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Groupthink, Family Dynamics, and the Meaning of Life

We often derive our meaning in life by fitting in with our groups.

Erich Fromm for PIFAL by Arturo Espinoza, C.C. by 2.0
Erich Fromm
Source: Wikimedia: Erich Fromm for PIFAL by Arturo Espinoza, C.C. by 2.0

Most people seem to feel that their life has meaning, even if they cannot precisely define it, so they do not seem to worry about looking for it. What they may not realize is that they may only feel that way as long as they do what they believe they are "supposed" to be doing. There is something comforting about following rules and not having to think too much about what existence is all about.

The rules about what one was supposed to do in life used to be much clearer than they are now for the majority of people in developed countries. Various institutions like schools and churches laid out your options for you, and you went along. Even when you technically "broke" the rules, you were often validated by your friends for having done so. In a sense, the answer to the question of which rules could be broken in private (though not in public) was actually covertly specified by the rules themselves!

The freedom to be the author of your own life, called self-actualization (as opposed to doing what your family or society wants you to do) is something relatively new in human development.

Back in the 1940s, Erich Fromm wrote a book about the evolution of individuality called Escape From Freedom that put forth the proposition that in general people are rather fearful concerning the prospect of complete freedom. If they can do whatever they please, perhaps they might make a terrible error. Despite the fact that many don’t think about this, it is still as much a factor as it ever was.

So where do today’s people in developed countries learn what it is they are supposed to do and what rules they are supposed to follow? They first learn this in their families of origin growing up. They try to follow the family rules (even when the family members are saying one thing and doing something else entirely), and the rules remain powerful. They continue to spout what systems therapists call family myths – sort of akin to the theology of a church group – and argue vociferously for them even when they are transparently preposterous. The latter phenomenon is called willful blindness.

Taken together, this is a good description of what is now called groupthink. People will sacrifice their own ideas, urges, likes, and dislikes in order to fit in with their groups. They will die for their families or for their country in wars like the proverbial lambs to the slaughter. Groupthink developed in humans due to evolutionary pressure, as groups are more likely to pass on advantageous genetic tendencies than individuals. Individuals are more likely to die before they can reproduce.

Unfortunately, times have changed. Culture has evolved to the point where we can be freer to self actualize, but family rules often do not keep up with the change. People get stuck in old patterns but are nonetheless still exposed to the other options, which may seem seductive but still forbidden. This leads to the intrapsychic conflicts–ambivalence over the family rules–which are often shared by entire families, leading to all the double messages flying in all directions that I have discussed in previous posts.

So why don’t people just say to heck with their families and go and do what they please, as long as no one really gets hurt other than through emotional bruises? Well, as I have mentioned, groupthink has been selected for by evolution, which I believe has provided us with a highly disturbing feeling if we dare do that called groundlessness (also called existential terror or anomie).

When we break family rules, we are overcome by a sense of doubt about who we are and the choices we have made, as well as an existential sense of the meaninglessness of all of it. The feeling is so noxious and overwhelming that most people will do just about anything to avoid it. Because they have avoided it, they may not know it even exists, creating even more anxiety and confusion when it comes over them. They may even contemplate suicide.

Part of it is referred to as de­familiarization. In the normal course of everyday life, we feel at home in the world; we feel connected. Everything in the world about us–objects, people, roles, values, ideals, symbols, institutions, and even the sense of who we are in relationship to the rest of the world–seems comfortable, fa­miliar, and meaningful. Defamiliarization is a disturbing feeling that all is not well, that the outward appearance of the world disguises the fact that its meaning and purpose are not at all clear.

To quote Irving Yalom (1980), we gain a terrifying sense that "everything could be otherwise than it is; that everything we consider fixed, precious, good can suddenly vanish; that there is no solid ground; that we are 'not at home' here or there or anywhere in the world." Life begins to seem absurd and pointless, utterly devoid of significant meaning. Pushing on with one's goals begins to seem like an exercise in futility; what's the point?

All that one holds to be important takes on a cast of silliness and, ultimately, unreality. The sense of unreality brings with it something that is even more unnerving than the sense of meaninglessness: the aforementioned paralyzing doubt. If everything one holds to be gospel is not at all real, then perhaps what I think I know I do not know. And maybe it is just me. Maybe I am wrong, but everyone else is right. Maybe what I feel is invalid; maybe I am a nothing.

The descriptions patients have given me of the feeling in psychotherapy are fascinating:

"I felt my identity disintegrate. My career was in jeopardy. Little flags of doubt about what I was doing led to a depression. I felt like a zero."

“I have a feeling that I am neither fish nor fowl.”

"I felt as if I were on a different plane from everyone."

“I felt I was overstepping my bounds. I felt disconnected."

"There was a barrier between me and everyone else." I felt amorphous, undefined and void."

How much more comfortable to go back to following all of the old familiar rules, even if they make you miserable in every other conceivable way. The pull of the family system to go back to the family rules is a very powerful one, both in one's relationships and in one's own mind.

More from David M. Allen M.D.
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