NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

How to overcome feeling lonely and isolated

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...

I feel more and more withdrawn as time goes on. I have very few friends and most communication is now electronic. How do I change this?

We are unavoidably social creatures. But what happens when the desire to protect ourselves overpowers the urge to connect with others?

From the very beginning, we all need other humans to survive. Babies are unable to survive without a parent. Toddlers are unable to regulate their emotions without caregivers. Solitary confinement is one of the most torturing experiences you can impose on a person, and without love the world stops going round (or something like that).

This desire then for connection and relationship is one of the strongest instincts we possess. Almost as strong as the desire to protect ourselves.

In my experience, we all vary in our need for connection, but there is no avoiding it. We all also vary in our sensitivity to relational pain: How much pain another person can cause us.

The bad news is we know becoming isolated from meaningful human connections is both a modern dilemma, and really bad for us. Some research suggests that a life of isolation (even when the person doesn’t subjectively experience loneliness) can be as harmful to our long-term health outcomes as smoking.

It can literally kill us. But then some would rather die than feel heartbroken.

Over the years I’ve been struck by the fact that for many people who come to see me, I’m the only person they really talk to, in any meaningful way, about what goes on inside their heart and mind. I might even be the only person they talk to. And for others therapy might be the only place they’ve ever talked about those things.

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Ultimately, of course the pain of isolation, and the deep desire for connection are two sides of the same coin. If people weren’t so important, it wouldn’t hurt when they rejected, criticised or left us.

For those who have retreated from the world of relationships though, there is no higher priority, for your emotional and physical health, than finding ways to venture out, and risk making people important again.

There is no silver bullet. Once we’ve retreated and pulled up the drawbridge behind us, it’s hard to venture out again. So by all means be careful. And absolutely choose wisely when it comes to who you let in to your life. Start slow, and be open to making mistakes. Expect to feel hurt again. But know that your life literally depends on it.

In time, the world can start spinning again.

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