For the first three years of my life my father worked 24/7. It was World War II, and he helped keep the oil supply lanes open for the US Navy.
Being elderly, my parents had no friends with little children. To further compound matters, given that we lived in a rural area, we had no neighbors with any children either. My slightly older sibling felt little but jealousy toward me. Bouts of depression coupled with physical exhaustion drained my mother. Five years after the end of the war, my father took early retirement and moved the family from Greenwich, CT to a tiny farming hamlet on Prince Edward Island, Canada.
During my early years of schooling, I didn’t talk to or play with the other children as I was already suffering the debilitating pain that social isolation inflicts. People all around me knew how to talk with and enjoy others. I continually asked myself, why couldn’t I? The stage was set for me to spend solitary decades.
I spent 15 years writing a memoir, Brave: A Painfully Shy Life (2015), about how I combatted social isolation. Then I read some recent research on toddlers. The reason for my debilitating condition became clear: Toddlers create and groom the peer-self in one another. Without the self-confidence and self-esteem that shapes the peer-self, you are considered a nobody by yourself and by your peers. Beyond the age of three or so, a catch-22 comes into play. You have no sense of self, so you can’t make peer friends because you haven’t developed a sense of identity by interacting with other children before the age of three.lonely, and I didn’t want to discuss that. And so, not having thoughts to share, when I met someone I talked about what I thought that person would like to hear. People quickly saw through me and looked for someone else, leaving me perennially alone, lonely and feeling isolated from others.
When I was 45, I stumbled upon a book about building self-knowledge. It asked questions about favorite colors and favorite ice cream. Then came questions about worldly beliefs. I knew my favorite colors and ice cream, but I discovered I actually had no universal beliefs at all. In that moment, I discovered what I needed to do: to think about myself, who I was, what I believed in, and who I wanted to be. I realized I had spent my entire life perplexed by others. That realization gave me the motivation I needed to stop focusing on my isolation and instead begin doing the daunting, yet healing work of starting to uncover myself.
It took me almost twenty years of doing brave, creative activities in order to know and to feel comfortable with myself. Although largely challenging, the years were also fulfilling because at each step of the journey, I felt joy in adding to my self-knowledge. I learned that self-knowledge built self-esteem, which allowed me to blossom and flourish.
Eventually I learned to relax with others—once I knew I was somebody, just as much as anybody else. And soon, I finally made a peer friend! And then another … and another. My circle of friends has enhanced my feelings and knowledge of self unlike anything I could ever have imagined! I also realized that almost everyone constantly strives to change to be better and to have loving friendships. It just took me longer to start.
I do believe I would have developed a sense of self way back, in pre-kindergarten, if I had been given opportunities to be with other toddlers. The pain from social isolation, in particular what I felt during early childhood, still lives within my being. However, the road to healing has given me great optimism and joy in living. My 15 years of writing was validated by Dr. Manohar in her October 2016, review of my memoir in the American Psychiatric Journal. She singled out how I described the need for self-knowledge.
I write this article hoping others can learn and benefit from my experience.
- Ghosh, P. (2016, December 12). Brain tests predict children’s futures. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38281663
- Brave: A Painfully Shy Life. (2016, October 3). Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ps.671009?mobileUi=0&
Helen Rivas-Rose is a founder of and the program manager for the Center for Social Isolation Relief, a 501(C)3, which was created in 2015. Its mission is to help ensure that all children and youth learn to unite with peer friends.
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