A lot of the work I do as a therapist deals with one’s self identity and isolation. For some of us, even in a room crowded enough to give a golden retriever social anxiety we feel lonely, out of place. Some of us are in relationships that have over time, or very suddenly, left us feeling disconnected and alone in pain and desperation. It is in these moments of isolation we can do the most harm to ourself. This can spike when you feel like you’re being left behind in an open relationship, most often on date nights. People are social creatures. In the long-long ago times the most lethal aspect of being human, was being the only human around. Ostracization was not seen as a lesser penalty than death, rather a cruel way to impose death. We will look briefly at how isolation affects us, then how to work through isolation internally and in a community.
Those who flaunt social norms by being polyamorous, kinky, LGBT+, pagan, etc. are at higher risks for feelings (and actually being) isolated. As Jim Morrison points out, “people are strange when you’re a stranger”, and the stranger you are the harder it can seem to make connections. Based on my own experience, and seeing some tangential research, I think our smaller communities have higher percentages of mental health challenges, and isolation is a foundation of this. What does isolation do to us?
- Increased risk for coronary heart disease and stroke, the number one thing people die from in America.
- Increased risk for dementia. I guess some people start making their own friends.
- Increased risk for depression and other mental health issues. Anytime you are ashamed of yourself or feel overwhelmingly alone, it hurts and results in real trauma.
- Incarcerated individuals sentenced to isolation report hallucinations.
In the mind, words and feelings are real, the words and stories we tell ourselves are the most real there. Emotional pain uses the same physical brain pathways as physical pain. Loneliness and heartaches hurt, but they don’t have to last.
Isolation by Ourselves
Shel Silverstein wrote two of the greatest relationship books ever, The Missing Piece and the Missing Piece Meets the Big O. Both explore themes of loneliness and personal growth. There is a debate in the ethical nonmonogamy world, do we date to fill a missing piece or do we date when we no longer have a missing piece and want to enrich our lives? Each person has their own answer that is likely to change over time. Here are some, but definitely not all, ways to become your own “Big O”. (Not the super awesome steampunk mecha, wouldn’t that be cool though!?)
- Focus on you, in a good way. With compassion, take a look at yourself and actively look for things to love and things to grow.
- Create a vision board. Old school conspiracy theorist style, get some pics, paper, string, and thumbtacks. Divide the board up into areas of things you want to work on, challenges, and possible growth steps. Use this to break down what you’re going to try and to remind yourself of what you’re focusing on.
- Therapy. Come talk to a therapist about your struggle and allow them to support you through your growth in a very you focused environment.
Isolation in Relationships and Groups
There is an old saying that a life truth is that if you learn to be alone without being lonely you’re better off. While true to a degree, the balancing caveat is that you can feel not-alone by engaging with others. Even in valuable relationships or involved communities, events can happen that leave us feeling excluded or shut out, completely misunderstood or disliked.
- Join or volunteer in community or social groups. Walk some dogs at the ASPCA, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, or check out Meetup.com. Especially helpful if you find purpose in what you’re doing.
- Lean into your edge a little and talk to strangers. A lot of us avoid talking to people in public because we feel we are just thrusting ourselves upon unsuspecting victims, the mindset is we have nothing to offer but annoyance. Others are just at a lack of what to say, fearing they’ll say the wrong thing. Practice a few general openers, understand people can be rewarded by meeting people, and give it a shot. A favorite question of mine is, “what is something beautiful from your life recently?”
- Be intentional with the phone. Social media is not real life. Don’t compare your behind the scenes to everyone’s highlights. You can however find amazing people and communities online. Make sure they’re actually amazing and not negative / a cult.
People need good people in their lives. Just about every condition listed in the DSM 5 has a suggested intervention of finding support groups or building support networks. If you or someone you know feels like they aren’t making meaningful connections, or that recent life changes have left them feeling alone in their pain, reach out to me below for a free consultation.