It doesn’t take a pandemic to keep an introvert or an agoraphobe locked away. We like small, controllable environments. Plenty of people have found themselves isolated by virtue of their career, whilst others are minimising human contact out of a sense of social responsibility. Isolation is not always a bad thing. However when isolation is combined with feelings of loneliness and helplessness, it can feel like the cruellest affliction.
Back in Part 1, I spoke at some length about the shell I was trapped in through childhood, and some of the ways I found to break through. There’s plenty more I could dig into, but I’d rather move the conversation towards what we can all do (in a practical way) to help eliminate that awful, soul-sucking experience—whether we find it deep within, or haunting the lives of those around us.
Of course, the first part of dealing with any problem is recognising it, so that’s what I aim to achieve with this particular post.
To my mind, people who are *suffering with isolation find themselves in one of two mindsets: those who are desperately trying to reach out, and those who are withdrawing. We might think of these as Positive and Negative polarities, but the truth is that neither group feel they have much agency to actually effect change. People can (and indeed do) move back and forth between them depending on the situation at hand, the company they keep, their ability to cope, the effects of alcohol and so on.
Having lived with loneliness myself for many years, I tend to be sensitive to and conscious of the signs in others. I’d like to share some of them here.
In broad terms we might categorise these signs by in terms of Thought and Word and Deed.
Thought here indicates a person’s general mindset – an overall pattern of behaviour.
The Positive polarity draws some people to Cry For Help. This may be expressed in demonstrative anxieties, a compulsive need for feedback, for reassurance, or simple contact. It may also be expressed through dramatic announcements. The overriding impressions that they leave are of Intensity and Invasiveness.
The Negative polarity tend towards Withdrawal or Rejection. A passive variant may feel a dread of contact and conflict, whilst a more active variant would seek them—using **challenging and sometimes ***hurtful behaviour in order to achieve this aim. Some self-loathing people follow this path to try to rationalise their situation. For other people, it can feel like self-determination. In either case, the overriding impression they leave is one of deliberate, self-driven exclusion.
By Word, I mean in a person’s verbal (or typed) communication.
The Positive polarity will often gabble, trying to get everything out of their head in one go. Being genuinely and fully understood by the person they are communicating with is of deep importance to them. You may notice a person who has the tendency to hold forth for long periods, fearing rejection at the end of a breath. This may go hand in hand with the habit of thinking of ‘just one more thing’ to say.
The Negative polarity ****usually stay silent, watching from the periphery, absolutely certain there is nothing they can say that will be of interest, or that will not be openly mocked. They find it hard to initiate conversation, to make a phone call, to introduce themselves or interject at appropriate moments.
By Deed, I mean in a person’s body language and actions.
The Positive polarity tend to be grabby, and make use of intense eye contact. Holding attention is the point, often expressed with handshakes or hugs that feel over-long. Some may hold on to your arm as they talk. Movements can be nervy, or clumsy, ultra-responsive to social cues.
The Negative polarity tend to avoid physical contact with others entirely. The withdrawn individual tries to remain unobtrusive, unthreatening, unnoticed—though they may be desperately lonely. Eye contact is usually avoided, shoulders slumped, back bent, chin down. The impression that they leave is of a person who is entirely ground down, defeated before they begin.
And… Oof. Look, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m seeing too many correlations and just the act of writing these posts is taking a toll on me.
There’s clearly much more to be said on the behaviour of isolated people, the drivers behind their loneliness, and the means by which we might notice their pain. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a behavioural therapist; what I’ve sketched out above is based on personal experience, observation, and feedback.
If you want to dig deeper, there will be excellent books out there, academic studies to explore, social media support groups and so on and so forth.
All I’m hoping is that these posts will give you something to think about. Now, merely recognising loneliness in somebody else doesn’t solve the problem. Of course it doesn’t. Reaching out takes time and patience, and a fuck-ton of energy. You can’t ‘save’ everybody, even if you wanted to. For one thing, some people have got psychological or medical conditions you are simply not equipped to deal with. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just do whatever good you can.
I’ll be back next month with a few practical and positive thoughts on to how to reach out – whether you’re on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in.
I hope you’ll join me. Bridging the gap is hard but it can change lives – not least, your own.
If you have insights of your own to share, or if you want to discuss any of these posts, I’d love to hear from you. You can use the Comments section below or reach out via social media. If you need to talk to a professional, they are still available, even through this pandemic. The Samaritans are just at the end of the phone, and your GP can be reached online.
You matter. You are worthy of care. Please seek it out.
*Specifically in the context of loneliness. I acknowledge there are many other types of suffering exacerbated by lockdown.
**Note – Challenging behaviour does not necessarily equal bad behaviour. A Negative polarity can result in positive outcomes; it can drive social change by standing up to abusive and exclusive norms. Subcultures arise from it to nurture, protect, and encourage their members.
***Trolls and Edge-lords come under this category, for instance. Their behaviour tends to reinforce abusive and exclusive cultural norms. For these lonely souls, any kind of response, no matter how explosive, is felt to be ‘a good thing’ because it forces people to acknowledge their existence. This gives them a sense of power and control they otherwise lack.
****And here, I’m focusing on those who Withdraw rather than those who Reject. Once we start down that passage in the rabbit hole, things get a whole lot more complex and nuanced. I don’t have the time, space, or means to go into it here, I’m afraid.
WANT TO READ MORE?
If mental health is an important topic for you, you might find hope and help with Presence of Mind, in which I regain a sense of personal control.
If you’re more interested in my business journey, you might want to check out Getting Serious, in which I lay down tracks for the future.