Casey hates the phrase, “Humans are social creatures.” Most humans, she thinks, haven’t been through what she’s been through. They weren’t sexually abused at a young age by the one person they should’ve trusted the most. They didn’t confide in a close friend, years later, only to have that friend refuse to believe them and even side with the abuser. Most aren’t paralyzed with a fear and mistrust of others, certain that anyone they reach out to will judge and reject them. They haven’t had to build up walls just to survive—to cope with years of trauma. They don’t understand that these walls are the only thing in Casey’s life that haven’t let her down.
So, Casey keeps to herself. She’s cut herself off from her family, and she doesn’t have any close friends. At work she might chat with a few coworkers. But overall, she keeps her distance. Whenever her coworkers invite Casey to a movie night, she politely declines. They don’t actually want her to come, she thinks. If they really knew her, they wouldn’t want to be friends with her anyway. As painful as it is to be alone, Casey is certain it’s still better than letting her walls come down. Sure, she’s lonely, but at least she’s safe.
Casey isn’t alone in feeling alone. In a recent study, Louise C. Hawkley states that loneliness is a common human experience. According to the study’s findings, as many as 13–15% of the general population experience loneliness as a chronic state.1
What Is Loneliness?
Loneliness doesn’t necessarily mean being alone.1 You could be married, have multiple children, or always be surrounded by people and still feel alone. Conversely, you might live alone but not feel lonely. Loneliness relates to a sense of belonging and feeling connected. The gap between your desire for connection and the reality of your circumstances is where loneliness falls. More specifically, loneliness can include feelings of isolation, alienation, a heightened sense of fear and vulnerability, exhaustion, stress, and believing you don’t belong.2
Odds are we’ve all experienced these feelings at some point. But as a survivor of child sexual abuse, you may experience them more frequently and with greater severity. You may have feelings of “defectiveness,” which could reinforce the belief that no one will understand you, relate to you, or want to be close to you.2 Your shame and guilt may tell you that you aren’t deserving of friendships. You may have a fear of rejection, especially if you open up about your abuse. Perhaps you were betrayed in the past, or the people you confided in didn’t believe you. These painful experiences may have led you to not have faith or trust in others. So, like Casey, you might build walls around yourself as protection from further trauma.
Although these walls are built for safety, they might end up shielding a survivor from what they need most: emotional support. Emotional support is someone who will listen, offer sympathy, give advice, and provide validation.3 It is someone you trust and who you can be vulnerable with. The desire for social connection and emotional support is one of the most basic human needs we have. Researchers have even described loneliness as a biological signal—much like hunger, thirst, or physical pain—that alerts you to take action in order to avoid damage.4 Just as hunger pangs alert you to take action (take a lunch break), loneliness alerts you to make a change in order to maintain your biological needs—the need to belong, the need to connect.
A ship in port is safe. But that is not what ships were built for.William Shield
When these needs aren’t met, a person’s overall quality of life can be affected. A 2010 study discovered that loneliness potentially has more impact on a person’s lifespan than “excessive drinking and smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise.”4 But while loneliness can potentially shorten a life span, connection with others can prolong it.4
As a survivor, you deserve emotional support and all that comes with it. You deserve trust, validation, relief, and security. As uncomfortable and terrifying as it may be to break down part of your wall—a wall that you’ve had very legitimate reasons for putting up—you have the power to do so.
But how? you might wonder. How can it be possible to reach out to others for friendship when the thought “I’m not worthy of a friend” is beeping in your head all day, like a smoke alarm? When such painful thoughts are drowning out all else, it can be difficult to even consider the possibility of initiating social connections. But the potential is always there.
The Power of Self-Isolating Thoughts
A helpful first step toward connecting with others is learning to recognize which of your thoughts are helpful and which ones are not. Sometimes, we can experience what’s called cognitive distortions, where our thoughts may not reflect reality.
Let’s say, for example, you attend a yoga class. During one of the difficult poses, you fall and someone laughs at you. After the class, you think, “Everyone in yoga class hates me.” Over the next week, you have the following thoughts:
If I’m not good at yoga, then I must be really terrible.
Even though only one person laughed out loud, everyone else was probably laughing silently.
If I go back to yoga class, people will laugh at me again.
These thoughts are examples of cognitive distortion in action. They tend to jump to extremes that don’t reflect reality as seen through an outsider’s eyes. But to you, the thoughts feel completely true. They can be difficult to catch at first but overtime you can learn to recognize these thoughts as they arise.
The Loneliness Loop
Cognitive distortions can impact our perception of others and how we relate to them. Distortions lead us to be convinced of our most negative beliefs—in ourselves and in others. It can cause us to see the social world as a negative and even threatening place. Distortions can then lead us to have negative expectations, only to have those expectations confirmed when we naturally look for the evidence that will validate our beliefs. Ultimately, these thoughts might barricade us from seeking out social connections and putting trust in others, further reinforcing our negative beliefs. This sequence of expecting the negative, identifying and remembering only the negative, and using that information to reinforce our negative expectations creates a vicious cycle known as the loneliness loop.
Think back to the example of the yoga class. When the next class comes around, and you are deciding whether or not to go, your brain will gather information from your previous experience. Even though this information includes positive details—the instructor was fantastic, the studio was clean, your body felt energized, and someone even may have smiled at you—the one negative detail is amplified and threatens to overpower the rest due to the intensity of the emotions it caused. Those same negative emotions will then return as you weigh your decision, and you might decide it’s best not to go to yoga class after all.
Breaking Free from the Loneliness Loop
While these distortions are produced by your brain naturally and automatically, it is still within your power to make sense of them and identify which ones to act on. The next time you’re having negative thoughts about yourself, others, potential opportunities, or potential relationships, ask yourself if these thoughts are helpful or non-helpful. Are they relying on extremes like always or never? Are they reiterating an all-or-nothing mentality? Are they stating outcomes you couldn’t possibly predict? (For example, If I go to this social event, everyone will ignore me.) If so, perhaps these thoughts are best recognized for how they might have been initially helpful, but are now no longer needed.5
Still, it can be difficult to let such thoughts go. One way that may help is to evaluate the distorted thoughts you’re experiencing to put them in context. Below is a list of questions you can ask yourself when trying to understand your self-isolating thoughts.
Here’s how Casey might apply the questions to evaluate her thoughts on why she continues refusing to go to movie night with her coworkers.
Do I know for certain that I will never connect with others?
No, I guess not.
Am I 100% sure of these awful consequences?
Not 100%, no. Maybe 80%.
What is the evidence of this fear or belief?
People hardly ever ask me out. I’ve been hurt and betrayed in the past. I’m a difficult person, and no one wants to be around me. I don’t deserve any friends.
What is the evidence against it?
Well my coworkers did ask me to come to the movie. Even though I always say no, they keep asking. I could talk more with Lisa, who’s always been very friendly.
Do I have a crystal ball? How can I be sure I know the answer?
It feels like I know what’s going to happen based on the past, but I guess I don’t actually know what can happen. I guess maybe I’m not as completely sure as it feels.
Is it possible the reverse could happen? What would be the outcome?
I could go and have an okay time. I might like the movie. I might have at least one good conversation with someone.
Is my negative outcome driven by the intense emotions I’m experiencing?
Yes. I’m currently experiencing anxiety and fear—and annoyance at my anxiety and fear.
What is the worst that could happen? What could I do to cope if it did?
I go and everyone just ignores me. If that happened, I might write about it in my journal or go for a run. I could probably get through it though, I mean, I have before.
If someone I cared about said this to me, what would I tell them?
I’d probably tell her that she deserves to go out and have a fun time. I’d tell her that if she’s really that nervous, she can have a back-up plan.
Like Casey, we can step back from our thoughts and take a long, good look at them. These questions can help you pull back from the extremes in your thinking and determine if your thoughts are based on feelings or facts. They’ll also enable you to see past the intense fears and anxieties of the moment to perceive the bigger picture.
An important part of that picture is the potential friendship you can have with yourself. You can get to know yourself and discover details you may not have been aware of. What are your loves? What are your aspirations? What makes you happy? Search for activities you enjoy, whether with others or solo. For example, you might enjoy taking walks, meditating, journaling, doing artwork, running, or listening to music. Spending enjoyable time with yourself will allow you to nurture the most important lifelong relationship of them all. And a healthy friendship with yourself can lead to healthy friendships with others.
Talk to yourself as you would a friend.Brené Brown
Even if you choose to go outside your comfort zone and initiate social connections, you can still go at your own pace and honor your intuition and gut, especially if something doesn’t feel right. For example, if your gut is telling you that an upcoming party really isn’t your scene and may even contain triggers, don’t go. Instead, you might begin attending an activity that you know you already enjoy and are familiar with. This enjoyment and familiarity increase the potential of finding a new connection with someone who shares your interests. At the end of the day, your boundaries and intuition are still important and don’t have to be sacrificed in order to break out of your shell. Everything you initiate, embrace, and seek out, can be done in a fashion that is comfortable for you. Other tips on how to maintain this balance can be found here.
You deserve emotional support. Your trauma has not doomed you to a life sentence in the loneliness loop. No matter how broken or defeated you may feel, you are worthy of connections, validation, and support. You are worthy of love. Not only that, but you have so much to offer others. Someone out there is in desperate need of a friend just like you—a friend who can provide the strength, courage, insight, and empathy you, and only you, possess.
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