Isolation vs solitude

A friend shared the following quote with me the other day:

“Isolation is our retreat from the paralyzing pain of indecision.  This retreat into denial…is the first stage of mourning and grief…we can remain alone as a way of not allowing ourselves to get in touch with the pain of our grief.”

I have always preferred solitude to being with large groups of people.  As a child, I loved sitting in our living room next to the record player, reading a story while listening to a narrator repeat the words via a scratchy record.  I enjoyed being outside, alone, reenacting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer days, or telling myself a story about my favorite book characters.  We lived on about an acre of land, with soft green grass and wooded areas where I could walk for hours, uninterrupted, happily lost in a fantasy world.

But as an adult, solitude has become rare, and I often feel guilty about taking time away from my responsibilities: kids, job, loved ones.  I am afraid in the presence of only myself, without the context of outside forces to define who I am and how I feel in any given moment.  Activities that require solitude make me incredibly uncomfortable; meditation makes me want to jump out of my skin.  I don’t want to be alone with myself.

Until I read that quote, I believed that solitude and isolation were the same thing, or at least synonymous with each other.  Now, I perceive them as two completely separate actions that stem from very specific feelings.

For me, solitude is love and self-care.  Isolation is fear and self-abandonment.  Solitude looks like time alone to read, or enjoying a delicious meal by myself, or a solo walk around my neighborhood on a crisp winter evening.  Isolation looks like giving someone I love the silent treatment, or repeating “No one understands me” to myself under my breath, or mindlessly scrolling through social media during a family gathering.

The solitude of my childhood was a way of loving myself, embracing my imagination and my creativity.  But I isolated myself too, turning inward to protect myself during times when I felt unloved or misunderstood.  And I wasn’t always alone in times of isolation: I isolated myself with my family at home, my friends at school.  I isolated myself by drowning out the world with music on my Walkman; by staying in rather than going out with friends on a weekend; by sitting inside with a book when everyone else was playing together.  I protected myself with my fear of not being good enough, of not belonging, of being rejected by others.

As an adult, I continued to isolate in my romantic relationships, taking my thoughts and feelings deep within until they spilled out in anger and rage.  I isolated with my children, keeping them at arms’ length rather than pulling them in close, because I was so easily overwhelmed by their constant needs and my fear of making mistakes.  I stopped feeling my feelings, stopped paying attention to my own needs, and stopped honestly and authentically engaging with the rest of the world.

It is incredible to think that isolation can occur even in loving partnerships, or in a life filled with friends and family.  I am amazed to look back on my marriages and realize how often I believed I was alone and misunderstood.  It didn’t matter how much I was loved, or how often I was told that I was loved.  I didn’t believe, because in my isolated state I could only hear messages of fear: you’re not okay; you’re not loved; you’re not safe; he’s going to leave; she’s going to leave; you are defective as a human being; you should never have been born.

I am just beginning to appreciate the irony of isolation: I went inward to avoid feeling pain and grief about my belief that I am a defective human being; and yet isolation meant being trapped with only those messages, being repeated over and over and over.

The grip of isolation only began to ease when I joined a 12 step program.  It’s led me out of isolation with gentle, loving hands, and given me a community of safe people to process my grief.  It is where I read the opening quote, and where I also read these words regarding isolation: “…isolation can be a part of the grieving process, and we are entitled to stay isolated as long as we need to in order to feel safe.  Though it seems contradictory…the best that we can do for someone who is isolating is to allow them to grieve in the way they need to…there is no timetable.”

So my isolation is part of the process of grieving and letting go of the past, and I can do it for as long as it takes to feel my feelings.  And I can have more compassion for others when they choose isolation over full engagement, whether that’s in meetings or gatherings or work situations, because “the best that (I) can do for someone who is isolating is to allow them to grieve in the way they need to…there is no timetable.”

My hope is that by choosing solitude every once in a while, it will feel begin to feel safe and welcoming again.  I want space to think and dream and hope and imagine.  It’s time.

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