‘No man is an island’ is a common saying but I still had to Google who actually wrote it first. It turns out it’s part of a poem penned by English writer John Donne in 1624 as part of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions work. The prose continues ‘…every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….’. It’s a beautiful piece in its entirety – I’d recommend a read.
The point Donne is making is that humans do not thrive when isolated from others. In addition to the obvious emotional and psychological benefits, positive social interactions have also been linked to increased vitality by reducing the risk of heat disease, hypertension, perhaps some cancers, and even infectious diseases. In terms of the emotional and psychological benefits, suicide, mental illness and addictions in general are all significantly lower when people feel a sense of belonging and connection to those around them.
All of this highlights why loneliness is such a debilitating experience for many of us – but is it simply a matter of being surrounded by other people? Is it about having 150 friends and being out every night? Most of us have probably discovered at some point in our life that loneliness can creep up on you anywhere and being surrounded by other people doesn’t protect from it anymore than being alone guarantees it. A surprising number of people complain of being lonely within their marriages, parents talk of feelings of isolation in raising their children while highly extroverted and social people talk about a lack of connectedness, despite being surrounded by people 24/7. So what it is that defines that feeling of ‘loneliness’ that leave us feeling so bereft? What is it that so adversely affects our emotional and physical health?
I think when people talk about loneliness what they mean is a lack of connectedness with the people around them. You can be alone but still feel connected to the people in your life. You can be surrounded by others and still feel isolated and lonely. Humans are pack animals and we all want to belong to a ‘tribe’ somewhere, we want to connect to the people around us. And so if we don’t have that feeling of connectedness, we try to find new people, more people. We try to replace the feeling of connectedness with new experiences, things, objects. None of that really does the trick. After a relatively short period of time the loneliness and isolation will return. This is because that connectedness has to come from within – we have to connect with ourselves first before we can connect with the world around us. We have to be open to ourselves first before we can be open to those around us. What defines this experience is unique to each of us and it’s up to us to find out what that is, to be open to discovering who we are first before we can offer that out to the world.
I do believe it’s something we’re inherently born with and that for some of us, we maintain that connectedness with Self throughout our childhood, our adolescence and we carry it with us into adulthood. These people are easy to be around, they ‘play well with others’, are well-balanced, instinctively understand the unspoken rules for social interaction and generally seem to find success both professionally and within their personal relationships. They’re totally at ease with themselves and by extension, other people are at ease with them. That’s not to say their lives have been perfect, but we all have different degrees of sensitivity to life’s ups and downs. And we all have different ups and downs. Whether through nature or nurture, some people just seem to be inherently resiliant to the ebs and flows of life.
That’s not the case for everyone though. And looking at the statistical data pointing to high numbers of loneliness, isolation, depression and an overall dissatisfaction with life, I would suggest it’s not the case for a large number of the population. So how does this happen? Why do we close off to ourselves and what can we do to get ourselves back?There are a whole range of adverse experiences that can befall us as we grow up that we seem to be able to bounce back from – or at the very least, not lose ourselves over – but the one thing that can cripple our self-esteem is shame.
Maybe there’s a history of childhood abuse or a ‘one-off’ event in our adolescence that has led to excruciating self-recrimination and blame. Shame can arise from a myriad of experiences, but any experience in which we feel violated, abused or bullied tend to be the big-ticket items. The double whammy here is that if these events occur in what I would consider our ‘formative’ years – childhood through to adolescence – we often don’t have enough self-assuredness to ‘back ourselves up’ when we most need to. That’s not say people don’t experience shame as a result of their experiences in adulthood – but the lack of personal power that comes with being a child or adolescent lends a further degree of vulnerability which can create a perfect storm. It’s this which can destroy our connectedness with ourselves and, by extension, our ability to connect to others.
It’s important to note that shame is not the same as guilt – guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done, shame is feeling bad about who you are. Our mind can potentially rationalise the former, but the latter brings us to our knees. American author and researcher Brenè Brown has done some amazing work on this subject- nothing I write here will even come close and will likely just be plagiarising her writings, so I highly recommend her trilogy on the subject – The Gifts of Imperfection, The Power of Vulnerability and Rising Strong. The effects of shame can be all encompassing – realistically most of us are likely to experience it at some point – and our reactions to it can vary from ‘over sharing’, self-righteous judgement (which is effectively just projecting our shame onto others), self-sabotage and engaging in self-destructive behaviours. While you could argue that all of these behaviours are likely to effect our interpersonal relationships in a negative way, I think perhaps the most damaging effect of shame is when we respond to it with silence. When we shut down, close off and keep things bottled up and refuse to acknowledge them – even to ourselves.
The reasoning behind why we do this is sound – it hurts. It just hurts too much – both the memory of the event itself plus the feelings of shame associated with it – that it’s easier to simply refuse to think about it. We tell ourselves that it’s happened now and there’s nothing we can do about it, that this is the way the world works and rehashing it isn’t going to change anything. We tell ourselves to toughen up, stop being a baby and just deal with it. But refusing to address the issue isn’t ‘dealing with it’, it’s burying it. It doesn’t even become a scar – it just sits there as an open, fetid wound – and so we build a wall around it and by extension, around ourselves. We don’t breathe a word to anyone about it, we don’t breathe a word to ourselves about it. If we just don’t think about it, it will stop hurting so much, it will go away.
In theory this may seem like the way to go – certainly less painful in the short-term than having to re-live the situation by talking or thinking about it and cheaper than seeing a therapist – the problem is that in practice, this also manifests in our personal relationships with others. It becomes the big, fat elephant sitting in the middle of our subconscious and all that energy that comes from trying to keep the elephant in place, quiet and hidden manifests itself as rigidity, hyper-anxiety and hyper vigilence. We become so highly strung that it takes very little external stress to set us off. You know how big and awkward an elephant is, right? Imagining trying to keep one very still and very quiet, hidden under a tablecloth. This is, in essence, what your mind is trying to do with shame. Because we’re so desperate to avoid our own thoughts, we become afraid of silence, afraid of being alone, any form of genuine relaxation becomes dangerous because we might lower our guard. In short, we become afraid of ourselves.
If we’re that unable to open up, especially to ourselves, then we’re unable to open up to the people around us. If we’re afraid of connecting with ourselves, we’re likely to be afraid of connecting to the people around us. No matter how much we desperately want to. The shutters have come down and the self-loathing and shame that we’ve tried so hard to hide become like beacons to everyone around us and, more often than not, we don’t know why. We can never quite work out why our interpersonal relationships aren’t providing us with the fulfilment we want and deserve, we can’t quite see what it is we’re doing differently to other people, and we don’t understand why we can’t engage the attention of other people in the way we want. Because subconsciously, attention is the last thing we want. We don’t want to pay ourselves any attention, we don’t want anyone else paying us attention. After all, if they’re paying us attention, they might see the elephant. And so, ultimately it’s a form of self-protection but also a form of self-punishment.
Our close social relationships provide us with a necessary emotional and physical ballast for our overall well-being, and so denying ourselves that comfort and support is the ultimate in self-punishment. Much like drug addiction or any other self-destructive behaviour, it becomes excruciatingly difficult to break out of this self-imposed prison. Primarily because we can’t see it. We can’t get out of our own way. Ultimately, we’ve closed down and become so disconnected from who we are, from our inner self, that we can’t even identify that we’re the problem. We just know that we’re unhappy. We may even still be contributing that unhappiness to the event itself, we tell ourselves that the reason we’re not enjoying the interpersonal relationships other people are enjoying is because we’re not worthy of them. That somehow other people have discovered our shame and judge us for it when in reality we’ve created a self-fulling prophecy born out of self-protection and self-punishment through emotional isolation.
To un-do all of this become a bit like trying to untangle a ball of string – we have to work backwards, starting at the beginning, with yourself. With no other thought to anything else, we have to become reacquainted with ourselves, as have to become open with ourselves in an effort to reconnect – no easy feat because it requires us to consciously and deliberately make our way back to the open, fetid wound that we left behind for a reason. But it does prove easier than living with the frustration of a unfulfilling life, of just going through the motions wondering why you’re just ‘not feeling it’. No, it’s not for everyone. A lot of people will make – and have made – the decision not to rock the boat. They’ve made peace with their elephant and the life they have as a result of that. And that’s totally fine as well. There’s no right or wrong way to overcome past hurt. On the other hand, if that’s not enough for us then we need to get to work on letting go of the external world for the moment and learning to pay attention to ourselves again.