The Self-Reinforcing Cycle of Isolation and How We Get Out

“Isolation is not good for me.” The song “Lemon tree” got it absolutely right here. Author Brené Brown describes in her book “Braving the Wilderness” how isolation is harming us. It might be more dangerous on our health than irresponsible eating and smoking. However, I rarely hear people talking about this. Why?

Loneliness is a human function of self-preservation

When was the last time you had that lonely feeling? And what did you associate it with?

Brené Brown describes loneliness as a function of human self-preservation. As a signal that urges us to act. Human connection is as important as eating and drinking to our health.

So there are three major signals for human self-preservation:

1. Hunger= signal that you need to eat –> you eat –> you do not feel hungry

2. Thirst= signal that you need to drink –> you drink –> you do not feel thirsty

3. Loneliness= signal that you need to connect with people –> you connect with people who care about you –> you do not feel lonely

So as hunger urges us to eat something and thirst urges us to drink, the feeling of loneliness urges us to connect.

The the important this is that being with people does not necessarily mean that you are not feeling lonely. You can feel very lonely with other people.

And on the other hand: Being alone does not necessarily equate that you are feeling lonely. Introverts need more time for themselves.

Problem 1: Loneliness has a bad rep

So why is it that for most of us it is quite easy to eat something when we are feeling hungry and drink something when we are feeling thirsty, but it is not so easy to connect, when we are feeling lonely?

Loneliness has a bad reputation. You are feeling lonely? Oh, there is something wrong with you. Are you not able to build meaningful connection with others? Does nobody want to hang around with you? Loneliness is often being associated with limited social skills or likeability. The messages we receive are shame-inducing. And this is actually very dangerous. It gives the message:

“There is something wrong with me, because I feel lonely.”

Problem 2: Shame activates self-protection

Now if you add shame to loneliness, you have a very toxic mixture. Because shame activates our self-protection system. Our stories become exaggerated, black-white-thinking overtakes and scarcity thinking creeps in from every angle. This is very effective at disconnecting us. And we are in a loop that only gets worse.

What is the way out of this spiral?

Normalizing loneliness

The major problem is the connection of loneliness with shame.

loneliness –> there is something wrong with me –> isolation

The solution lies in replacing that association.

loneliness –> signal that shows me I need to reconnect –> reaching out

If we are already in the shame spiral, all the things that help with reducing shame also help here. Like:

  • Normalizing loneliness: This is a feeling that is absolutely normal and human. Everybody has it.
  • Self-compassion. This is the chicken-soup for the soul. It helps with so many things and it drastically reduces shame. I highly recommend Kristen Neffs exercises and meditations, they are very simple to do and very powerful.
  • Reaching out to somebody who will show empathy.

Short moments of connection

The bottom line is that loneliness is as normal as hunger and thirst. We just need a little connection and everything will be much better already.

Now, those moments of reconnection need not be big. They can be very small moments. Like a short call to a person who cares about you. Like when you feel hungry, sometimes the first thing you need is a little snack.

You also do not need to have a lot of people. Brené Brown writes that research shows that what matters is not the number of connections you have, but that you develop 1 or 2 really close relationships.

What are your experiences with loneliness? When do you feel lonely? How do you think about it?

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