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 You may have withdrawn from your family as a child if you didn’t get essential emotional needs met: you likely felt unsafe, misunderstood, or ignored.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.
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.
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