The Relationship Between Depression and Isolation
We’ve all heard it some place or another: that old saying, “Misery loves company”. And we all know what it means: people who are suffering seek the company of others who are also suffering. But what happens after those people get together? Does their level of misery change?
If you take a moment to compare times when you felt miserable (“sad”, “unhappy”, or “depressed” all work) versus when you’ve felt happy, what’s been different? If you’re like most people, you may notice a difference in the kind of company you have in either scenario.
Many people feel happiest when they’re in good company: the kind of company that treats you with acceptance, respect, dignity, kindness, and compassion. They feel connected, included, valued, and a part of something. On the flip side, those who feel the least happy (or most miserable) are likely swimming in a very different social pool: one in which they feel isolated, alienated, lonely, judged, misunderstood, unappreciated, disrespected, and mistreated or abused.
If we were to try to create a recipe for misery, chances are it would look a lot like what I just described – give or take a handful of other factors. For many of the people I see in therapy, circumstances like these are like a perfect storm for unhappiness and discontent. For me, this begs a question: does misery really love company? After all the conversations I’ve had with folks who have struggled with varying degrees of misery, I’m inclined to say quite the opposite: Misery actually hates company.
Misery Thrives in Isolation
A lot of folks I talk to who say they struggle with depression note that when things are at their worst, they are pervasively isolated and feeling very much alone. Although it can be somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem to wrap one’s head around, it’s fair to say in a lot of contexts that the profound sense of dissatisfaction that often comes with depression may be a response to isolation, alienation, or disenfranchisement.
In fact, there’s a recently emergent theory of addiction that suggests the reason many people turn to substances like drugs and alcohol is because they feel disenfranchised. They’re struggling to feel that satisfying sense of connection that is often present when we’re feeling happy, and they’re using substances to cope. On top of that, when we look at how many people recover from substance abuse and addiction, we see how important supportive groups and communities are. Twelve step programs like AA and NA, and groups like Life Ring can offer warm, accepting, positive social experiences that stand in stark contrast to the sense of alienation and isolation that often accompanies substance use.
Social connectedness (or lack thereof) is a good predictor of where we fall on the happiness/misery scale. The more we feel we belong, the more content we’re likely to feel. So the more we feel alienated or excluded, the more likely we are to feel miserable.
Why We Withdraw
When people have had negative social experiences, it makes sense for them to pull away from others. At first, isolation may seem like a preferable alternative to the potential hurt that can come from living more closely with others. After all, emotional pain never occurs in a vacuum. It’s always a response to something, and often related to our interpersonal relationships. When we isolate ourselves from others, we mitigate the likelihood of being hurt more than we already have.
The folks I’ve seen in therapy have described how they’ve withdrawn for a whole range of reasons:
- They’ve been hurt too many times by others in the past;
- They’re wary of being judged or misunderstood;
- They’re concerned for other people’s wellbeing, not wanting them to feel burdened by their suffering;
- They anticipate rejection, and prefer not to chance it;
I’m inclined to believe that social withdrawal usually serves us in avoiding negative responses from others. It can be like beating others to the punch: pulling away from those who might do harm or exploit our vulnerability before they get the chance to do so. In this way, isolating can serve to uphold our dignity and preserve what sense of emotional safety we have, without it being further jeopardized.
The Downside of Isolation
People who withdraw from their social relations often describe feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, if they go out on a limb and take a chance at reestablishing connections and social supports, they risk further rejection, judgment, or abuse. On the other hand, if they remain withdrawn, they’re left to deal with the sense of loss and sadness that comes with disenfranchisement and longing for connectedness.
Isolation can feel like being in a state of limbo. Many folks carry on functional lives despite their withdrawal, but can’t shake the feeling of longing for something more. There is often something inherently satisfying in meaningful social relationships, and yearning for that can be hard not to feel when we’re isolated. This can be a really hard place to be, and is often when people seek help from counsellors and other helpers.
When I meet with people who decide to reach out to someone like me, I can’t help but appreciate their cleverness and ingenuity. They may be feeling wary of rejection, judgment, exclusion, or prejudice, which we can’t guarantee avoiding in the “real world”. We have no control over how other people treat us, which is part of the reason why many people withdraw. Seeking out a counsellor in these times is brilliant because therapists are far more likely to meet you with compassion, acceptance, and understanding (and if not, you don’t have to look far to find one who is). The relationship people strike up with counsellors can be pivotal in helping shift away from isolation toward exploring the possibility of finding safe, meaningful connections with others.
How Positive Connections Help
When it comes to the human condition, we’re all in the same boat. By that, I mean we all have the capacity to suffer. Of course, some of us suffer far more than others because of circumstance, but if put in the same situation, our experiences of suffering are likely to be very similar. For this reason, I believe it’s on all of us to contribute to a world that feels safe for everyone – where we’re all included and valued.
For people feeling isolated, alienated, or socially withdrawn, these questions might help on the journey toward positive social connections and feeling included:
- What do you look for in others that tells you they might be safe to trust or not?
- If someone subjects you to judgment or exclusion, how might you respond in a manner that upholds your dignity?
- Where do you find a sense of belonging or connection outside of interpersonal relationships? (such as with literature, music, or online communities)
- Is it possible to have relationships with varying degrees of connection or depth?
- Could you be satisfied having more superficial relationships with some, and deeper relationships with others?What would give you the sense that someone could be safe to open up to?
My intention is not to suggest that people should want to be more connected, but to encourage those who do along the way. Going out on a limb and finding safe, secure, supportive, enduring relationships can help us feel more satisfied in life in general. The social world is not without its challenges and pitfalls, but it's also ripe with opportunities for positive connections.
Have you dealt with isolation, alienation, or social withdrawal?
Could you use more support?