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.
19 thoughts on “The Things That Isolate Us”
This post spoke to me, Debbie, I hadn’t realized before that i do that, ask too many questions, in order that I won’t be needing to speak as much and be criticized, judged etc… I will have to ponder on this…love you, my online friend….
I’m happy this post was beneficial to you, Claudette. I didn’t realize this was what I was doing for a long time, either, but even though I’ve known it for a while now, I still haven’t turned it around. Hopefully, writing this post was a turning point for me, and I’m always pleased when my insights can help others. xoxo
I loved this post Debbie. For quite a few years I was very open and honest. Then I had a period that I started isolating and did something similar to what you were talking about. I knew tons of stuff about all of the other people in my life, but shared very little. It was actually through my online friends that I started to open up again. They gave me support, empathy, and understanding. I was able to let go of a lot of stuff that felt a lot worse when it was a secret and move forward. Now I’m feeling like myself again and I’m more open with everyone in my life. I hope that you’re able to get to that point too.
My online friends have helped me a lot, too, Tonya, and you have been one of the most supportive and helpful. Plus, I feel very fortunate to have spent time with you in person twice! I’m still struggling with openness with a lot of people in my life, but I feel more ready to turn that around now, as I’m more present to what it’s costing me. I’m glad you loved this post. I know you are a big fan of Brene Brown, too. I think I will likely write another post about her philosophies soon, perhaps about the difference between guilt and shame, as that is a big one for me (and I know for many others). I’m happy for you that you are back to being your authentic self with the people in your life again. That’s a huge breakthough!
Hi Debbie. This may be my favourite article yet, it completely resonates with my life experiences. I imagine you knew I would make this comment! During your blogging hiatus I had met up a few times with old friends whom I had not seen for 10 years or so. I was saddened to realise I didn’t feel an emotional connection and mainly stuck to small talk. Whilst driving home I ruminated on this and realised I was comparing the comfort and ease of my communications with you online with the reality of this real life conversation. It’s such a blessing that you’ve created a community where likeminded people can connect and gain support from each other that is lacking in their real lives. I have in recent years developed friendships that allow me to open up and have a deeper connection and I believe this is entirely a result of our interactions. It was Mother’s Day recently in the UK and the following day I met up with a friend for coffee. We had a lovely supportive chat about the difficult emotions that arise when you are childless and/or have no mother. We discussed the isolation/sadness we were both experiencing and were able to process the emotions together. Previously I would have just swallowed my emotions and distracted myself with shopping.
Sharon, you are my kindred spirit across a continent and an ocean. We have so much in common, so I’m not surprised that this post resonated with you. I’m not exaggerating when I write that your comment brought tears to my eyes. I’m beyond thrilled that my blog and your interactions with me and others helped you to open up more with the people in your life. Your post-Mother’s Day conversation sounds powerful and healing, and I’m happy for you that you got to experience it. Such connection is far more empowering and fulfilling than shopping or any compulsion/addictive behavior ever could be!
I have read Brene Brown and listened to some audiotapes of hers. However, in my case, I ended up rejecting all of her theories. I shall explain. I get what she’s saying about the power of our vulnerability, understanding shame and empathy, and how we can learn from embracing our imperfections. However, in my case, constantly listening to her talk about these themes kept me wallowed in my vulnerabilities and imperfections. At some point, I found myself getting bored of embracing my imperfections and feeling like I was spinning my wheels.
I was very lonely growing up. I had no friends for decades. Schoolmates only spoke to me only if I did something for them, not because they wanted to actually be around me. I felt like every day was a struggle. I lived many years in what I found to be an extremely hostile and depressing environment. It wasn’t until decades later, when I stumbled on some Facebook posts of high school reunions (I didn’t go, but for some reason, the pictures were available online for anyone to see) I saw that the people I had found so hostile…seemed pretty nice and fun. The reunions actually looked like a blast and people really seemed to care about who had made it there! It made me even more depressed because on some level I always thought the problem had been me and this seemed like confirmation.
Thank GOD for therapy and the internet. I have learned how to be much more open to those who matter to me. I have learned what and who makes me happy and really try to stick to that. It’s taken a while to get here. But that growth did not come from embracing my vulnerabilities and imperfections. Growth came from doing the hard work of deciding what happiness looked like to me.
As a result of my growth, I now try to limit the people who enter my life. I used to be open to anyone who wanted to be my friend. On some level, I felt obliged, as if I had unconsciously subscribed to the notion that I was so unpopular, so…”different”, that I could not afford to be picky if someone wanted to be my friend. Welp, I ended up with a bunch of casual friends who were basically like clothes that were the wrong size, color and shape. At some point, I basically had to start a capsule wardrobe, except it was for people, not clothes. I literally drew up a diagram, kind the one Unfancy has on her site. Strange? Yes. But it was part of the work I did in figuring out what happiness looked like to me.
Jane, I really appreciate your sharing your story and your perspective with us. I’m glad you are in a much better place now in terms of your friendships and open communication with people. I can understand your not wanting to wallow in your vulnerabilities and imperfections, as I don’t want to do that, either, and feel like I often do so. There is no one path that will work for everyone and we all need to find what will best resonate with us. I love your analogy about the casual friends being like clothes that were the wrong size, color and shape. I also love that you actually drew up a diagram for the type of people you want in your life. I don’t think it’s strange at all! In fact, that’s probably something I should do, too… I no longer feel the need to have a lot of people in my life, but I do feel the need to have more in person relationships that I find fulfilling (while continuing to cherish my online and faraway connections, too). I’m happy for you that you’ve come to a much better place in terms of your happiness and relationships.
I too have learnt something from this. I didn’t realise that my not sharing with others but knowing lots about others I meet is because of this. I seem to meet people who love talking about themselves and at the end of a conversation or visit they havent even asked anout me. Its like being invisible. I do wonder why that happens too? Thanks for a thought provoking post
I’m glad this post was meaningful to you, Krissie. I used to always wonder why I seemed to have such self-centered people in my life, but I think that I was attracting them because of my not wanting to talk about myself and my life. I’m also open to the possibility that some of those people aren’t really that self-absorbed but that we have a negative pattern that needs to be broken. The last time I spoke to my brother, for example, he didn’t ask me anything about myself, but maybe that was because I kept asking him questions and keeping the focus on him. I’m not sure, but this is something I’m going to keep thinking and writing about.
I have noticed that things have changed quite a bit for me in that regard. Some of the people that would talk about themselves for hours are now asking me about what’s going on with my life. When I changed so did they. Though I’m sure the truly self absorbed are still out there.
I remember the days when I seemed to only attract self-centered people too. But this will change. Once you figure out what your happiness is, the people that you attract will be very different. If it had not happened to me, I probably wouldn’t believe it, but I can happily attest to this!
This is encouraging to read, Jane and Tonya. I’m not totally sure how I will figure out my happiness, but that’s a big part of what this blog is about, so I’m going to keep pondering – and writing about – these types of issues. I do have some wonderful and not at all self-centered people in my life, so I hope to attract more of them! The big concern I have now, though, is how to change existing relationships, like the ones I have with my family. If you either of you have advice on this (or if anyone else does), I would love to read it. I think my next post may be a continuation of this topic…
So, I can say what worked for me and that was basically a couple of things: meditation: a commitment to have a happy family, and always reminding myself of the best qualities of my family members and trying to focus on that, rather than “reality”. I can honestly say that doing these things has completely turned my family life around where I actually enjoy being around my mother.
Ah, existing relationships, esp family….the last frontier. Welp, you’re on your own there, girlfriend. Haha, just kidding.
You know, there’s a saying in Buddhism, “your environment is a reflection of your inner self”. I feel like there’s a lot of truth that. We create an environment that fits ourselves, our understanding of the world. When you change your inner self, they say you notice the change in everything and everyone around you.
For you, I have an exercise. I’m not sure it will work, but it was the first thing that sprang to my mind when I started writing this. I did this exercise a while back. It involves focusing on the qualities you like best in your existing relationships. Basically remember all the best times you had, all the best qualities of that person. Just write them all down. The idea is to focus on the things you like and when you do, you naturally start attracting more of that. I hate to talk about the law of attraction because it sounds so trite, but I guess that’s what it is.
This can be a really hard exercise. To give an example, I had to try and do it with my dad, who thinks I’m trying to kill him and the CIA is after him. I can’t tell you how many times I wish my mother would divorce him. I never even wanted to be in the same room with him. But even someone like my father has something good in him, and through this exercise and others like it, I feel like I’ve learned to appreciate him. Am I 100% fond of my dad? Hell no! But I can now honestly say I do appreciate him and actually have a relatively pleasant time around him, which is not something I could say 4 years ago.
I hope that with your researching and analysis skills you can find interesting articles on this topic and share. I always enjoy seeing what you come up with.
PS: I think online relationships are undervalued. Some of my best friends I got to know initially through the internet. The internet is a wondrous thing that allows you to connect to people who may be far away physically but are close in spirit. Just saying.
This is a lovely, thoughtful post. You insight is keen by realizing you were using questions and interest in others as a defense mechanism, a way of protecting yourself from feeling hurt and disappointed. Often I find myself in social situations where others do this. For years I allowed it. Then late at night when it was hard to get back to sleep I would think about many people and how I knew so little about them. While I shared my life like an open book, often times the person asking me so many questions would not say more than a few words when I asked about them. Now when a person asks more than they share I lean in a bit closer to them, say less, and show a sincere desire to let them know I’m sincerely interested in them, to create a safe harbor if they want to share and be intimate. Years ago when I was young I worried a great deal about what others thought of me. Then as I grew older I began to realize that I don’t have that kind of time anymore, I don’t have that many more years of living ahead of me and it’s now or maybe never. You are on a beautiful journey toward vulnerability and intimacy. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.
Terra, I noticed that you had a hard time leaving this comment and I apologize for that and thank you for continuing to try. Hopefully, your future comments won’t end up as spam, but please let me know if you continue to have problems (I don’t know about WordPress sometimes…). I always appreciate your comments and this one provided some excellent food for thought. You have a lot of insight to have realized what was going on with some of the people in your life. I’m guessing there are a lot of people who do what I do, and I wish more people would notice it and react as you have been. Of course, I have to accept responsibility for my actions and turn them around, as do others who ask questions and don’t open up. I know that I don’t have all the time in the world, either, and it’s not good for me to keep worrying so much about what others think. It’s really a waste of time! If I open up and share, I know not everyone will like me and connect with me, but not everyone needs to. By doing what I’m doing, I stay lonely, and I don’t want to feel that way anymore.
In some ways I agree. But . . . as with everything there is a balance. I don’t want to be TOO connected with people. I have an ongoing ambivalence between going out to spend time with friends and holing up in the house nesting. I like both. I need both. But I don’t want too much of either one.
Even online, I have been known to leave groups when I feel there is too much sharing or oversharing. I get uncomfortable at a certain level. It’s like, I’m here to discuss fitness and stay on track, and you’re telling me details of your father’s illness and asking for prayers. I just, I dunno. I think we all have certain levels of need in the connectivity department. I am okay with only having my BF and mom, and maybe 2 close friends, to really talk deep and openly with. And not all the time. Just going to play golf and drink beer and talk about silly surface stuff is totally fine by me! I think knowing that the outlet to connect and share deeply is there, if/when we need it, can be enough.
Another thought is that I speak to people all day at my jobs. I do tend to be asking them more than they do me, but not always. No, it’s not deep conversation, but it is constant. Perhaps I just need a break from words altogether more often than others. This is likely why I tend to spend my first day off every week at home, not leaving for anything.
I completely agree with what you have written here, Mo. I think we all have varying needs for social interaction and definitely one’s job will have a bearing on that. I can see how you’d want/need more alone time when you’re interacting with the public all day at work. I spend a lot of my time alone and I’m okay with it, as I’m an extreme introvert. A little socializing goes a long way for me, and what I didn’t realize until recently is that online interaction can deplete me as well. I love to interact with people on a deep level, but it can be draining for me so I have to balance it. You’re definitely right that it’s all about balance. I like the silly and fun types of interaction, too. If everything was about deep communication, that would get to be too much, too. It’s tricky business, these relationships, but it’s worth determining our individual needs and thresholds and then taking steps to get our needs met. It sounds like you are very in touch with yourself and you take care of yourself to recharge on your days off. That’s very healthy to do!
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