“I’m all alone and nobody understands me or what I’m going through.” As an adult survivor of child abuse and neglect, do you ever feel that way? Starved for love, nurturing, a sense of community, positive relationships and intimacy? Afraid of people, and uncertain of how to act in social situations? If so, you actually have plenty of company—such feelings of isolation are extremely common among adult survivors. And there is hope. This guide answers common questions adult survivors have about the nature, methods and effects of isolation. It also describes the benefits of overcoming isolation and presents a spectrum of practical strategies specifically geared to helping adult survivors climb rung by rung out of the well of isolation, at their own pace.
Breaking isolation is more of a 10-K run than a sprint, but like a distance running event, it can be highly rewarding and even enjoyable. Breaking isolation, like running, also requires training and pacing yourself. As an adult survivor, there’s no question that you have a great deal of strength and perseverance, so you’re already well-equipped to triumphantly break the tape of isolation.
What is isolation?
For the purposes of this guide, isolation refers to separation. One way adult survivors isolate is by keeping to themselves and minimizing or avoiding interactions with others. Another way involves walling off parts of yourself. For instance, many adult survivors were repeatedly told by their abusers that they were stupid. So, as a coping tool, these survivors choke down their natural curiosity and adventurousness. That way, they don’t have to worry about feeling or appearing stupid for asking a question, or for trying something new and not quite succeeding on the first try.
Why do adult survivors isolate?
Adult survivors isolate for several reasons. First off, they isolate for self-protection. As children, adult survivors were abused, neglected or both. So they tend to figure, “If that’s what I got at home, then that’s what I’ll get in the world.” Since they didn’t receive love or support when they asked for it as children, they learned to stop asking at all, from anybody. Another reason survivors isolate is because they feel they don’t deserve the good things in life, such as healthy friendships or romantic relationships. These feelings of worthlessness are a natural result of the abuse process—after years of being told you’re useless, you come to believe it. In addition, survivors can isolate due to learned helplessness. In other words, survivors may have met with disappointment in past attempts to break isolation—particularly if they tried to move too quickly—so they may give up and sink into depression and destructive behaviors.
Further, survivors can inadvertently isolate themselves by projecting their abuse-related anger and fears onto friends or romantic partners. For instance, if an ordinarily placid spouse happens to raise her voice a bit during the course of an argument, an adult survivor might say, “You’re always screaming at me—you’re just like my abusive father.” All too often, the friend or loved one eventually gets tired of being painted with the wrong brush, and leaves. This reinforces the abandonment concerns harbored by many adult survivors, and if the cycle of projection and abandonment keeps occurring, the adult survivor eventually stops trying to form relationships so that he or she doesn’t have to risk getting hurt again.
How do adult survivors isolate?
Adult survivors isolate in many ways. For example, as mentioned earlier, adult survivors often isolate from themselves—they are disconnected from their own emotions and thought processes, because thinking and feeling often brings emotional distress. When emotional pain does rear its head, adult survivors may seek escape by numbing themselves with food, drugs or alcohol. They can isolate from other people by staying home on Friday nights and weekends, thereby keeping their interactions with others to a bare minimum. Or, when they do socialize with others, they often remain guarded and closed-off, refraining from revealing what they’re truly thinking or feeling. This makes it difficult to “have fun” in a conventional sense, since adult survivors struggle with relaxing enough to enjoy themselves in social settings.
Why is isolation harmful?
Isolation is ultimately an ineffective coping strategy, because at a very basic level, humans are social creatures. Most survivors that isolate aren’t content as humans need positive interaction with other people in order to:
- Build a sense of self-worth,
- Learn about themselves and the world around them,
- Get their physical needs met,
- Develop a sense of safety and security,
- Learn boundaries, and
- Get therapeutic help when necessary.
What are the benefits of breaking isolation?
The benefits of breaking isolation are myriad. One key outcome is a newfound sense of freedom to fully embrace who you are and to be yourself in social situations, which gives you license to like yourself. You no longer have to hide from yourself or others, or to beat yourself up for doing so. In addition, breaking isolation can bring about healthy exposure to new and alternate ways of handling fear, anxiety, stress and pain, thereby expanding your coping toolkit. Also, the more people you meet, the more you will realize that not everyone is an abuser. This revelation helps adult survivors resist the destructive impulse to project inappropriately, which can drive away friends and relationship partners unnecessarily.
Is it possible to break isolation the wrong way? If so, what are the dangers?
Out of loneliness and desperation, adult survivors seeking to break isolation can go too far, too fast, ultimately adding to their misery. Just as you wouldn’t want to enter the Indy 500 if you’ve never gotten behind the wheel of a car, it wouldn’t be a good idea to say to yourself, “I need to interact with people more—why don’t I sign up for a dating website today?” Diving right away into the deep end of the pool in terms of dating, therapy, or other forms of social interaction can be a recipe for repeated disappointment, since many adult survivors lack the personal experience and mental preparation to handle the natural ups and downs inherent to any type of long-term relationship. And chronic disappointment can lead to giving up, depression and deeper isolation than ever before. But don’t worry—the next section of this guide provides a number of strategies to break isolation in a healthy, gradual, sustainable way.
What are some good strategies to break isolation?
In order to break isolation in a lasting and healthful way, you want to start small and slow. That way, you begin racking up little (but meaningful) victories, which have a snowball effect, slowly but surely building the confidence and social skills needed to help you keep expanding the breadth and depth of your interactions. Some good strategies for breaking isolation, listed in order of most-basic to more-expanded, include:
- Journal about your feelings or write a letter without sending it. This reduces isolation from yourself, putting you in greater touch with your thoughts and feelings. Also, it can provide a form of emotional release—if someone cut you off on the way to work, it can feel good to let off steam in a safe, non-destructive way by writing “I HATE YOUR GUTS” in your journal. And you can overcome the fear of expressing yourself held by many adult survivors. You acknowledged your feelings, they’re right there on paper, and the world hasn’t exploded.
- Get your feet wet with socializing by doing so in the context of social media or an online game. Posting a comment to a blog entry or playing an online video game based on interacting with other players can be an initial way to increase your comfort level with communicating, since you are doing so in an anonymous, non-face-to-face way. However, you do want to exercise caution online—there are predators out there, plus you want to make sure your online interactions are a stepping stone to healthy in-person socialization, not a replacement.
- If you like to watch movies, try going to a movie theater instead of watching them at home. That way, you can at least see and be around other people, without any expectation of interaction. If you want to throw in a little exercise with your isolation-breaking program, go on a walk in a safe place. While out and about, you could exchange a quick, commitment-free nod, smile or hello with a fellow traveler.
- Try making small talk in safe, public places. The ability to shoot the breeze is an important life skill, but one that many adult survivors struggle with. The key is to get practice in low-stakes environments. For instance, try saying, “How about that rain?” to the person next you in line at the supermarket, or asking someone at the airport check-in where they’re headed. You’re talking to strangers, but briefly and in a public setting. You don’t need to spill your guts or tell your life story. Just stick to neutral topics, at least at first.
- If you work, have lunch with colleagues when asked. Or, as a further step, pro-actively organize a casual lunch with your coworkers. You’ll be in a safe place with people you see on a daily basis, which keeps stress to a minimum.
- Do one of your hobbies with other people in a structured way, rather than just by yourself. For instance, if you enjoy reading, you may want to join a book club at your local library. You’re in a safe, public place, you’ll meet a few people with similar interests, and you can talk about the book instead of yourself. If you like to paint, take a class at a community center. If you’re a sporty person and like to go to the batting cage, you may want to join a low-key softball team. Whatever group activity you choose, try to go into it with no expectations of being a superstar. Remember that the point is to have fun, and to do so with other people.
- Over time, if you see someone (perhaps a cashier at a grocery store, coworker or a classmate) on a regular basis and they tend to reciprocate your small talk, you might try going a little deeper by saying, “Boy, I’m having a rough day.” If they ignore the comment or respond sarcastically, you can stop there. But if they respond sympathetically, you could be well on your way to developing a friendship.
Every adult survivor has been hurt very badly in childhood. But, by definition, every adult survivor has an astounding amount of courage and resilience. This guide was written specifically for you, to help you leverage your incredible inner strength and break the bonds of isolation. By all means, start slow. But start. The sooner you do, the sooner you can change your life for the better through the support and understanding provided by interpersonal relationships of all sorts. There are a lot of good folks out there who can help you and who deserve a shot at getting to know the amazing person you are. So take that first step to break the ice of isolation today. You’ll be glad you did.