It’s almost humorous to say that millions of lonely souls struggle to connect with others on an overcrowded planet.
An alien watching from space might ask, “How could anyone feel alone there?”
Here we are, living elbow to elbow with family, neighbors, classmates and workmates, while suffering a deeply internalized sense of being completely and utterly alone.
Alone in a Crowd
People often say, “I’m going to a movie alone,” or “I’m going shopping alone.” But that is hardly possible when on any given day, thousands of people are sharing the mall with them. How does one shop alone? Answer: By not connecting with any one of those thousands of people. Realistically, people can’t shop alone, (unless they’ve broken in to the store during the night—but that’s fodder for another topic). During the business day they might shop while in an internal state of isolation.
Isolation, while not a disease, could be called an epidemic that distresses some lives and takes others completely. I contend that the rising rates of depression and suicide are not comprised mainly of people who feel trustingly connected to others. It seems to me, that because we are social-based creatures, then isolation works against our very wiring, making it one of the more dangerous epidemics we can succumb to. Insidiously, not all isolation is self-induced. A lot of people are driven to it by someone else.
Who feels isolated and who did it to them?
I’ll give 5 common scenarios of people who are driven to isolation:
• Survivors of abusive childhoods: Children who survive childhood neglect, abuse or childhood sexual abuse often spend their lives feeling singled out and isolated. Lifelong trust issues are common in their world.
• Teens feel isolated when they struggle to find their place in the world. If they feel pressure to succeed in grades, sports, and social activities that they aren’t passionate about, they might feel like a square peg being unfairly forced into a round hole. They might believe the adults who are driving them in the wrong direction don’t see them for who they are. Or if their social life becomes a battlefield of rumors and lies because of adolescent jealousies at school, then they learn not to trust sharing their vulnerabilities with other teens.
• The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) community suffers a 4X higher suicide rate than the straight community NOT because they are GLBT, but because their peers and superiors have intentionally humiliated and ostracized them for being who they were created to be. How can they trust a world who pre-hated them without giving them a chance to show who they really are?
• Abused wives are often intentionally isolated from their families and friends by sociopathic husbands who want full control. A person without allies is very, very easy to bully.
• Victims of Sociopaths/Narcissists/Psychopaths: Anyone with a sociopathic boss, parent or older sibling will experience the phenomenon of being intentionally isolated by that sociopath, through a relentless, daily stream of accusations, rumors, lies, and humiliations. Sociopaths use these divisive tactics to isolate and overwhelm individuals, hoping to create the sense that the whole world hates them. They sometimes do this simply to enjoy a sense of empowerment. They view life as a daily competition for situational dominance. Their most common goal is to make their victim feel crazy in front of others so that all credibility is lost, which isolates the victim, making him or her even easier to torment. Why do they do it? Because to them, it’s fun. A perfect example of this is when nine-year-old boys gather with salt shakers to laugh at their power to melt slugs alive. “Stupid slugs!” they’ll shout. But soon enough those boys evolve consciences and outgrow their enjoyment of watching slugs suffer. Sociopaths never develop consciences and so they don’t outgrow that morbid enjoyment of watching torment. They feel empowered and god-like when, for no other reason, it’s just fun to watch animals and fellow human beings squirm beneath superior war-like evil.
Trust lies at the root of our inability to connect with the scores of people we share the earth with daily. It’s not that we don’t see the crowds around us, it’s that we don’t trust them with our vulnerabilities. In each of the examples above, the isolated victim could easily have made multiple attempts at asking for help, but for a number of reasons the people they approached may not have recognized the seriousness and so they failed to offer the help sought.
We humans learn by repetition. The more often we see a similar outcome, the more solidly we learn. Trust is little more than the ability to predict the future based on what you know from the past. When a child reaches out to his/her protectors twelve times, only to be told twelve times that he/she needs to handle his/her massive problems him/herself, that child learns through repetition to stop asking for help. He/she learns to trust what he/she knows to be true, which is: Adults don’t understand what’s really happening.
When adults say, “If you are being bullied, all you have to do is tell a parent or teacher,” they are further isolating those children who have tried that tack a dozen times but with zero success. Those children know that the message is naïve and therefore flawed, so they don’t hear it anymore. They are left utterly alone with no way to trust what they are being told: In essence, the message as they hear it is that the thirteenth adult will somehow be different than ALL the others. –Yeah…right. I don’t think so.
Connection cures isolation
If you are feeling isolated then you need connection. Being in a packed bus is not connection, it’s crowding. My experience of isolation turned me suicidal beginning at twelve years of age. I’ve since lived a long life on the brink of my own demise because of a sense that no matter how many people are in my life, not one of them really loves me for who I am. It wasn’t until fifty years of age, when I closed the door between myself and my life-long bullies, that I began to experience calm, genuine, compassionate connection with the people who always did, and still do love me. Before then, I gave love with all my heart, but couldn’t accept it in return. Because of the irresponsible messages given by the people who I wrongfully trusted, I had been repeatedly taught that the love people showed me was conditional: I thought I was loved only if I took people’s crap, painted their houses, helped them move, gave them money, etc.
What’s working for me?
I am grateful to say that I am losing my sense of isolation. My life is improving through efforts that are finally working.
1. I got out of the abusive situation: The first order of business was to distance myself from the bullies who used their connection to make me miserable. The first rule of thumb is that standing up to bullies makes them cower. But that only works when it works. If the bully is an entire school, (a term called “mob-bullying”) or a sociopath, then standing up to them risks igniting a fury that the victim may not be strong enough to stand up to. If the abuse has gone on long enough, that victim may be too badly worn down to be expected to stand up to a monster or a mob.
My second rule of thumb is that no one can hope to heal from the damage done by abuse while the abuse is still happening. During abuse, the goal should be to rescue the victim. Once the rescue is complete and the abuse is history, then a sense of personal safety can be instilled and healing can begin. Five years ago my healing began to take hold because I had put a permanent distance between myself and the people hell-bent on making me miserable.
2. I accept the reality: The damage is done. It’s water under the bridge. It’s time to accept what can’t be changed, and to work on what can be fixed. I have accepted that not all disorders can be cured, but almost all can be embraced and mastered. Nobody I’ve met yet, has had a particularly easy life. Truly successful people almost always have difficult pasts but have learned to make something productive out of their struggles. This truth is demonstrated best by those who’ve lost limbs that cannot be reattached, and go on to lead productive lives by learning how to get around the lost limb. Acceptance is a beautiful thing: By no longer expecting a “cure” I am no longer disappointed that there isn’t one.
3. I now trust myself and those who can be trusted: I now see that I love and am loved by many people. And yet, several times a year, I still fall into the trap of believing I am utterly alone. Learning how to trust means learning who to trust. I am learning to trust myself and how my own brain works.
Trust, as it turns out, is less of a feeling and more of a behavior that can be learned. I am now learning to trust reality over my misguided feelings. EXAMPLE: I often feel alone, but reality tells me that I have felt alone before—and things still got better. Therefore I exercise trust in repetitive history and I decide to trust that this is only a feeling. I can go one step further and trust that I will handle it correctly. I have proven to myself that I know ways to overcome the feelings of isolation, and so I trust that I will again overcome it this time. This works more quickly each time it happens.
4. I seek qualified help: I have a long-standing relationship with a highly qualified, well educated, compassionate, professional therapist. Not some well-meaning but poorly educated church minister. Not a school councilor. Not a self-help book. Not an internet support group. But an actual college-educated, psychology-trained psychologist with years of practice and success. It took years for me to learn to trust him, but that trust has become the very key to accepting the healing and making it work. Now that I’ve broken the poisonous relationships with the people I should have never trusted, and built a connection with a person who has proven he can be trusted, my ability to learn and heal is taking hold like never before.
5. I get out there and connect: When given half a chance I still isolate myself. On long weekends when my wife is working I often stay in my pajamas all day regardless of weather. Some weekends I never even open the blinds. If this goes on for a few days in a row, I find myself recognizing symptoms of loneliness as they creep in. So I use that as a trigger and I muster the strength to reconnect in some way with someone. I go shopping alone (or rather—“in an internal state of isolation”). The shopping trip is meant to get me into a crowd of people so I can challenge myself to connect with someone and make someone else feel heard—usually a store clerk. I have found it to be true that the Universe gives when it receives. In order to stop feeling misunderstood, I have to try and make someone else feel understood. In so doing, I end up creating the very connection that I need.
6. I count my blessings: I intentionally look at the people I love and then I express gratitude for any positive connection I now have. At nearly fifty five years of age I am both dumbfounded and elated at the realization that people actually love me. When my wife, children, grandchildren or peers tell me how valuable I am to them, I struggle to avoid tearing up from thinking about how I’ve wanted to hear that my entire life. I told one peer, “If you could have seen how beaten down I once was, and how horrifically vulnerable I felt in my family, you would know why you mean so much to me today.”
7. I know that sharing is caring: I openly share my struggles with others. The benefits are three-fold:
7a. It helps me to treat everyone as equals: I now know that isolated people don’t advertise “I’m isolated.” They quietly smile and nod and try to fit in. So the truth is that I have no way of knowing for sure who is and is not feeling like an isolated outcast right now. So by sharing my story with everyone, I am not accidentally withholding what I know from someone who might be too isolated to tell me that they wanted to hear it.
7b. People think they are the only non-Brady kids: An isolated individual will often perceive that the rest of the world has life all figured out and that they are the only ones who don’t. At work I drink coffee from a Brady Bunch mug. Peer comments allow me to joke with the statement “This is my family…that’s my story, I’m sticking to it!” The laugh opens the door for me to confess that I grew up thinking all other families were built on a foundation of mutual respect and of “having each others’ backs.” When I tell that my family was more indicative of a competitive sports arena, pre-loaded with gossip-traps and chronic criticism, and that my life didn’t calm down until I broke all contact with 99.9% of them, they almost always tell me that they thought they were the only ones who didn’t come from a Brady Bunch family. My confession to them gives them a new perspective about their own lives. Maybe they’re not so alone after all.
7c. I don’t want to be mistaken as being on the “other team”: The book I’m about to publish is called “Bullies & Allies” because those two terms, a bully and an ally, often describe the same person. To an isolated soul who believes they are the only lost soul in a world of people who have it all together, they can see the world as divided into two teams: bullies versus allies, or them versus everyone else. Therefore they may automatically assume that I am on “the other team” with everyone but them. I want them to know that I’m not.
However, I now know that I have done a good job impersonating a “together” person, and so I understand how people could mistake me for one. I have learned how to laugh and present myself as if nothing really bothers me. To my shock, that façade has worked, and here’s why I constructed it: In my particular family, if I had problems, I risked being humiliated for not being perfect from birth. So what I learned about family life was that it was more of a competitive sport rather than a loving fellowship. For my entire life, I worried, like many do, that I might one day lose my job and then my home. That concern by itself isn’t unhealthy. Sadly the reason I worried was a bit more neurotic. Being homeless was not my worry. Being utterly humiliated by key members of my own family for being the incompetent fool they’d always said I was, is what drove my high stress levels around employment. My point is: In order to survive my own team I learned to appear as if I had it all together.
Sharing is caring. It’s good for me and good for others. We’re all not-so-different after all, and no one needs to feel isolated in this world. Over the past five years, since walking away from my antagonists, I have many times witnessed that my confessions of struggle and of the sting of betrayal by family and friends have opened doors for people to trust that I’m not so different from them. First they say, “I never would have guessed…oh my gosh…” Then they see a chance at talking with someone who might understand them. To my joy, they often open up to me with: “You know…I’ve never told anyone this before, but…”
And for the duration of a single conversation, the two of us connect. We later carry with us the feeling that maybe—just maybe—we are both not so alone.