The instinct to isolate when we are going through life challenges is both innate and conditioned.
Sometimes, physical isolation is necessary to keep us safe. such as in our current world pandemic. Other times, it’s a function of our conditioning. We
Although not every challenge or hard time presents the risk of physical death, the same patterns of behavior are common. Whether we are under attack by a bear in the woods, an invisible virus, crushing debt, overwhelmed by too much work, or other thoughts, the nervous system reacts in the same way. It doesn’t differentiate between types of harm.
In the same vein, many of us learn that expressing our emotions, talking about our fears or anxiety, makes us weak. Boys, especially, are told “don’t cry.”
Part of my conditioning is that it’s “not good” to share your struggles with others. The story behind this conditioning is that if people know you’re having a hard time they may take advantage of your situation. Or you’ll lose business because you will reveal yourself as unable to help others. You may be ostracized by the community and lose your standing.
The consequence of this conditioning is that we keep our struggles and our most uncomfortable emotions to ourselves. Isolating becomes a survival habit.
This might sound like a solid life-preserving habit, except that it exists in tension with another deeply-engrained aspect of our survival mechanisms: we need community to survive. We survive as a species, as tribes, not as individuals.
We have a deep longing to belong, to be a part of something beyond ourselves.
The Four Words We Long to Hear
When facing challenging circumstances or difficult emotions, there are four words that bring us comfort:
You are not alone.
The need to know we are not alone is the underpinning of support groups, internet forums, intimate circles, and community rituals.
In Judaism, two of the most important positive commandments are visiting the sick and comforting mourners. Both of these acts are intended to convey this specific message to a person in a time of great need: you are not alone.
The Power of Vulnerability
To help ourselves and others know that we are not alone, we must resist the impulse to isolate — at least emotionally and socially. We must share our experiences and emotions with others.
Each time I share my truth I find that it opens the door for others to share that they have experienced the same thing
The gift of sharing our experience is twofold:
We learn that we are not alone, and we offer others the opportunity to see that they are not alone.
I have found that while some people may be turned away, the right ones come closer. They know that I understand because I’ve been there. Rather than undermining my credibility, it boosts my credibility: the people I’m meant to serve know I can help them because I’ve walked the path.
When I isolate and shut down, that’s when I lose out. I miss out on connection. I deprive myself of community. I deprive others of the opportunity to offer support and encouragement, and I deprive them of the opportunity to know that they are not alone.
Life need not be a practice of suffering in silence. Whatever you are going through, you are not alone.