This Is What Social Isolation Looks Like

It’s winter.  It’s cold.  It’s dark.  I’ve been socially isolating.  There, I said it.

I’m guessing I might not be alone.  Social isolation in grief is oh so common.  Social isolation in winter is oh so common.  Conversations about social isolation?  Not so common.  We reference social isolation a lot around here, but we have never had a whole post about it. Seeing as I have recently been in the depths of social isolation, it seemed time to change that.

First, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way.

Social isolation is not the same as alone time or solitude.

Social isolation is not introversion.

Okay, so what is social isolation? Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

What Does Social Isolation Look Like?

This probably seems obvious.  Social isolation looks like isolating oneself from other people, right?  Right.  But it isn’t always that simple.  Sometimes social isolation isn’t just holing up at home and watching Netflix. It can be more nuanced.  Let’s use my own social isolation as a little case study, in the form of a little self-interview:

Have you left the house? 

Sure.  I have been going to work, running errands, going to the movies, going to yoga.  I see other people all the time.

Have you been answering your phone?

Uhhhh . . . . not exactly.

Have you been replying to text messages?

Hmmmm . . . yes.  Usually when someone finally texts me a question like

Have you gotten together with any friends or family socially?

Wellllllll . . .  I had dinner with someone a few weeks ago I think.  Or maybe it was a month ago.  And I always chat politely with the guy at the counter when I pick up my carry-out falafel.

Have you lied and said you weren’t feeling well to decline or cancel plans?

It wasn’t lying, I am mentally not feeling well!!!

Here is the thing about social isolation: there are cases that it looks like hiding in the house 24/7 with no outside contact.  But often it doesn’t look like that.  Many people who are socially isolating are like me – they are still getting out and doing things.   When you going to work or school, the gym, you kids’ events, etc so it is easy to say, “I’m not socially isolating, I’m out and about”.  But it is the content of that time that is important.  Seeing other people and engaging in meaningful social interaction are two very, very different things.  I might have gone to yoga and seen 20 other people there.  That doesn’t mean I am not socially isolating.  Sure, the yoga was great for my physical and mental health in other ways, but it wasn’t social engagement if I didn’t talk to anyone!

What Does Social Isolation Feel Like?

Many people hear the words “social isolation” and make a lot of assumptions about what it feels like, so let’s keep this case study going to answer some feelings questions.

Your social isolation has felt completely terrible, right?

Wrong.  My social isolation felt pretty great, especially early on.  I didn’t have to worry about or think about anyone but myself.  I didn’t have to answer the question “how are you doing?”.  I didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s needs.  Not only did it not feel completely terrible, there were moments it felt glorious.

Well, if it felt pretty great then is wasn’t a problem, right? 

Unfortunately, wrong.  When I was just taking a break and getting a little alone time, that wasn’t a problem.  But that wasn’t social isolation, that was me being balanced and meeting my solitude needs.  The problem was when I started actively ignoring people, avoiding people I love and care about, and not opening myself up to anyone else’s feedback, support, perspective, or anything else.

You’re writing a post about your social isolation now, so did you know all along you were socially isolating?

Nope, not at all.  At first I was just taking some happy, healthy alone time.  I used the fact that I needed a break and that it was, at first, a good thing to stay in denial once it was creeping from alone time into isolation.  Then I rationalized by saying things to myself like, “I’m still getting out and doing things – I’m going to yoga, I’m going to see movies, I’m going to work, it’s fine”.  Even though I know one can do all those things and still be socially isolating, I didn’t want to admit that is what I was doing.

So when did you know it was a problem?  Was it when it started to feel bad?

No, it really wasn’t.  I knew it was a problem when I looked at my text messages and realized I hadn’t replied to the last five people who had texted me, even though they were people I really love.  I didn’t want to reply to them, it felt good not to have to interact with anyone, it felt good not to have to tell them how I was doing [not great] or deal with questions like do you want to get dinner [nope, not really] but I rationally knew it wasn’t a good thing.  Ultimately I knew it would create distance between us that I didn’t want.  I knew if I kept ignoring people they would stop reaching out (not because they are bad friends, but because if you ignore someone long enough and don’t tell them what is going on or what you need from them, they will probably eventually assume you want them to back off), and then it would be even harder for me to stop isolating.  So it still felt good to be isolating, even though rationally I knew it wasn’t good.

What do you do about social isolation?

Good question.  There is no one answer of how to break the cycle of social isolation.  As someone starting to come out the other side, I can tell you some things I have been doing and share some other tips and tricks.

  • Stop rationalizing. I had to remind myself that telling the teenage girl who served me my popcorn at the movie theatre that I liked her earring did not count as social interaction.  I had to look at the stories I was telling myself that were allowing me to believe that my isolation wasn’t a problem.
  • Tell people you’re isolating. Seriously, this is hard and feels crazy, but it works.  After ignoring a text for three days, some friends of mine received replies like
  • It is okay to ease back in slowly and be selective. Reaching out to someone doesn’t mean you have to jump back in to book clubs and dance parties tomorrow.  Some of my friends who got the text above, then got a text like
  • Sometimes you need to do things you don’t want to do. I know, it sucks.  But our brains do this annoying thing where sometimes things feel good even when they aren’t good for us, so we have to act against our brains.  Push yourself.  Say yes to an invitation, even if you aren’t up for it, just to start breaking the isolation habit and to connect with someone you love. Remember that just because we don’t want to do something it doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to doing it!
  • Ask a safe and trusted person for help. Consider who in your support system might be best able to gently support you out of your social isolation cycle and ask them for some help.  Do something low key with them.  Ask them to check in with you regularly.  Ask them to keep inviting you and pushing you, even when you aren’t being cooperative.
  • Remember that social isolation and social anxiety are different (though they can be related). If the reason you are isolating is because of fear and anxiety about interacting with people, professional support for social anxiety is important.  Reaching out to a counselor or therapist can be hugely helpful.
  • If your friends disappeared after a loss, your isolation may feel outside of your control. Check out some of our posts on managing friends disappearing.  This may mean finding a new support system or reaching back out and re-establishing some old relationships.
  • If you have been isolating so long that people stopped reaching out, take the first step. Reach out to those people.  Apologize if you need to.  Explain what you have been going through.  Tell them you are trying to dig out of that isolation pit and would love to get together.  It isn’t easy, but it is doable.    Grab your phone.  Right now.
  • Remember, you can still have plenty of solitude and alone time. Life is all about balance.  Breaking out of social isolation doesn’t mean you have to stop that healthy and valuable practice of getting alone time.  It just means that you keep it in check.

Had experience with social isolation?  Tell us about it – leave a comment!

February 10, 2018

15 responses on "This Is What Social Isolation Looks Like"

  1. Cindy Seybert HockettFebruary 22, 2018 at 10:14 pmReply

    Could someone send me some grief counselor names. I live near Towson Univ and have Humana Insurance.

    I attended your Coping with Grief workshop after the new year.

    I sent you both emails and one address came back as no good. So thought I’d try to you both this way


  2. Do you fee social isolation is a result of grief?

    • Absolutely for me. My husband passed away 5 months ago and I am happy it’s winter & cold outside. I’m happy it’s s dark early, cause I can be safe in my cocoon. This way I don’t have to see, visit, cause people mostly stay home. I fear Spring and Summer, cause I will have all the chores outside to do, chores that my husband used to do, and that means having to be outside, where people will want to stop and chat….. amd I will lose my safe cocoon. I go to work every day, do my errands, but knowing I will slip back in my safe quiet place.

  3. Very interesting.. I am definitely a isolator during hard times and have been pretty aware of that for a while now but this was helpful for me to realize that others in my life could be socially isolating, even when it’s totally out of character for them! (I thought I was the only one in our relationship that did that! Haha).. sometimes being on the outside of someone that’s isolating can be very hurtful and misinterpreted, due to human nature I think sometimes we automatically think it’s something we have said or done not that they are going thru something completely unrelated and it really has nothing to do with us. This definitely opened my eyes to that and I guess I will just continue to reach out to them until they’re ready to talk instead of backing off out of fear of being annoying 🙂

  4. My wife died in April 2017. I pushed myself to do lots of things, but I am an introvert, so I am glad I made a big effort even dating some women. I finally settled into a reality that it just takes time to heal, just like when you have had a physical injury. I have broken a leg twice in my life, and both times it took an entire year before I could jog around a city block. Why would I not expect an emotional injury to heal quicker than a physical injury? The bottom line is I am better. I value a little chit-chat with strangers. I even instigate conversations with strangers. I have family and friends, too, but sometimes that is a little awkward to talk about my wife. There is some safety in talking to complete strangers. I force myself to do things, but at the same time I evaluate if too much or too often is a good idea. Now I am comfortable that I know what is the right balance, and monitor if I am becoming a hermit. Sometimes I go to Walmart and pick up a few items just so I am not being physically isolated. That’s my “Walmart Therapy.” Now that I reread my post, it sounds incredibly sad, but I am making progress.

  5. I am going through social isolation, without knowing what it was called, before your article.
    I too go to yoga and Zumba and other activities where I don’t talk to people, or if I do it’s pleasantries etc.
    My friends that I occasionally meet don’t talk about my son any more, he died 3 years ago and they wait for me to start talking about him, which is painful so I don’t often. I therefore find it easier to stay at home and not deal with socialising. I do go to counselling for my grief with my husband and have told her how I feel. I suppose I could push myself to make the effort with friends but most have given up contacting me and I guess if they are real friends they will wait for me when I am ready to talk. Let hope so.

  6. I bench myself periodically and a friend who has been with me through a few deaths knows what it means and gives me space for a while then brings over supper…

  7. I don’t know if I am socially isolated or not. I try to connect with people. I go out to dinner with a friend sometimes. I belong to a bereavement group and we get together sometimes. But even that feels lame because no one really talks in a real way. I go to work, I go to exercise. I spend a lot of time alone; sometimes it feels fine, even good, but often I feel so lonely and empty. Nothing feels right since I lost my husband and best friend 3 years ago next month. He was my soul mate. I feel like I am just trying and life has lost meaning for me.

  8. I am in this right now. I guess I justify it to some extent. one friend in particular, when we get together for supper or coffee, she keeps giving me advise on what to do to get over losing my Lydia 23 to suicide. she tells me I need to go on medication, get a hobby, get back to myself. I want to scream when I am with her.

  9. We have a group of widows that meet for lunch and supper once a month. Most of the time I don’t feel like being sociable . I try to remember that I may be helping someone else that is unbearably lonely.

  10. Social isolation…so that’s what is going on. I get out & will talk to strangers. I feel safe. They don’t know me & what I’m going through. When I go to yoga, to avoid conversations I quickly gather my things & leave.

    My brother died on Christmas eve. There is a hole in my heart that no one can fill.

    Family & friends are pouring out of the woodwork, calling & texting. I am ignoring most of them. I do not want to be asked over & over again, “how are you?”

  11. I’ve been socially isolated since December 2014 when I lost my husband. I didn’t want to see anyone who kew us together–it was just too hard. One kind word, and I was sobbing. At first I tried to socialize with some people who only knew me, but for different reasons none of them had staying power. I work from home and only go into the office occasionally; I do what the writer of this excellent article does–go to yoga and the gym, shop, get haircuts, etc. I’m not a recluse. But I have no close friends (make that no real friends at all whom I see), and when I’m home I’m either working (even on weekends) or reading or imagining what if…? Truth, my husband was and is my best friend. I talk to him, I write to him, everything I see or hear or think or am reminded of is part of our story. I’m not looking for another partner, and I’m not looking for friends either.

  12. My husband died January 22, 2016. The day I returned to work, all stores downtown has sprouted Valentines displays. I buried my head in a pile of teddy bears and pink hearts and sobbed.
    On Valentines Day I gathered a group of our friends to accompany me to a Jazz bar. It was hard, but I wasn’t going to let grief steal music from me. Was I good company? I doubt it. Did each note pierce my heart? Certainly. Luckily it was a slow house, so the band, who also knew my husband, switched from romantic balads to livelier fare. Am I glad I went? Yes.

  13. I guess I have been socially isolating a bit myself.. SO SICK of Valentine’s Day crap, all over the place. Lost my husband almost 17 months ago, and I will have to settle for looking at the last card he made for me on his computer. He loved to make cards for me for every occasion, then he would wait for my expression as I read them – he was so thoughtful & loving, my beloved soul mate. No one could EVER compare to him, or measure up. I realize a lot of us widows tend to make saints of our deceased husbands, but mine was truly exceptional. We had our problems, as any married couple, but overcame them, and were happily settling into those tender & love filled later years, when he was abruptly & suddenly yanked from my life, and I became his widow, instead of his adoring wife.. Have had to get over so many holidays without him, Christmas, our New Year’s Day wedding anniversary, his BD, now Valentine’s Day…. This is as good a time as any – gloomy – snow filled days – to isolate. Re-group, stay home with the dogs, clean the house, and not have to answer the stupid questions like “How are you doing?” So many times I am tempted to say – if it’s a married woman asking.. “Wait till your husband dies, then you will know how I am doing”. Sounds bitter – huh? Yeah – I am still a bit bitter, sometimes more than others. But looking out at the dark, cold snowy February day, it seems to fit, for now.

  14. Great article! I know exactly what you mean when you say it can feel good, sometimes great to socially isolate, but it can quickly turn in to a deep self absorption and it’s is not at all healthy to continue on that way. I force myself to say yes to stuff a lot that I don’t really want to do. It’s not easy, but I’m always glad I did afterwards.

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