Social Isolation in a Sociable World
Social Isolation: a lifelong pattern of feeling like you don’t fit in
This article considers how social isolation can present itself in individuals, using the Schema Therapy model.
Someone who is socially isolated is often perceived as being a quiet, introverted individual who avoids social situations or prefers their own company. However sometimes it is the most sociable, extrovert individuals who feel the most lonely, isolated and excluded.
In Jeff Young’s Schema Therapy theory, the social isolation (also referred to as social exclusion) schema is a lifelong pattern of feeling like you don’t fit in. You might surrender to this, finding yourself in an endless stream of situations which make you feel different, avoid it by steering clear of social situations, or overcompensate by doing the opposite to try and manage this feeling.
If you are an outgoing, sociable person, but have a social isolation schema, you may:
- Be the life and soul of a social gathering, friendly and chatty, but inside you feel different and removed from those around you.
- Work hard to come across as attractive – either physically or through being funny and friendly. However, underneath you feel very self-conscious about how you look, and whether people like you, and you spend significant time worrying about this.
- Pretend to be like others just to fit in, and don’t let people see the bits of you that you think are ‘odd’ or ‘different’. You may struggle to show vulnerable feelings to friends (such as feeling sad, low, lonely) as you are worried this will push people away.
- Have a lot of friends and acquaintances, and be liked by many people, but you don’t feel that many people know the real you, or understand you.
If we imagine this outward appearance as a coping strategy, it has a number of strengths. It helps us to connect with others, helps us to feel valued and positive and means that we have people around us. As a child it is likely to have kept us safe in some way.
However, underneath this our sense of being different does not change. Sometimes, being the social butterfly may actually increase feelings of being different because you feel disconnected from those around you. This coping strategy may also mean that it is harder for you to develop close, meaningful relationships with others – they may always assume that you are ‘fine’ so don’t ask anything too deep – which will only increase your sense of being different.
This can then impact on your emotions; you may become overly sensitive to how people react to you, and beat yourself up if you feel others did not like you. The psychological issues of loneliness and sadness may come out in other ways – getting angry, becoming depressed – but you may not know why.
This social isolation schema is likely to have developed from childhood experiences. These may not have been really bad, but in some way you felt different to others. For example:
- You felt different to other children due to your physical appearance, your ability at school (maybe being dyslexic, having a stutter or being the ‘clever one’), or your social ability (being awkward, naturally shy).
- Your family were seen as different from other families around you.
- You felt like you were treated differently to your brothers and sisters, you were given less attention, or you were the ‘black sheep’ of the family.
- You were an introverted child, or chronically shy – you did what was expected of you but never really developed your own views or interests.
There are a number of steps to start to understand and manage this schema if you overcompensate for it. Be aware that these steps can take time and effort to work.
1. Explore your childhood experiences which may have led to you feeling socially excluded, or different from others. Connect with the feelings that this created for you, and think about how you used to cope with these. Maybe you ‘put on a brave face’, or made a joke about things. Were these coping strategies helpful at the time, but are less so now?
2. List ways in your current life that you manage your social isolation. If you do this through overcompensating think about the times that you may put on a ‘sociable’ face – at work, with friends, with your family. Is there a sense of feeling different or lonely at these times? If so, it may be that your social isolation schema has been triggered.
3. Keep a diary of times in the week when you feel socially isolated. Identify the triggers, thoughts and feelings around these.
4. Think about how your social isolation schema effects your thinking. Do you constantly compare yourself to others? Are you hyper sensitive to others not liking you? Do you criticise yourself if things don’t go as you hoped (‘I’m stupid, this is my fault)? or do you just think about how to get away, or avoid situations?
5. Use some CBT techniques to challenge these thinking patterns.
6. Make a list of the things about yourself that make you feel different from others. Review the evidence for this – is there any truth or is this just something you have learnt to tell yourself? Really focus on identifying the evidence that this is NOT true.
7. List your positive qualities and the things that you like about yourself. Think about how you can use these to interact with others.
8. Make a list of things that you would feel comfortable changing about how you socially interact with others. Maybe this could be being less talkative, talking about how you are feeling, or being able to assertively disagree with others rather than pretend like you agree when you don’t. Rate these from easiest to try to the hardest and then try practising the easiest ones. If this works, move up the list. It may take a few times of trying for things to feel different or better.
9. Talk to someone about your social isolation feelings – either a psychologist or someone you are close to. Open up and ask them to help you to follow some of the steps above.
The post is based on information from ‘Reinventing your life: The breakthrough program to end negative behaviour and feel great again’ by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko. If you would like to learn more about this schema I would recommend this self help book, in particular the chapter on the ‘social exclusion lifetrap’.