We all want to feel connected to others. It doesn’t matter whether we are extroverts or introverts; connection is one of the six human needs that we all share. I have written previously on the topic of loneliness, but my primary focus then was on spending too much time alone and feeling physically isolated from others. Today’s post is about a different type of isolation: emotional isolation, which is feeling alone even in the presence of others. I’m sure most of us have felt this way from time to time, and I believe this type of isolation is a big problem in today’s society.
How Often Do We Truly Communicate?
So many of us yearn for emotional closeness, yet it eludes us, even in this age of extreme connectivity, smart phones, and social media. I feel that emotional isolation largely stems from poor communication. We’re in touch with people all the time, but how often do we truly communicate? How often do we open up and let others know who we really are inside?
When we’re not keeping in touch by way of social media likes and short comment bursts, many of us engage in superficial relationships in which we only talk about macro topics like the weather, what we’re watching on television, and what’s in the news. I’m not implying that these subjects are insignificant, but discussing them rarely deepens our connections. We’re often “pleasant” with each other but don’t really know the person on the other end of our conversations. We stay safe in what we talk about, and we keep people at arm’s length because we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We’re afraid of being hurt should we opt to share our innermost thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears, and this keeps us separate from others.
I feel that it’s important to point out that not everyone even wants deep relationships with others. Many people don’t wish to learn about the innermost thoughts of the people in their lives, as they fear what they discover might shake up the status quo. Certainty is another primary human need and we want to feel comfortable in our relationships. We like to feel that we know who we’re dealing with and what to expect with them, even if that means sacrificing depth.
How Open and Honest Am I?
While some people are fine with maintaining superficial relationships, I’m not one of them. The level of emotional isolation I’ve experienced in recent years is troubling and is something I’d like to change. Readers have often praised me for my honesty, but those who read my blogs (this one and Recovering Shopaholic) know me far better than most of the people in my “real life.” I’m a lot more open in my writing than I am with most of the people I interact with offline, including all of my family members besides my husband. It’s just easier to be vulnerable when writing a blog because even though anyone in the world could read what I share, the fact that I’m unlikely to meet most of them makes it much less risky to open up.
I used to be a lot more open with the people in my life, but that often resulted in my getting hurt by those who didn’t agree with, appreciate, or understand me. In response to that hurt, I’ve put up walls and distanced myself from the world. For years, when I would meet new people, I wouldn’t open up much about myself and my life. I didn’t let people in and thus created the very sense of disconnection I lamented. I became really good at asking people questions and encouraging them to talk about themselves, all while remaining a virtual “blank slate” myself, sharing only past or superficial details about my life.
I didn’t realize I was using interest in others as a defense mechanism, a way of protecting myself from feeling hurt and disappointed. By keeping my personal disclosure at the surface level, I gave others less opportunity to criticize me. This pattern of interaction kept me from being hurt, but I rarely got close to anyone new and my existing relationships became ever more distant. While I still had online connections that were meaningful to me, as well as a few long-distance friends I cherished but rarely spoke with or saw, I lacked the regular, in-person interactions that I and many others crave.
Fear of Being Vulnerable
I know I’m not alone in putting up walls to avoid being hurt. I think a lot of people do what I’ve done, including those who have very active social lives. Their calendars are full, yet their lives may be falling apart and no one around them has any idea. They keep up appearances and let everyone think they have it all together, but they have deep pain in their hearts that they speak about with few people – or no one.
We’re all afraid of being judged, criticized, misunderstood, and rejected. The reasons may be different, but we all want to protect ourselves from the deep wounds that are so common in interpersonal relationships. While I may hold back due to my non-traditional life and career path and difficult to explain health issues, others may be afraid to reveal their marital problems, failing businesses, addictions, and other “secrets” they feel are shameful. But what we may not know is that those around us could be struggling in similar ways and long to have people to talk to about it. We may be missing out on deep connection, all because we’re afraid of being vulnerable and letting others really see us.
Brene Brown on Vulnerability
Research professor and author Brene Brown is an expert on the subject of vulnerability and its relationship to courage, empathy, and shame. She says that while most people were raised to believe that vulnerability is weakness, the ability to be open is our greatest measure of courage. Brown defines vulnerability as:
“Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s the willingness to show up and be seen, even when there are no guarantees.”
Brown’s research over a period of twelve years – with 13,000 pieces of data – has shown that vulnerability is our most accurate representation of courage. All of the incidents and stories of courage she found were completely underpinned by vulnerability. However, a great paradox related to vulnerability is that it is the first thing we look for in the people we meet and the last thing we want to show to others. We want others to open up to us, yet we don’t want to respond in kind. Ultimately, though, nothing ventured, nothing gained. All of the great accomplishments that have been made and deep relationships that have been forged wouldn’t have existed without the vulnerability to risk both exposure and failure.
I used to be someone who risked and I want to be that type of person again, so I’m putting myself out there little by little and will continue to take more risks this year and beyond. I’m going to take a deep breath, feel the fear, and do it anyway. While I may experience rejection from time to time, I believe I will also reap the great rewards of deeper relationships, meaningful experiences, and feeling prouder of myself once again. Who’s with me? My vision is that those of us who want more depth, purpose, and meaning in our lives will embrace our vulnerability more fully, fear or no fear.
To Learn More
I wrote another post back in 2013 that delved into the theories of Brene Brown, particularly in relation to perfectionism and compulsive behavior. That essay also explores some of the topics I wrote about today, and while I’m a bit ashamed that I haven’t made more headway on these issues in the ensuing years, I like what I had to say and feel that many of you will as well.
If you’d like to learn more about Brene Brown’s thoughts on vulnerability and shame, I invite you to check out the following short videos:
- “The Biggest Myth About Vulnerability” (2:35)
- “Vulnerability with Brene Brown” (3:02)
- “Embracing Vulnerability” (5:55)
- “The Power of Vulnerability TedTalk” (20:13 – well worth watching!)
- “Listening to Shame TedTalk” (20:30)
You may also be interested in Brown’s books, all listed HERE. I’m sure I will be writing more about Brown’s philosophies in future posts, as she has so much wisdom to share and I plan to delve more into her work moving forward. But if you watch the videos above, you will gain a lot of new and powerful insights on these important topics that relate not just to our interpersonal interactions, but to all of life.