Before I begin telling you why community is important in healing, I want to first clarify the difference between spending time alone and isolating. Some people are introverted which means they gain energy by spending time alone. There is nothing wrong with spending time alone and I definitely highly encourage it. A part of healing is being able to know your energy level and most introverts are capable of knowing their limits. On the other hand if you are an am extrovert like me, you can sometimes forget to check in with yourself and plan too many things at once. Isolation, on the other hand, can occur when someone fears rejection or abandonment from others. When you understand why you avoid people, the better you get at understanding of what you stand for, what energy level you can handle, and can begin to create community with others without it leading to codependent behaviors.
Recently I was reading a book where the author discussed a study about Dr. Marian Diamond who is a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. She researched rats and how deliberately induced challenges are required to keep our brains healthy and developing. In her research she separated two groups of rats in which one group she handed food directly, while for another obstacles were placed right in front of them. The end result was the rats who had to deal with obstacles had developed thicker cortex and more dendrites. The cerebral cortex is used for higher thought processing with speech and decision making. These rats were able to solve problems proficiently and comfortably then other rats. They noticed that the fewer challenges the rats had, the faster their brains went downhill. Dr. Diamond then wanted to know the effects of isolation and aging and she found that the rats that faced challenges in community had more developed brains than those who were struggled in isolation. She then took it one step further and would give the rats love by the researchers holding them close after each challenge. These rats ended up living even longer and having even thicker cortexes.
When we suffer from increased anxiety or depression it is easy to feel that no one understands and to isolate. It’s easy because being around others while we are suffering can elicit feelings of shame that we are not normal. When we are mindful about being alone we can ask ourselves the following questions:
- Am I avoiding others because I fear rejection?
- Am I avoiding feelings of Inadequacy?
It is scary to be vulnerable and open up to others. Taking a risk in engaging with others means giving up some energy, possibility of feeling hurt or disappointment, and realizing you are human and can also hurt and disappoint others. It is very important when you decide to take the risk and build community to know what you stand for. Think about the non-negotiable boundaries you need to create for yourself. Non-negotiable boundaries are activities or behaviors that no longer serve a purpose in your season of life. When you know the answers to those questions you will be able to build a community that empowers and uplifts you. With community come resources and the ability for options. Community may present challenges but we can thrive during struggle. You determine your struggle. If the struggle is self-inflicted by yourself or others to teach you a lesson then it is not appropriate. If you are struggling but you have a community that helps validate your experience then it is appropriate.
It is hard to create community if you haven’t determined your own boundaries. One way you can reach out for help is talking to a therapist. They can create a space to validate your experience and also challenge behaviors that no longer work for you. Having a neutral third party helps you see a different perspective. Remember your experience is valid, and being open to other options can be experienced at the same time. Black and white thinking is a problematic thought pattern and is appropriate for children, but can be inappropriate for adults. The human experience likes to tell us otherwise; that things can only be right or wrong. The key here is being mindful of how you react when under distress. Are you taking time alone to recharge or are you avoiding feelings of inadequacy? If you choose to isolate because of the latter, give yourself some self-compassion. It is difficult to change behaviors that you have been doing most of your life. Being mindful of knowing the “why” in your decisions is tough work but is the first step to healing.
Diamond, Marian, “Optimism about the Aging Brain,” Aging Today, May-June 1998.