How to Recover from the Stagnation and Deadness of Isolation

Two women read books, facing away from each other.If you tend to isolate from others, you may notice it’s a double-edged sword: isolating can provide needed relief from anxiety (and other strong feelings), yet it can cause you to feel depressed, down about yourself, and reinforce the belief that you cannot handle life. It is an avoidance strategy and, like all such strategies, could create more problems than solutions over time.

I’d like to briefly explore isolation and its function, origination, and costs as a way to help people transition from habitual responses to their feelings to more dynamic responses.

What Constitutes Isolation?

Isolation can take many forms. You might isolate by being alone in your home and avoiding social contact. You might isolate by looking at your phone obsessively, watching television excessively, or overworking. You might isolate in relationships by fantasizing about other people. These are, of course, just a few ways.

Isolation is not necessarily a strictly physical act; it’s also a mental one. It is a state of mind in which you protect yourself from the uncomfortable feelings inside of you. Sigmund Freud described isolation as a mental process that creates a gap between unpleasant thoughts/feelings and other thoughts/feelings. As a result of this process, you may be more likely to be drawn to physical forms of isolation as well (staying home alone, for example).

What Function Does Isolation Serve?

If you isolate, you may have a visceral response to the question above. Isolation may feel comfortable, a relief from the “craziness” of life, a reprieve from the judgment of others, a break from anxious thoughts.

It also might be a place where you feel more enlivened. Depending on what thoughts and feelings you are beset by, isolation can provide a sort of respite.

Where Does an Isolating Strategy Originate?

Isolation is a strategy you likely developed early in life to cope with emotional challenges you experienced in your family and the intense feelings those challenges evoked. A child’s inherent temperament and family conditions play a role.

If you tend to isolate, it is possible that your temperament is such that you emotionally pull back naturally when you feel anxious, fearful, or even angry. You may have withdrawn from your family as a child if you didn’t get essential emotional needs met: you likely felt unsafe, misunderstood, or ignored. Either way, isolating was your way to protect yourself from the pain (and rage) associated with those unmet needs.

Isolation is not necessarily a strictly physical act; it’s also a mental one. It is a state of mind in which you protect yourself from the uncomfortable feelings inside of you.

What Does It Take to Recover from Isolation?

Recovery from isolation takes time. There are strong, deeply held forces pulling toward isolation when you feel the feelings (anxiety, rage, fear, grief, etc.) that seemed intolerable as a child. Because isolation is a strategy that occurred in the context of relationship (to your parents), the safety, continuity, and framework provided by psychotherapy or psychoanalysis may be key to recovery.

In psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, many of the obstacles to observation are removed. A therapist/analyst, trained to observe and point out the elements of isolation as it occurs in a therapy office, can also point to its effects: the way it can cause you to feel alone, suspicious, and detached from the life-giving energy of your feelings.

Over time, through the process of studying your isolation, you may begin to feel how painful of a strategy it can be. Getting in touch with this pain is essential. In doing so, you may begin to see that you can, in fact, tolerate strong or unpleasant feelings. This has a cascading effect and may empower you to choose contact more and more, until you have internalized this new way of thinking and linking thoughts and feelings. You can then take this new capacity out into the world and feel more enlivened by relationships.

Reference:

Baumeister, R. F., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. L. (1998, December 1). Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial. Journal of Personality 66 (6): 1081-1124.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • Burke

    Burke

    December 2nd, 2015 at 9:10 AM

    I know that this is wrong but I get angry with the people in my life who do choose to isolate themselves from others. They seem to blame others for their loneliness but it is their fault because these are the choices that they are making. How do you get them to own up to their own decisions when they are the ones causing all of it? And how do I become a little more accepting of this?

  • Juliette

    Juliette

    December 3rd, 2015 at 2:53 PM

    It is not a good feeling when you feel like you have to isolate yourself from others, that’s for sure. But it also isn’t a great thing to feel the judgement that I get from other people too so sometimes I just have to weight out which feels worse than the other.

  • Ben

    Ben

    December 3rd, 2015 at 8:14 PM

    Hello Burke,
    Thanks for sharing your frustration. It is hard to control what others do, but you do have control over how you deal with it so I would suggest just considering that these people, as with all people, are all struggling with their own personal issues and the best you can do is love them and perhaps share articles like this? Hope this is helpful.

  • Ben

    Ben

    December 3rd, 2015 at 8:19 PM

    Hello Juliette,
    That is a tough choice! Maybe you can tell people to stop judging you! Vocalize your feelings can be very empowering…

  • Juliette

    Juliette

    December 5th, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    I guess in some ways, no in every way imaginable, I don’t feel strong enough to stand up to them. I think that over the years I guess I have let what I feel others think about me actually shape the way that I see myself too if that makes any sense at all. So the thought of standing up to them while I KNOW would be so empowering, well, it does not feel like it is something that is doable for me. It’s a great concept, something that I would LIKE to see myself do, but even when I imagine it in my mind, well, it does not at all seem like a possibility.

  • Jaq

    Jaq

    December 5th, 2015 at 2:18 PM

    Blimey this has just sent me into a bit of a spin. This is classic me but I don’t know how to change it. I feel a bit freaked by this to be honest….

  • Charlotte

    Charlotte

    December 5th, 2015 at 3:03 PM

    My partner and I got engaged on holiday the first week in September. Amazing. Three weeks later my mother in law to be passed away unexpectedly whilst visiting family in her home country of Dominica. My partner has since said we can not be together and I have had to move back to my parents. Devastated. He wont see me. He has totally isolated himself from me and his emotions. He lost his Dad aged 15 and my partner and I are the only ones to have cared for his mum over the past few years. He is unwilling to seek professional help as he says rightly that it wont bring his mum back. But he has to deal with his emotions. He says he wants to be on his own for the rest of his life. Im devasated. How can I help him?

  • Ben

    Ben

    December 7th, 2015 at 12:28 PM

    Hi Jaq,
    Yeah, these insights can be unsettling, BUT HOPEFULLY LIBERATING! I recommend you try therapy if you are struggling with this and need some help?
    Take care, Ben R

  • Ben

    Ben

    December 7th, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    Hi Charlotte,
    Im sorry to hear all that you’ve gone through. The best way to help him is to start with yourself, to talk to someone, perhaps a therapist, to deal with your own feelings about all the loss you’ve experienced. Through that dialogue, you will get more clarity as to how you can relate to him. Best of luck to you.

    Ben R

  • Silvia BB

    Silvia BB

    December 13th, 2015 at 1:08 PM

    I know how you feel very well. It has been a couple years to me that I isolate myself in my room with my iPad and books. After my Hospitalization, breakdown, a year ago it has been much difficult to get in again. I do “socialize” but pushing myself at the limit, usually with people don’t know very well, in support groups, because with the people that I used to know it is so award after the Hospitalization. Sometimes I wish just they ask me what happen? Why were you gone? It is more difficult to pretend that everything is fine when you can’t come back were you where before. I hope it makes sense for you and everybody who reads this.

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous

    December 14th, 2015 at 8:25 PM

    Emotions are not enlvening. They are the irrational screams that threaten to blow us off course. Ignore them, they pass; be indifferent to them, your calm will not be troubled; remain stoic in their presence, and everything you have to do will be done.

  • Hailey

    Hailey

    March 24th, 2016 at 8:56 PM

    I’ve been isolating myself on and off for 5, almost 6, years now. I’m now a 20 year old female. I’ve tried being friends with groups of people, but they all ended up ‘kicking me out’ of their entourage. This has happened to me with multiple groups of people that I’ve called friends. At some point, I went 3-4 months inside the house I was living in at them time without stepping a foot off of my property. I’ve gone a year without friends at some point. I’m in one of my isolation periods right now. I hate this. I don’t want to be seen as the sheltered girl. I’ve missed out on participating in any teenage activities… except for one… which was just smoking. I’m struggling to move forward. I’m trying to go out there and reconnect. I signed up for a pottery class that I will start in a month… and I go to the local Barnes and Noble and library (I hardly talk to anyone, though). I’m looking to start up college again in the summer.

    I just feel like it’s too late for me, though. I’m so far behind in my social development. I’ll always be boring to others and never be able to find commonality due to my years of isolation. I’m rambling now. I needed to get that all out. The internet is the only place that I can freely move around anymore, really. I’m also just trying to make an imprint on something. Anything. I just feel like I’m so easily replaceable. I’m nothing special.

  • Ben Ringler

    Ben Ringler

    March 25th, 2016 at 11:28 AM

    Hi Hailey,
    You are indeed feeling the pain I describe of isolation. It can be a downward cycle for sure. It may feel like its “too late for you”, but you are ONLY 20 and that can be a tough age when you dont feel like you belong. This can certainly shift over time as you get to know yourself and find others that resonate with you. That being said, I HIGHLY recommend you seek out a therapist that you can feel comfortable with and can help you sort through the feelings that leave you needing to isolate. Looking at the therapists on GoodTherapy.org is a good start. Best to you, Ben

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