We all have our own subjective measurement of what it is to be “isolated”.
However, I would venture to say that in the United States, most of us are perpetually isolated, even if we are around people, constantly. We tend to be disturbed by our experiences of extreme isolation, and only then do we begin to recognize we are isolated. We wait until isolation has been so completely woven into the fabric of our lives, where we feel utterly overwhelmed, before we begin to do anything about it. Often, we wait until our lives have unraveled into crisis, due to our extreme isolation, before we seek to live differently.
How is it that we are so isolated?
Well, for most of us, at least 85% of the time, we choose not to share our deeper self, feelings and experiences with those around us, because we believe or know it isn’t appropriate. This is isolation.
Of course, we need to respect contexts where it is indeed inappropriate to share more deeply. However, it doesn’t mean these contexts are helpful or healthy.
Most of us spend the majority of our adult, waking hours, at work. In the majority of work environments, there is rarely a culture of checking in or sharing openly about oneself. Checking in is the act of taking time to share a little bit about how one is doing in life, or at the moment. This is done in these contexts to gauge how everyone is doing, and what could potentially be impacting them at work. A check in, theoretically, is also meant to inspire people to be more empathetic, supportive, and compassionate toward one another.
In the best possible circumstances, where people are allowed to share personally at work, checking in often only happens at progressive workplaces, which are in the minority. However, within most of these progressive workplaces, this invitation to check in is often lip service, as employees usually find there is rarely enough time, and presence, to actually experience this sharing as helpful. Check ins may instead be used as a means for managers and co-workers to measure performance, and a person’s ability to regulate themselves in such a way to help others around them feel more trusting and comfortable working with them. Rarely do people actually receive compassionate action towards them by taking this risk to check in.
Thus, people heavily censor themselves to play along with this check in culture, to preserve their work persona, and the confidence their co-workers and bosses have in them. People get to thus receive kudos from bosses and co-workers for playing the part of being confident, courageous, authentic, and vulnerable, through check-ins, without actually sharing what is most true and painful for them. People have all learned that no matter the work context, and the level of progressive, social “safety” in this arena, to share beyond a certain point, with the emotion and messiness this entails, about one’s personal life, will likely put your professional identity and position at risk. It truly isn’t helpful to share about our personal life in most work contexts.
It is a sad fact that our isolation is intrinsic to what our culture celebrates as a “normal” work environment, in that we participate in a system where we cannot be fully human in a place where we spend most of our adult life’s waking hours. And we participate in our own isolation for the sake of “productivity”, because we have learned to believe that painful, negative emotions block us from being effective, or “good” workers.
Sadly, we have also perpetuated isolation in the context of our personal lives, because we believe there is a “right” way to do and be, which involves not sharing our deeper, more pained selves with others for the sake of fulfilling our goals within the context.
We believe that the “right” way to parent, is by not showing your children what you are really going through. Or, there is a “right” way to be a friend, which is to not burden your friends with negativity by sharing your own issues (too often). Heaven forbid we get labeled as “negative” or “toxic” because we are viewed as too much by another person. Or, there is a “right” way to be a romantic partner, which is to keep the painful stuff to yourself. Or, alternately, to only share the painful stuff with your therapist, so that you can “protect” your limited time together with your partner from the stresses of daily life.
We also believe that the “right” way to live life, involves taking a self-preservation stance, and shying away from doing new things, meeting new people, and letting others heavily rely on us, because we believe we don’t have enough time, energy, or resources to give. Instead we opt for the “less stressful” route, and choose to spend our free time solitary, or alongside perhaps one other person, where not much direct engagement is happening. In this act of self-preservation, many of us instead prioritize doing mostly solitary or limited engagement oriented self-care, such as self or home improvement projects, art, buying and consuming things, errands, work outs, drinking, drugs, or engaging in social media, Netflix, or television.
I am not against solitary, or limited engagement, self-care time. Having time to oneself where we are alone, or with just one trusted other, and do not have to carry the burden of performing anything for anyone, is seriously relieving. This is good for our healing and mental health, but only some of the time.
So many of us go about life performing the “right” way to live, and despite the accolades we get from partners, family, friends, society, and culture, we feel more and more stuck, unhappy, or stressed out. We do not realize that our pain and stress actually comes from isolation, lack of connection and mutual support, and not from scarcity, being too busy or overworked. We then get frustrated when no amount of the “self-care” or slower-paced alone time, helps us recuperate, or overcome the major challenges we experience in mental health, and life itself. We don’t seem to see that to heal beyond certain traumas, stresses, or mental health issues, we actually need others in a way that promotes connection, and not further isolation.
Many people come to a point where the only way to get beyond where they keep getting stuck in their own healing and well-being, and to thus find happiness, is to heal their traumas. This healing of traumas is synonymous with overcoming the past and present effects of, and life organization centered around, isolation.
Let me explain.
We need to heal trauma by cultivating true, deep, connected relationship. For many of us, most of our wounding is actually caused by stresses and traumas that we were susceptible to internalizing because they occurred, and we responded to them, while in multiple contexts of isolation. Trauma, after all, is when we experience an overwhelming intense, deeply stressful, and painful event, relational exchange, or situation (one time or repeatedly) where we were met with not having the internal and external resources available to make meaning of it, find safety, and heal. Often, one of the main reasons we lack these internal or external resources, and end up traumatized, is because we are isolated, and do not have the social and cultural support to be protected, to share, to be known, to be witnessed, to be validated, and to have the strength, soothing and comfort available brought by the act of sharing, and being received by emotionally available, human connections. In essence, we heal the wound through the same contexts it was formed. If we formed the trauma through relational isolation, we must heal the trauma through relationship connection. What was not provided then, can be provided now, as a corrective experience.
So, the next time you realize you feel desperately unhappy, and as though you are stuck in your healing process, consider the cause of your stuckness may actually be multiple contexts of isolation. Then, go about exploring if your traumas that you are attempting to heal, are actually originated in isolation. You may be surprised to find that isolation has run rampant in your life, and it is the very thing that has caused your misery, as well as made it difficult to heal.
First, commit to not settling for isolation as the norm in any context of your life. Then you must also commit to self-love, self acceptance, growth, learning, vulnerability and authenticity, over perfectionism, lack of failure, or productivity.
Now, go further, by seeking to be more vulnerable, open, and supported. Go about changing this by seeking a community of people whom you can more fully be yourself, warts and all. Seek a community that supports you continuing to uncover more of who you are, and a greater self-love in response to this deeper connection with your self. Reach out for help. Be willing to accept people’s gifts of support and care. Let others see you in your most desperate places, and allow them to love you through it. Go about seeking to build a personal and work life where you get a chance to be more deeply You, and more connected, than ever before. Overcome your shame in being the messy and confused person that you are, and know your humanness is your best asset. Sharing your humanity openly, then let others hold you in this process. Take a risk to learn new things, have new experiences, travel, meet new people, be connected to your community, and become more connected to the world. You will feel less isolated, if you do all of this. I promise.
I guarantee your healing process will become unstuck, and places you thought were impossible to heal, will now begin to heal.