Existential Psychology

Healthy Community Versus Unhealthy Community

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Belonging to a community is perhaps the most deeply entrenched human psychological need. Being a part of rather than apart from mitigates the painful anxiety cued off by existential isolation. Existential isolation is our birthright as sentient organisms encased in separate skins with individual thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings only ever immediately accessible to ourselves. It’s this very separateness that compels us to reach out across the existential chasm, to connect with our brethren, to find our individual places in the larger community. We might define a community, healthy or unhealthy, as a grouping of human beings where consciously or unconsciously agreed upon norms and values dictate behavior. Adherence to these norms and values assures continued group membership while divergence from these norms and values risks expulsion.

But not all communities are created equal. We’re often exposed to unhealthy environmental conditions that produce various symptoms of mental illness and hinder rather than help our growth and happiness, yet our fear of ostracism, our desperation to avoid the painful anxiety that rises up at the mere prospect of ostracism, can cause us to ignore the reality of less than optimal environmental conditions. Whether we consciously realize it or not we decide that any community, even one that makes us feel bad about ourselves, others, and the world, is preferable to facing life all by ourselves.

Is there a litmus test to determine if a community is healthy or unhealthy? We think so, and it revolves around this paradox: A healthy community encourages individualization while an unhealthy community demands conformity. A healthy community celebrates difference while an unhealthy community compels sameness. In other words, while the norms and values of various communities may appear much different from one another on the surface, and while all communities share certain ironclad values like a prohibition on killing community members, at the deeper level healthy communities say “We want you to be a free-thinking individual and we support your unique self-actualization” while unhealthy communities say “We demand that you to think in a specified way and if you don’t you’ll face aversive consequences.”

The unseen menace that makes conformity the non-negotiable underlying norm and value in unhealthy communities is irrational authority. When the very thin slice of the population in power has as its primary interest not the well-being of community members but rather continued exclusive access to certain rights, privileges, and opportunities, group wide conformity in thought and behavior is essential in assuring that the irrational power imbalance continues. Free-thinking individuals present the single greatest threat to irrational power imbalances. This is why in unhealthy communities individualization is looked upon as a vice and conformity as a virtue, whereas in healthy communities individualization is looked upon as a virtue and conformity as a vice.

This is not to say that healthy communities don’t rally around certain shared norms and values, that they don’t think and feel the same way about many things. They do of course. But the difference is that at the deeper level members of a healthy community, be it a community as small as a nuclear family or as large as a nationstate, are encouraged to question everything, to criticize, to unfold their unique traits and abilities, to be themselves. This is the fundamental norm and value of all healthy communities regardless of the superficial cultural differences between them. A healthy community doesn’t demand conformity but instead encourages difference because those in power aren’t interested in retaining unfair, unequal access to rights, privileges, and opportunities but rather are interested in the growth and happiness of all of the members of that community.