Childhood Trauma And Social Isolation:
If, as a result of our childhood trauma, we develop, in adulthood, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, we are at greater risk than average of becoming socially isolated. Indeed, I have written elsewhere on this site about how, for several years, I saw virtually no one apart from those I was forced to interact with (such as doctors, psychiatrists, pizza delivery men, shopkeepers).
But why do people become so socially isolated? Below, I briefly explain some of the main reasons:
1) We may distrust others or feel fearful or vulnerable when around them
2) We may simply lack the energy it requires to interact with others, especially if it entails pretending to be cheerful
3) Anhedonia: we no longer derive pleasure from being in the presence of others
4) Misanthropy: we no longer like other people and have a very low view of humanity in general
5) Fear of how we might behave: for example, if we have problems with anger, we may fear to become angry or (especially if we drink heavily in the company of others) violent
6) We may have deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, shame, inferiority or self-hatred and view ourselves as unfit to engage with ‘decent’ society
7) We might feel others look down on us for being mentally ill or feel self-conscious about symptoms such as agitation
8) We don’t want to talk about our illness/experiences that led to it and fear that others may pressure us to do so, or that they may say ignorant things like ‘why don’t you just get over it?’
9) Others may ostracize us and turn their backs on us due to lack of understanding, lack of compassion, or an unwillingness to be of emotional support
10) A complete breakdown of social confidence (especially if affected by ostracization – see number 9 immediately above).
11) Guilt – we might see ourselves as such a ‘bad’ and ‘despicable’ person that we don’t allow ourselves to go out and enjoy ourselves
How Remaining Socially Isolated Can Lead To A Vicious Circle :
If we avoid mixing with others due to feelings such as anxiety, anger, depression, and lack of confidence, the emotional pain of our isolation is likely to exacerbate these symptoms thus making it even harder to socialize and, ultimately, leaving us feeling like ‘misfits’ and ‘social pariahs’ and in a general state of despair.
Furthermore, without emotional stimulation or emotional ‘nourishment’, we can find that our feelings shut down and we feel emotionally numb/dead.
Treatments for complex posttraumatic stress disorder include :
– Trauma-Focused Psychotherapy (including Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
– EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing).
To help overcome a propensity to self-isolate, assertiveness training can help, as can anger management training if one’s problems are anger related.
Social Anxiety And Self Consciousness :
Self-consciousness, and concerns about how others perceive us in social situations, both lie at the heart of social anxiety. At its worst, social anxiety can make interacting with others intolerably distressing, leading us to avoid social situations, or, as in my own case (especially in my teens, twenties, and, now I come to think of it, a not insignificant proportion of my thirties) resorting to the consumption of large volumes of alcohol in an attempt to ease social difficulties (once a certain amount is consumed, however, the difficulties can become immeasurably worse – an experience I am by no means a stranger to).
HOW DOES SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS MANIFEST ITSELF?
One of the main symptoms of self-consciousness is that we can become OBSESSED WITH WHAT WE BELIEVE OTHERS MIGHT BE THINKING OF US. The word ‘MIGHT’ in the last sentence is of great importance, however. Often, what we believe others MIGHT be thinking of us is not, in reality, what they are thinking at all; people, in very general terms, are very frequently indeed too preoccupied with their own worries and concerns to spend a lot of time dwelling on others. In other words, OFTEN, BECAUSE OUR TRAUMATIC CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES LED US TO SEE OURSELVES IN A NEGATIVE LIGHT (maybe parents/step-parents treated us, as children, as though we were INTRINSICALLY BAD), we are prone, frequently, to fall into the trap of believing (FALSELY) that others, too, will always share a similarly jaundiced view of us.
We may also be fearful of how others may react to us. For example, if we experienced rejection as a child, we may have been ‘programmed’ to expect everyone, sooner or later, to reject us too. Of course, such an inference does not follow in any logical manner.
Social anxiety, then, frequently leads us to develop A DEEP FEAR OF SOCIAL INTERACTION. But what is it, precisely, that we actually fear? Research into this area suggests that, overwhelmingly, we fear how the social interaction will make us FEEL, rather than what may actually happen to us (someone being hostile, for example).
THE VICIOUS CYCLE THAT SOCIAL ANXIETY CREATES:
The fear generated by the social interaction can, and, very often, does, set up a VICIOUS CYCLE – THE MORE ANXIOUS WE FEEL, THE MORE DANGEROUS THE SOCIAL SITUATION SEEMS TO BE…SO WE FEEL YET MORE ANXIOUS…and so on…
SOME OF THE HALLMARKS OF SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS:
1) Self-consciousness can lead to PHYSICAL SENSATIONS; for example:
– physical agitation (e.g. clenching and unclenching the fists, fiddling with one’s hands, etc).
– rapid and shallow breathing
– increased heart rate
2) Self-consciousness affects how we THINK about ourselves; for example:
– we may think that we are intrinsically unlikable (let alone lovable), worthless, uninteresting, peculiar, and odd. We may even consider ourselves a ‘freak’.
3) Self-consciousness affects how we FEEL; for example:
– fearful and at risk
– a sense of needing to escape or avoid the social situation
– selectively picking up (psychologists have termed this ‘SELECTIVE ATTENTION’) on ‘negative’ reactions towards us from others, whilst, at the same time, dismissing any positive feedback we may be attracting (I put the word ‘negative’ in inverted commas for good reason: this is because, very often, our social anxiety disturbs our perceptions – we may IMAGINE that others are responding negatively, when, in fact, this is simply a result of us MISINTERPRETING SIGNALS FROM OTHERS (e.g. misinterpreting body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc).
HOW WE CAN REDUCE OUR SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS:
The main thing that the EXPERTS IN THIS FIELD SUGGEST is to:
FOCUS MORE ON EXTERNAL EVENTS (ie what is going on around us) and less on INTERNAL EVENTS (i.e. how we feel and the negative thoughts that may be running through our head). It helps, then, in social situations, to DIVERT OUR ATTENTION AWAY FROM OURSELVES AND RECHANNEL IT ONTO THOSE AROUND US.
Self-consciousness can also impair our ability to concentrate and follow exactly what others are saying to us in a social situation (ie we might frequently lose the thread of the conversation); because of this, experts also advise that we try to INCREASE OUR CONCENTRATION ON PRECISELY WHAT OTHERS ARE ACTUALLY SAYING. It is also important to keep in mind that the danger we perceive social situations to represent is ALMOST INVARIABLY FALSE.
We need, too, to attempt not to dwell on any unpleasant feelings social interaction gives rise to in us; if we pay too much attention to, say, our sweating palms, things tend to only be made worse. Any unpleasant feelings, then, that social situations may cause us to experience, need to be seen for what they are – merely feelings which FALSELY ANTICIPATE DANGER WHERE NO REAL RISK OF DANGER EXISTS. We need to just accept the feelings, non-judgementally, and view them as the FALSE IMPOSTORS that they are – then we are in a position to simply let them ‘wash over’ us.
Social Anxiety And The ‘Acting As If’ Technique;
Many people assume that confidence is something that you either have or you don’t; however, this is not actually the case. It is not a case of either being born confident or not. Also, feelings of confidence are not fixed. A person may be confident in some areas of life (e.g. about a hobby, their work, or the ability to play a sport or musical instrument, etc, but not confident in others). So it is not a question of being a confident person or not. Rather, it is a question of which areas of life you are confident in already, and which areas of life you have the potential to be confident.
Feeling a lack of social confidence does not set a person apart, nor does it make them in any way inadequate or inferior. Indeed, many people who we think of confident may well, beneath the veneer, be consumed by inner doubt. Even the most confident person’s confidence can take a severe knock by, for example, being rejected by someone they are in a relationship with or suffer a run of bad luck and misfortune.
In social situations, if we see others around us behaving very confidently, it is worth reminding ourselves that this is quite possibly not a true reflection of how they feel inside – they may simply have learned to hide their inner anxieties.
However, because some people are very good at putting on a confident social mask, others tend to take them at face value and assume that they are as confident as they appear.
Perhaps one of the most powerful strategies for overcoming social anxiety is to take a leaf out of these people’s books and, in social situations, start to ‘act as if’ we are confident. We can ask ourselves how a confident person would enter a room, how they would move, how they would behave, how they would use body language and meet others’ gazes etc, and then act in a similar manner ourselves. Doing this has a very powerful effect – acting confidently actually leads us to feel confident. It also causes others to respond to us differently which instills further feelings of confidence and initiates a virtuous circle of feeling and behaving.
The ‘acting as if’ technique can be made even more effective if, as well as acting in a confident manner, we train ourselves to start thinking confidently in social situations as well. We can practice positive self-talk and give ourselves positive messages like ‘there’s no reason these people should dislike me’ or ‘these people don’t represent a threat to me’ etc.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.