Emotional isolation is a complex set of feelings and actions. It’s that sense of loneliness, or of not belonging, that we get when we feel ignored, invisible, or like we don’t matter.
If we don’t have a voice (meaning that we don’t have a “say” in a decision-making process, or if we do speak up, our input doesn’t count), we may feel alone, separated, or isolated from others.
Isolation feels like disconnectedness, being unattached, singular, on our own, forever solo. And we can feel that way even when we’re not physically alone. There have been times that I’ve felt isolated in a room full of people!
Isolating ourselves can make us feel as though we’re unimportant to everyone and that we matter to no one, sometimes not even to ourselves.
What leads to isolation?
When we intentionally (or unintentionally) withdraw or cocoon, or we don’t respond when others reach out to us, (or WE don’t reach out) we are cutting ourselves off from humanity. When we live inside our heads, not sharing our thoughts or feelings, we’re actually practicing an act of isolation. Isolating in this way is a type of numbing, a kind of “hiding” from ourselves or from reality. Sometimes it’s connected with denial.
Growing up in a home where there’s no emotional inter-connectedness with our family members or no real communication often leads to experiencing feelings of isolation. When we feel ignored, invisible or insignificant as a child, it’s easy to continue using these same maladaptive relationship patterns after we become adults. As a result, we may continue to let others make our decisions for us without the benefit of us sharing our thoughts or feelings. We choose to silence our voices because we believe that what we say doesn’t matter. We give away our personal power because we’re not even aware that we have any power.
When we’ve been traumatized by narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, or any other type of toxicity, whether as a child or as an adult, we often feel like we can’t talk about it with others. We prefer to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves because we feel ashamed or embarrassed. Sometimes we criticize and judge ourselves for becoming isolated, for being in a particular situation, or with a certain person. Sometimes we fear others’ judgment or criticism of our choices, and sometimes it simply feels like no one will be able to understand. We may feel at fault for our circumstances, and we isolate ourselves to hide our shame and our secrets.
Brene’ Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, and she’s well known for studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Brene’ firmly believes that we have to “walk through vulnerability to get to courage,” therefore . . . we should “embrace the suck.”
In her book I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough,” Ms. Brown describes shame as a “silent epidemic,” something that everybody experiences at some point in their lives.
She goes on to say that “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Personally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that shame is associated with depression, guilt, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, and violence. (habitsforwellbeing.com)
~By isolating, we prolong the pain.~
Patterns of Isolation
By entertaining thoughts of “I don’t belong” or by judging ourselves as “not good enough,” we close ourselves off from others. This avoidance tactic can be used to hide from ourselves or from others and even from reality. There are lots of ways to hide! We can hide physically, mentally, spiritually, and/or emotionally. We may stop socializing and interacting. We may feel like keeping secrets and hiding or cocooning, so we begin keeping to ourselves and not reaching out for help or support. We may emotionally (or physically!) push others away. We interact with friends or family less often, and when we do, topics of conversation become superficial, and we steer clear of conversations about our personal or home-life. We avoid any chance of getting emotionally triggered or of triggering others. We avoid embarrassment by not accepting social invitations.
What we’re actually doing is trying to avoid potential or imagined pain.
The Power of Our Thoughts
“Closed-thinking” is an orderly and pretty inflexible task-based way of thinking. When we use a closed-thought process, we focus solely on “the goal” and getting something accomplished. We’re pressured and probably feel stressed because there’s usually a time limit or due date involved. Even self-imposed due dates can feel stressful.
Conversely, “open-thinking” feels more relaxed. When we use open thinking, we don’t feel rushed because there is no hurry; there is no “due date.” We don’t feel pressured or stressed. With open thinking, we enjoy the process of “playing around” with our beliefs and ideas instead of focusing on time-sensitive outcomes.
Is it surprising to know that isolation thrives on closed thinking? It’s no wonder isolation can feel so suffocating and hopeless.
We all have the ability to use open thinking, but many of us don’t have experience using our minds this way. Maybe we never learned how, or we never saw it modeled. Maybe life simply feels too heavy or serious right now to “play around” with ideas. Perhaps the idea of learning a new way of thinking makes us tired or uncomfortable.
Trying to learn how to think openly can certainly feel uncomfortable at first, and using this less restrictive process will remain difficult if we don’t practice.
Thinking openly means that we give ourselves time to daydream about possibilities and the space to read and research and envision scenarios. “What if” we were to do this instead of that? What would that look like? How might it feel? Open thinking involves thinking creatively (instead of purely logically) and collaborating with others. Bouncing ideas off somebody who we respect and trust can show us new perspectives and can open up new possibilities.
Breaking our isolation means that we have to begin trusting people and changing our perspectives. We have to start taking chances and participating in our lives. Sharing ourselves with others and getting comfortable with our own vulnerability are the antidotes for isolation.
Brene’ Brown says: “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough” and “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”
Her research findings can effectively be summarized in this statement: “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”
Try reaching out to someone today. Just do one thing to break your isolation. Letting yourself be vulnerable will get easier with practice, I promise.
- Identify the Cycle of Abuse
- Recognize codependent coping skills
- Everyone makes choices. Are you choosing to stay in suffering mode? Why or why not?
- Respond rather than react. (Homework: look up the difference between reacting and responding. Try responding the next time you have the opportunity. See how it feels.)
- Have a plan for ending the isolation.
- Reframe your viewpoint: a shift in perspective can help us to determine what’s most valuable to us so we don’t waste emotional energy on less important things. Perspective is everything.
- Progress not perfection: Let’s give ourselves credit and just enjoy being human! No one is perfect. People just like to pretend they are.
- Live in the present: Be willing to give up worrying about the future. The future doesn’t exist, so we can’t predict or control it. Give up worrying about the past because the past doesn’t exist either, it’s a mental construction. The past is the “snapshot” we hold of an event that was processed by our own personal and unique filters. Focusing on the present moment is the only state of being that we can actually influence.
- Set boundaries
- Do things you enjoy or that make you feel good. Taking care of ourselves and enjoying life is not selfish.
More Brene’ Brown Quotes:
“When we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” – Brené Brown
“You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” – Brené Brown
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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