Social Isolation / Alienation Schema

“I carry my loneliness on my back, like a turtle”. Jia* had a great job in fashion and a loving boyfriend but was depressed and socially anxious. She had difficulties talking in groups of three or more people, she never felt natural, she came across as distant and aloof. “I suppose I’m just a social coward, never showing my real self for fear of being judged”.

You need others, without them you cannot survive.

Humans are the most powerful creature to have ever lived on this planet This is not because of our strength or speed, but due to our ability to flexibly cooperate with others of our species. Despite the insistence of our individualistic society to “just be yourself”, this social capacity remains an enormous strength.

There is a dark side to this. We have evolved a pressing urge to be attentive to the judgements and opinions of others. Many traditional cultures practice shunning, where transgressors or bad-influences are cast adrift from the social group. For our ancestors, this cutting-off would have often been fatal.

Some children grow up feeling vastly different to their peers. They perceive that their family is poorer, or of a different cultural group. Sometimes they feel different, they don’t seem to think or act like someone of their sex. Perhaps they had a disability or looked different. Perhaps they think or feel different to others around them. They might have been bullied or shunned for these reasons.

When some of these things occur in childhood, a social isolation/alienation schema can develop. Rather than just feeling isolation or difference in the moment, these events can wound the child and lead to life-long social anxiety. People with this schema can’t quite shake the feeling that they will be perceived as inferior or different. They feel disconnected and that they don’t belong.

People with this schema often cope by hiding their true self. They might seem robotic or boring or overly nice. They often avoid social events, especially with new people. Sometimes they cope by acting superior, aloof or above others, in an effort to overcompensate for these feelings.

Jia was one of the only girls in her high school from her ethnic group. Even amongst her siblings and cousins she didn’t fit in – she was more artistic in a community that highly valued traditional academics. In school, she retreated into a fantasy world. By the time Jia entered the workforce she had strong defences against anyone getting close to her. She was lonely and unfulfilled.

As children we don’t have much choice about our social group, but as adults we do. Jia learnt to identify that qualities she liked in a friend. She learnt to quieten the voice that told her she would be rejected. She healed some of the early-life rejection that she had received. She was never a coward, but she certainly became braver as she burst from her lonely shell.

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