Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous

One of the things people fear most is being “unneeded” or “useless.” When people feel like they’re superfluous, and that no one really needs them around, they tend to wonder about two things:

  1. “How will I get by?”
  2. “What am I even living for?”

The question of “How will I get by?” comes from a basic survival fear. If someone is made redundant at their job, and no one else is interested in hiring them, how will they keep a roof over their head and afford food, clothes, and health care? If their family doesn’t seem to need or want them, where will they go? When you’re on the fringes of the pack or out in the cold, it’s much harder to get by.

The question of “What am I even living for?” comes from a loss of purpose. When people feel superfluous, they wonder what it is they’re meant to do. People fare better when they’re needed for something or doing something meaningful – when they can create or build things, provide care, render assistance, inspire or teach others, give themselves and others opportunities to grow, explore something interesting, and give love to others in tangible ways.

Why Do Many People Feel Superfluous?

The pandemic has exacerbated tendencies and accelerated trends that have already been provoking a sense of superfluousness in people, namely:

  • Job loss or job insecurity
  • Isolation
  • A feeling of helplessness

Numerous small businesses have been wrecked this past year, but even before that many were contending with steep competition from internet commerce, along with struggling to pay rising taxes and rent.

Many jobs continue to be in danger from automation, where technology (automated computer processes, AI) performs the necessary tasks and makes human involvement largely unnecessary. The pandemic has brought on another wave of automation. For some, job retraining and new placements will be possible. However, there are barriers to retraining and starting fresh, including the fact that individuals aren’t infinitely adaptable or transplantable. Also, retraining programs often fall short in various ways.

As for isolation, it’s more than just being on your own now and then. It’s being cut off from others – family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, community. It can stem from literal physical isolation. (For most people, simulations of togetherness via Zoom and other online platforms don’t come close to replacing time spent together in-person.) Isolation may also stem from a feeling of profound loneliness even when you’re among other people.

Another aspect of isolation is the belief that no one really cares about you. You experience callousness, empty promises, betrayals of trust. You may also feel helpless. Maybe you realize that you have much less influence over your circumstances than you thought.

What Can Come from Feeling superfluous?

When people feel like there’s no place for them, or nothing they do matters, their lives become warped. The effects of feeling superfluous include:

  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Numbing and apathy.
  • Rage, which can manifest in different ways, productively or destructively.
  • Frequent escapism. There’s no shortage of ways to escape nowadays, for hours on end, ranging from T.V. to computer games to getting immersed in other people’s internet dramas. Pervasive daydreaming is another escape route. (I don’t think of escapism as an unqualified negative, by the way. Whether it helps or hurts you depends on how it influences your life. Does it leave you mostly passive, numb, stagnant, neglectful of things you need to do, unwilling to think much about others or think much of yourself?)
  • Childishness. If adulthood seems like a barren, forsaken place, childhood can seem like a retreat. I’m not talking about having fun or being silly sometimes, but a fuller immersion in childish activities and immature mental and emotional states.
  • The easy answers of different ideologies. When you’re lost, afraid, and angry, simple answers become more appealing. Simple prescriptions for what to do and who to attack in order to “fix things.” You don’t have to think about the consequences of what you’re doing; everything’s going to be fine if you fall in line.
  • Increased cutthroat behavior. If the number of decent-quality jobs is shrinking, people fight for them more aggressively. Social media is one avenue through which to render your competitors unemployable. Especially by stirring up outrage against them over what are often unexceptionable posts, comments that may at most be a little tone deaf or offensive but don’t warrant strict punishments.
  • A desperate need to stand out. There’s a widespread fear of being invisible and unneeded. There’s a great pressure to appear special, exceptional in some way that will appeal to your professional and social circles or really to anyone who can give you attention or money. Maybe you slap all kinds of fashionable labels on yourself, as if you’re a car covered in bumper stickers, the most unique car on the clogged road. You may feel as if you always need to market yourself to everyone, especially in a climate of job uncertainty, more frequent job switches, and side hustles.

What can People do if They’re Feeling Superfluous?

This won’t be a comprehensive set of answers, but part of the thinking-out-loud exercise this blog post is meant to be:

Surviving

I’m going to start with the most basic one. If someone doesn’t have money, doesn’t have a home, or is struggling with an illness, profound isolation, or abuse, what’s the next step forward? And the one after that? Figuring that out is critical.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that anyone is superfluous. That includes people who are are so stricken with age or illness that they can no longer do (or think) much.

Rethinking Values and Beliefs

What is the worth of a human being? There’s a pervasive belief that if someone isn’t beautiful or making much money, then they’re not worth much. Many feel contempt for people who are elderly, chronically ill, disabled, mentally ill, or struggling with long-term unemployment or underemployment. Many feel contempt for poor people as a group – not towards an individual based on their character, but towards a group based on a blanket assumption that poverty makes someone inherently less valuable in every respect.

Unfortunately, this attitude may pervade even religious communities, where you’d think that the sacredness of each person, regardless of money or social status, would be more consistently recognized.

The question is, what do you think? How do you value people? You can’t change everyone’s mind, but you have some control over your own mind (though yes, social pressure is difficult to resist). Do you need to accept other people’s criteria for human worth?

Reflecting and changing how you think about a worthwhile life can help address feelings of superfluousness. Even if you’re worried about being superfluous, you can still see yourself as worthy of dignity.

Finding Meaningful Things to Do

Especially with the pervasiveness of the internet and social media, there’s a tendency to think that nothing is really worth doing unless it attracts a significant amount of attention, acclaim, and money. Why bother if at most you only have a small audience, or if you’re mostly on your own?

This is a difficult belief to wrestle with. And I don’t have a problem with people sharing their interests or skills online. It can be done beautifully, it can be a great way of inspiring, teaching, and cheering up other people, and sometimes it can help people make a living. But what happens when the craving for attention or approval becomes too powerful?

It’s behind a paywall now, but a while ago I came across an article about nursing home residents whose lives improved when they began to take care of animals (and I think plants too). Just the act of looking after, nurturing, and taking enjoyment in other living creatures lifted them up.

Many of the things that make life better are not obviously earth-shattering or attention-grabbing. They’re small and everyday, but they’re still important. As I mentioned earlier, people fare better (spiritually, mentally, and in overall health) when their lives contain meaningful activities. When they explore interests, learn, and teach. When they bond with other people (and with living creatures generally). When they can make things. When they can give love and appreciate the love given to them. When they can help others and themselves, such as by volunteering or through political participation, including pushing for laws to change (or arguing against rash and potentially harmful changes).

What specifically can you do, right now? Maybe the opportunities aren’t all that obvious, especially with the isolation and loss of this past year. Maybe it will take some time to figure out. Don’t give up trying to figure it out.

Striving to Be a Person You Can Respect

The concept of self-love is one that doesn’t sit easily with me, especially the way it gets presented in pop culture. I can’t, without laughing, think of myself as a “goddess” or a “superstar” or whatever else I’m supposed to call myself.

Instead, what’s harder but worth working on, is becoming a person I can respect.

In many cases, your greatest victories won’t involve public approval. They’ll involve beating back or containing a corrosive habit. Making improvements (often incremental improvements, with setbacks) to your character. Curbing the impulse to act with pettiness or cruelty. Becoming more mature in different ways, often subtly and gradually.

And they can also involve making progress on something you’re learning to do. Improving competence and striving for mastery. Working on deepening your understanding of something important. Resisting the urge to merely navel gaze or pick at old scabs. Directing your thoughts towards what you can do and whether you’re being wise. And then acting in ways that you can respect.

Your sense of being superfluous may not go away entirely. But maybe you’ll figure out how to put it in a corner and focus on what you care about. And if you’re not sure what to care about, work on finding something good.

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