Our social atoms include all of our social networks and the people in them. Through them we become, and remain, fully human.
The concept of social atoms comes from the disciplines of psychodrama and sociometry. I learned about and became interested in social atoms during my training as a relationship counsellor.
This way of thinking was a useful tool to think about some aspects my clients’ lives and also about my own.
According to J. L. Moreno, who developed the disciplines of psychodrama and sociometry at the beginning of the 20th century, the smallest human unit can’t be less than two people.
Underlying this statement is a belief that we can only be understood within our personal/social context. To be human is to be connected to others in ways that can be comfortable, distressing, or neutral. Moreno referred to this “nucleus of relations” that help to define a person as the social atom. Stephen Kopp
It’s not a new idea. It has rippled through human history. We read in the Bible that God said,
It is not good for man to be alone. (Genesis 2.18)
The poet, John Donne, said something similar in 1624 when he wrote that
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent..
(Pity about those men, but inclusive language is a new idea altogether.)
Our personal social atoms
We all exist in relationship with each other. One way to think about our social atom is to think of the individual as a nucleus surrounded by other people. Think of them as forming concentric rings revolving around, and relating to, the centre. Most of the time, the people in our networks nurture and support us, but not always.
Our family of origin (father, mother, siblings) form our first social atom. As our lives extend beyond our first families, our social atoms become fuller and richer. Throughout our lives there is a process of ebb and flow as our relationships change.
Our networks grow or shrink . As we move from our birthplace or become bogged down in work and family concerns our social atoms can shrink as we move away from our networks. Sometimes friends move away, or they also become busy.
No one is immune from loneliness but older people are particularly vulnerable.The process of ageing involves loss. People experience the loss of sensory acuity, muscle and bone strength, their previous good health. The list goes on. They lose friends and loved ones through age or death.
How my social atom took a battering earlier this year.
A dear friend of over thirty years died a few days after Christmas last year. She’d been ill for a long time. Her death didn’t come as a surprise, but it gutted me. Her illness and death left a hole in my social atom that she’d filled in ways that I can’t imagine anyone else filling.
Two other dear friends, recently diagnosed with chronic incapacitating illnesses, can no longer do the things we once did together. Family concerns mean yet another friend now lives overseas. These losses have been painful.
However, I’m a lucky woman with a husband and a large family who value, support and nurture me in many different ways which means that the holes in my social atom have not become debilitating.
Being part of groups of like-minded people through volunteering, as well as through my Mastermind Blogging group, has enabled some new and lovely friendships.
When our social atoms shrink too far we become isolated and suffer from loneliness. That brings its own problems, as I wrote about in a blog about loneliness.
When we become aware of the gaps in our networks, we can take action to look after ourselves.