Since COVID began, many people have suffered the impacts that sudden and ongoing social isolation and social distancing have brought.
Thanks to limited or no contact with family and friends, not to mention highly altered ways of being together and moving about the world, many people have felt more isolated, lonely, and hungry for contact than at any other point in their lives.
But still, for some, the experience of being isolated is not unfamiliar.
In fact, for some, this – social isolation, social distancing, restricting engagement with the world and with others – is the norm rather than the exception.
These people are those who cope and manage their daily experience through self-isolation, an experience and way of being that predates COVID.
These people are those who find it easier to be alone than to be with others.
These are people who may be looking around, wondering why everyone is having such a hard time with limited contact as it feels so intuitive and normal to them.
These are people who don’t find the COVID-induced isolation that different or that intolerable.
And no, these people are not just introverts as glib social posts might poke fun at.
Today’s essay explores why this is – why it may feel easier for some to feel safer and better alone than to be with others – and what the causes and impacts of self-isolation are, and what can be done about it.
If this topic resonates with you, please read on.
Self-isolation is a common trauma symptom.
“Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.”
― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
As I mentioned in the introduction, those who are experiencing the isolation aspect of COVID and finding it tolerable, normal, and perhaps preferable, are not just introverts as social media humor likes to poke fun at.
Sure, some introverts may be having an easier time coping with the forced lack of togetherness, but there’s another group who may prefer isolation for far different reasons: those who come from relational trauma backgrounds.
For those that come from relational trauma backgrounds – backgrounds in which they experienced neglect, chaos, dysfunction or outright abuse from their caregivers over an extended period of time – self-isolation may be a very familiar experience.
Indeed, self-isolation is both a psychosocial repercussion and aggravating influence of coming from a trauma history.
The impacts of coming from a relational trauma background are as wide and varied as the individuals who move through those experiences and symptoms can range from the innocuous to the severe in impact for each person.
Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, unresolved eating disorders, or substance use disorders, feeling blind with rage… all of these are vivid and perhaps more obvious symptoms that say, “There’s a problem here.”
These are the uncomfortable, inconvenient, and downright detrimental symptoms that will often lead people to call me, to finally realize that they need help, that they need therapy.
But there are subtle, less visible signs that the past is present, too, and having equally painful impacts on someone’s life.
And one of these symptoms is, in my clinical experience, the tendency to self-isolate.
What do I mean by self-isolate?
Self-isolation is different than taking time for yourself, time to be alone.
Self-isolation is different from a tendency towards introversion and the preference to create and be in low-stimulus environments.
Self-isolation is more compulsive, less choiceful, more reaction than response.
Self-isolation is rooted, I believe, in a conscious or unconscious attempt to limit contact with others because, at some level, contact with others doesn’t feel safe or okay.
It’s a way of being to cope with the overwhelmingness of relationships, versus a temperamental or sensory input preference for solitude.
It’s about protection more than preference.
Self-isolation is the difference between a nice and occasional night in versus a veritable fleeing back to the four walls of your house after the workday ends, so you can lock the door, disappear into your safe space, and limit the outside world from coming in.
Self-isolation isn’t just “being a homebody.”
It’s being afraid to leave your home because the effort it takes to make small talk with your neighbors feels too draining.
It’s praying you don’t run into any dorm mates in the hallway as you make your way to the bathroom in the morning.
It’s pretending not to be home when your neighbor knocks on the door because you feel panicky.
Does this sound familiar? Are you silently nodding your head as you scroll this page?
Or are you reading these words thinking, “Why would anyone do that? What is there to flee from? What’s so hard about talking to neighbors? Why do people self-isolate?”
Why do people self-isolate?
“Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
― John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
We as humans are hardwired to connect.
To be in relationship with one another. To be with each other.
Study after study reinforces how connection with others is a biological and psychological imperative for each of us.
So why isolate?
Why would anyone feel like they need to flee and withdraw and limit their contact with others in order to be okay?
Self-isolation is a way that folks who come from relational trauma backgrounds cope with their overwhelming reality.
And while their present reality may not include abusers, bullies, or harmful forces, if they come from a relational trauma history, the chances are high that, at some point, they did have abusers, bullies, and harmful forces in their life.
And because we form in relationship to our relationships, it then makes sense that the tendency to self-isolate would happen.
After all, if you grow up in a dysfunctional or abusive family, you may have learned, at some level, that relationships were not healthy, safe, or nourishing to be in.
You may have, at one extreme, been egregiously physically abused.
The danger of human relationship is made obvious in these harmful cases.
And on a less severe end of the spectrum, you may have grown up with people who repeatedly crossed your boundaries or expected you to parent them versus the other way around.
You may have been taught that if you say, “No” you’ll be in trouble.
You may have learned that conflict means the end of the relationship.
You may never have learned how to express your needs and wants because that wasn’t allowed.
You may have learned to equate being in relationship with being taken advantage of.
Whatever and however you grew up, if you come from a relational trauma history, at some level you may have learned that relationships were a source of struggle and strain versus nourishment and safety.
And so, with this kind of lived experience, self-isolation may have become a wonderful and wise thing to do to protect yourself.
Remove yourself from the people that cause you pain – makes sense, right?
Very possibly, this helped you get through childhood and adolescence, making it through those years when you had less personal power and choice about your environment and the people in it.
So again, the tendency to self-isolate, like with any other coping mechanism we develop in response to our early trauma histories, likely served you well at some point in your life.
And, yet, someday and at some level, what was once appropriately adaptive and smart and wise to do, may no longer be so effective and helpful anymore.
Especially and particularly when there aren’t, in fact, abusers and bullies in your life anymore but you’re still braced for that kind of experience.
Indeed, self-isolation, when it becomes a lived-out default versus an early protective mechanism can be downright harmful and detrimental to your well-being.
What are the downsides of self-isolation?
“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
There’s a multitude of downsides to self-isolation.
On a biological and physiological level, multiple clinical studies have reinforced the suspicion that isolation and loneliness can have profound impacts on the biology and psychology of those who experience it.
Social isolation can contribute to a shortened life span, increased risk for dementia, poor sleep quality, and increase your risk for a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and suicide.
And, beyond the black and white data that highlights the health risks of isolation, there’s the more ephemeral but deeply important fact: self-isolate may inhibit your enjoyment and fulfillment with your one short and precious life.
Keeping yourself away from relationships may keep you away from your dreams.
Maybe you long to have a stable, happy marriage but you spend weekend after weekend, locked in your apartment, feeling unable and unwilling to take the steps to make those wishes a reality.
Maybe you watch, on repeat, shows like The Office or Friends, and dream about having a gang of buddies like that that you can turn to, but you feel stymied at the thought of how to meet people and keep and make friendships like that.
Maybe you hunger to advance in your career, but advancing would mean managing people and the thought terrifies you, so you keep yourself small and don’t advocate for that next raise and prized project.
Self-isolation can be a symptom of feeling overwhelmed, frightened, and overly challenged by other human relationships (despite the fact that those relationships are healthy) and it can greatly interfere with the dreams in our hearts for our lives if left unaddressed and unattended.
So what can we do about it?
Ways to change your self-isolation patterns.
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
― Mother Teresa
If, as you read this essay, you found yourself nodding your head, resonating, and feeling overwhelmed at the thought of addressing any social isolation habits you may have, please take hope.
The brain is plastic and can change right up until the day we die. Which means that we and our patterns can change.
I truly believe that if self-isolation formed in response to unsafe and unhealthy relationship experiences, then a large part of the proverbial antidote, the healing agent of change, is the experience of having healthy, functional, and safe relationships to help rewire our brain.
And, along with this reparative relational experience that can help soothe our nervous system and heal our attachment styles, there’s a psychoeducation and re-learning process that can and must include key lessons that may have been missed early in life.
Lessons such as what constitutes a healthy versus unhealthy relationship, what a boundary actually is and how to hold it so that you don’t always feel taken advantage of and overwhelmed by relationships, emotional regulation skills to support you staying present when you feel flooded by relationship interaction and so much more.
I teach these skills in my course – Hard Families, Good Boundaries – which, while titled to reflect the development of one skill in one context (how to have and hold boundaries with difficult family members in your life so as to improve your life), it’s really a Trojan horse of a class.
Meaning we actually dive into all these key psychological, foundational lessons and provide you with a safe and private community of others who come from relational trauma backgrounds so you can have different kinds of relational experiences.
So if you see the tendency to self-isolate in yourself, if you long to address this way that you cope so that, when COVID finally ends, you can live the connected, fulfilling, relationship-rich life you imagine for yourself, I truly hope that you’ll join us.
If you have questions about the course, please email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you.
In the meantime, please take such good care of yourself and have compassion for how you show up in the world: you come by your patterns and behaviors honestly and, remember, no matter where you’re starting from in life, change is possible.