This Is What Social Isolation Looks Like

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This Is What Social Isolation Looks Like

by Eleanor Haley

It’s winter.  It’s cold.  It’s dark.  I’ve been socially isolating.  There, I said it.

I’m guessing I might not be alone.  Social isolation in grief is oh so common.  Social isolation in winter is oh so common.  Conversations about social isolation?  Not so common.  We reference social isolation a lot around here, but we have never had a whole post about it. Seeing as I have recently been in the depths of social isolation, it seemed time to change that.

First, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way.

Social isolation is not the same as alone time or solitude.

Social isolation is not introversion.

Okay, so what is social isolation? Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

What Does Social Isolation Look Like?

This probably seems obvious.  Social isolation looks like isolating oneself from other people, right?  Right.  But it isn’t always that simple.  Sometimes social isolation isn’t just holing up at home and watching Netflix. It can be more nuanced.  Let’s use my own social isolation as a little case study, in the form of a little self-interview:

Have you left the house? 

Sure.  I have been going to work, running errands, going to the movies, going to yoga.  I see other people all the time.

Have you been answering your phone?

Uhhhh . . . . not exactly.

Have you been replying to text messages?

Hmmmm . . . yes.  Usually when someone finally texts me a question like

Have you gotten together with any friends or family socially?

Wellllllll . . .  I had dinner with someone a few weeks ago I think.  Or maybe it was a month ago.  And I always chat politely with the guy at the counter when I pick up my carry-out falafel.

Have you lied and said you weren’t feeling well to decline or cancel plans?

It wasn’t lying, I am mentally not feeling well!!!

Here is the thing about social isolation: there are cases that it looks like hiding in the house 24/7 with no outside contact.  But often it doesn’t look like that.  Many people who are socially isolating are like me – they are still getting out and doing things.   When you going to work or school, the gym, you kids’ events, etc so it is easy to say, “I’m not socially isolating, I’m out and about”.  But it is the content of that time that is important.  Seeing other people and engaging in meaningful social interaction are two very, very different things.  I might have gone to yoga and seen 20 other people there.  That doesn’t mean I am not socially isolating.  Sure, the yoga was great for my physical and mental health in other ways, but it wasn’t social engagement if I didn’t talk to anyone!

What Does Social Isolation Feel Like?

Many people hear the words “social isolation” and make a lot of assumptions about what it feels like, so let’s keep this case study going to answer some feelings questions.

Your social isolation has felt completely terrible, right?

Wrong.  My social isolation felt pretty great, especially early on.  I didn’t have to worry about or think about anyone but myself.  I didn’t have to answer the question “how are you doing?”.  I didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s needs.  Not only did it not feel completely terrible, there were moments it felt glorious.

Well, if it felt pretty great then is wasn’t a problem, right? 

Unfortunately, wrong.  When I was just taking a break and getting a little alone time, that wasn’t a problem.  But that wasn’t social isolation, that was me being balanced and meeting my solitude needs.  The problem was when I started actively ignoring people, avoiding people I love and care about, and not opening myself up to anyone else’s feedback, support, perspective, or anything else.

You’re writing a post about your social isolation now, so did you know all along you were socially isolating?

Nope, not at all.  At first I was just taking some happy, healthy alone time.  I used the fact that I needed a break and that it was, at first, a good thing to stay in denial once it was creeping from alone time into isolation.  Then I rationalized by saying things to myself like, “I’m still getting out and doing things – I’m going to yoga, I’m going to see movies, I’m going to work, it’s fine”.  Even though I know one can do all those things and still be socially isolating, I didn’t want to admit that is what I was doing.

So when did you know it was a problem?  Was it when it started to feel bad?

No, it really wasn’t.  I knew it was a problem when I looked at my text messages and realized I hadn’t replied to the last five people who had texted me, even though they were people I really love.  I didn’t want to reply to them, it felt good not to have to interact with anyone, it felt good not to have to tell them how I was doing [not great] or deal with questions like do you want to get dinner [nope, not really] but I rationally knew it wasn’t a good thing.  Ultimately I knew it would create distance between us that I didn’t want.  I knew if I kept ignoring people they would stop reaching out (not because they are bad friends, but because if you ignore someone long enough and don’t tell them what is going on or what you need from them, they will probably eventually assume you want them to back off), and then it would be even harder for me to stop isolating.  So it still felt good to be isolating, even though rationally I knew it wasn’t good.

What do you do about social isolation?

Good question.  There is no one answer of how to break the cycle of social isolation.  As someone starting to come out the other side, I can tell you some things I have been doing and share some other tips and tricks.

  • Stop rationalizing. I had to remind myself that telling the teenage girl who served me my popcorn at the movie theatre that I liked her earring did not count as social interaction.  I had to look at the stories I was telling myself that were allowing me to believe that my isolation wasn’t a problem.
  • Tell people you’re isolating. Seriously, this is hard and feels crazy, but it works.  After ignoring a text for three days, some friends of mine received replies like
  • It is okay to ease back in slowly and be selective. Reaching out to someone doesn’t mean you have to jump back in to book clubs and dance parties tomorrow.  Some of my friends who got the text above, then got a text like
  • Sometimes you need to do things you don’t want to do. I know, it sucks.  But our brains do this annoying thing where sometimes things feel good even when they aren’t good for us, so we have to act against our brains.  Push yourself.  Say yes to an invitation, even if you aren’t up for it, just to start breaking the isolation habit and to connect with someone you love. Remember that just because we don’t want to do something it doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to doing it!
  • Ask a safe and trusted person for help. Consider who in your support system might be best able to gently support you out of your social isolation cycle and ask them for some help.  Do something low key with them.  Ask them to check in with you regularly.  Ask them to keep inviting you and pushing you, even when you aren’t being cooperative.
  • Remember that social isolation and social anxiety are different (though they can be related). If the reason you are isolating is because of fear and anxiety about interacting with people, professional support for social anxiety is important.  Reaching out to a counselor or therapist can be hugely helpful.
  • If your friends disappeared after a loss, your isolation may feel outside of your control. Check out some of our posts on managing friends disappearing.  This may mean finding a new support system or reaching back out and re-establishing some old relationships.
  • If you have been isolating so long that people stopped reaching out, take the first step. Reach out to those people.  Apologize if you need to.  Explain what you have been going through.  Tell them you are trying to dig out of that isolation pit and would love to get together.  It isn’t easy, but it is doable.    Grab your phone.  Right now.
  • Remember, you can still have plenty of solitude and alone time. Life is all about balance.  Breaking out of social isolation doesn’t mean you have to stop that healthy and valuable practice of getting alone time.  It just means that you keep it in check.

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