves over the head about whether their examples are good enough. And of course it still comes out sounding however it would've sounded if they'd only taken 30 minutes instead of 3 hours. They're simply too OCD to get shit done.
The rise of OCD over the past 20 years, nowhere more visible than in the game of beer pong and other rigidly defined drinking games, had its parallels in the mid-century with housewives running nervously on their domestic treadmill, and the husband running nervously on the promotion treadmill. Not in the sense of actually going nowhere, but in the sense of wasting too much time on tasks because of obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions and counter-actions, second-guessing themselves for hours instead of just going to it.
The Victorian era had its epidemic of OCD as well, referred to then as "pathological doubt". (Modern sources attribute the phrase "doubting sickness" to the Victorians, but Google's digitized library doesn't show that phrase appearing anywhere.)
Because their compulsions don't ever solve their obsessive problems, cocooners turn to what they hope are mind-altering substances that will root out their anxiety directly. The Victorian era was the heyday for "patent medicines" AKA snake oil, the mid-century for prescription barbiturates, amphetamines, and anti-anxiety drugs, and the current period for prescription anti-depressants. Unlike recreational drugs, these are taken regularly to treat what they feel is a chronic illness, not to every now and then transport their ordinary mind into an extraordinary state.
The data are so rich on this topic that I'll have to come back to it in a separate post, but in brief, cocooners always begin a movement toward popping "happy pills" rather than relieve tension by socializing and realizing from others' reactions to your over-blown fears that your world isn't about to implode after all.
Finally, there's a kind of narcissism that pervades the culture. Not the kind that borders on sociopathy, more like being smug and self-satisfied, and acting in a glib and sassy way towards others. Self-satisfaction would seem to contradict the self-doubt, but it's the direct result of it -- with no feedback from others about where you stand on all those dimensions, you fill it in yourself or listen to what your nuclear family members say, all of which is biased toward inflating your ego.
You're aware that your view of yourself doesn't come from others' evaluations, but from what you've decided you are, and that feels nakedly self-promoting. When you do occasionally sense what others feel about you, and that it clashes with your own view, you dismiss them out of hand as clueless.
In an earlier post on attenion-whoring vs. being popular, I provided long quotes from contemporary observers of both the Victorian and mid-century periods, to the effect that women of the day, especially younger women, were attention-whoring and coarse, glib, and dismissive toward others. All I can say is -- they were there, and we weren't. They might have been called airheaded, but nobody said that the valley girls of the New Wave Age were contemptuous of all other people -- rather, that they wanted desperately to fit in with a group of their peers, and that their minds were too wrapped up in trying to be pleasing toward boys.
Most of us try to think about the mid-century through TV shows like Leave It To Beaver, but TV was only around in the '50s. Radio was much bigger, but most of us including me have little idea what was on it. Sometime I'll get around to doing a content analysis of the popular shows. Still, all of us should have some familiarity with the movies of the mid-30s through the late '50s. And several stock phrases spring to mind to describe a good number of the women -- fast-talking dames, sassy broads, and wise-cracking femme fatales. That type of woman was ever-present in both light movies like the screwball comedy, as well as the darker movies like film noir thrillers.
And they all had a knack for that smirky-smuggy sassy-face that should look familiar to residents of the Millennial age:
There could be other features that tie in with the rest of the web, but these are the ones that stand out the most as being different from other time periods, and that reinforce one another -- avoidant attachment style, cocooning, self-doubting anxiety, OCD, addiction to happy pills, and glib sassiness.