Alone in the Dark – Social Isolation

This post is actually a bit ironic for me today as isolated is precisely the last thing I’ve been today. I’ve been in near constant communication and interaction with people at work, people texting me like mad, IMing me all over the place. Busy, busy day (hence the uber late post time). I’d feel popular if there weren’t so many times when I wondered if these people were actually talking to the right person, because it can’t be me they’re all interested in.
So today in the Disconnection and Rejection Domain I want to talk about the Social Isolation schema.
Typical Presentation of the Schema
People with this schema believe that they are different from other people. They do not feel that they are part of most groups and feel isolated, left out, or “on the outside looking in.” Anyone who grows up feeling different might develop the schema. Examples include gifted people, those from famous families, people with great physical beauty or ugliness, gay men and women, members of ethnic minorities, children of alcoholics, trauma survivors, people with physical disabilities, orphans or adoptees, and people who belong to a significantly higher or lower economic class than those around them.
Typical Behaviors include staying on the periphery or avoiding groups altogether. These patients tend to engage in solitary activities: Most “loners” have this schema. Depending upon the severity of the schema, the patient may be part of a subculture but still feel alienated form the larger social world; he or she may feel alienated from all groups but have some intimate relationships, or be disconnected from virtually everyone.
I’ve always been  a loner. My mother will tell you stories of how my kindergarten teacher had to pull me out of the corner to play with the other kids because I’d be happy to sit there and build with my Legos all by myself. I always seem to know everyone. People gravitate to me. 9.9 times out of 10 I actively try to keep these people at arm’s length (it’s harder for them to stick a knife in your back if they can’t sneak up on you).  Every now and again I do find myself deeply entrenched in a circle of friends. A very close group of friends. No matter how much anyone works to include me, I always feel like I’m on the outside looking in. That periphery, that outside edge, that’s where I sit. That’s where I belong. It’s what I’m used to and therefore what is most comfortable for me. It’s a lonely place to hang out though.
Goals of Treatment
The basic goal of treatment is to help patients feel less different from other people. Even if they are not part of the mainstream, there are other people similar to them. Furthermore, at the core, we are all human beings, with the same basic needs and desires. Even though we have many differences, we are more alike than different. There may be a segment of society in which the patient probably will never fit – such as a gay person in a fundamentalist religious group – but there are other places where the person will fit. The person should walk away from unwelcoming groups and find people who are more similar or accepting. Often, the patient must make major life changes and overcome extensive avoidance in order to accomplish this.
Let’s emphasize this point a bit: at the core, we are all human beings, with the same basic needs and desires. Even though we have many differences, we are more alike than different.”
Strategies Emphasized in Treatment
Unlike the other schemas in the Disconnection and Rejection realm, the focus is less on working experientially with childhood origins of the schema and more on improving the patient’s current relationships with peers and groups. Thus, cognitive and behavioral strategies take precedence. Group therapy may be helpful for many patients with this schema, especially those who avoid even friendships. The more isolated the patient, the more important the therapy relationship is to the treatment, because it will be one of the patient’s only relationships.
The aim of the cognitive strategies is to convince patients that they really are not as different from other people as they think. They share many qualities with all people, and some of the qualities that they regard as distinguishing them are in fact universal. Even if they are not part of the mainstream, there are other people like them. Patients learn to focus on their similarities with other people, as well as their differences. They learn to identify subgroups of people who are like them – who share the ways they are different; they learn that many people can accept them even though they are different. They learn to challenge the automatic negative thoughts that block them from joining groups and connecting to the people in them.
Experiential strategies can help patients who are excluded as children and adolescents remember what it was like. (Some patients with this schema were not excluded as children. Rather, they chose solitude due to some preference or interest.) In imagery, patients relieve these childhood experiences. They vent anger at the peers who excluded them; and they express their loneliness. Patients fight back against social prejudice toward people who are different. (This is one advantage of consciousness-raising groups: They teach group members to fight back against the hatred of others.) Patients can also use imagery to picture groups of people with whom they could fit in.
This is an easy exercise: Remember a time you felt socially isolated. Remember how it felt. Now, looking back, think about what you could have done differently in that situation. How would you have acted? What would you have said? This is useful not only to gain a little closure in recognizing how you’ve grown as a person, but also to recognize potentially similar situations so that you are better equipped to deal with them in the future.
Behaviorally it’s important for people with this schema to overcome their avoidance of social situations. The goal is for patients gradually to start attending groups, connect to the people there, and cultivate friendships. To accomplish this gradual exposure to different groups can be key.  It’s also useful to be aware of anxiety that is often created and development a way to manage it.  
Group therapy can be extremely helpful if the group is accepting of the patient; for this reason, “special interest groups – containing members who are similar to the patient in some significant way can be most valuable.
Well that makes me think of Al Anon but for loner goth kids. Come brood with us, together.
Special Problems with This Schema
The most common problem is that patients have difficulty overcoming their avoidance of social situations and groups. In order to confront the situations that they fear, patients must be willing to tolerate a high level of emotional discomfort. For this reason, their pattern of avoidance is resistant to change. When avoidance blocks progress in treatment, mode work can often help patients build up that part of themselves that wants the schema to change and talk back to the schema. For example, patients might imagine a group situation in which they recently felt alienated. The therapist enters the image as the Healthy Adult, who advises the Isolated Child (or Adolescent) about how to integrate with the group. Later, patients enter their images as their own Healthy Adult, to help the Isolated Child Master and enjoy social situations.
 High levels of emotional discomfort. This is how I feel every day if I’m not in complete control over my body or feeling at my best. I have to physically force myself away from my desk to talk to people. I can feel the gravity increasing around me as I fight my way out of my comfort zone. For me a lot of this ties into my body dysmorphia (which unfortunately has been mind rackingly bad this week).  I can’t stand the thought of going anywhere someone would look at me. Even when I cognitively know that these people aren’t going to care. It FEELS like they care, and will judge me, but what’s worse is I, me, I am judging me. I still often indulge my avoidance of social situations when I’m at home, but at work this is not so easy. People notice when I’m not around now. I’ve been doing exactly what is suggested of me. I have been making a very definitive attempt to socialize with the guys in my group at work. It’s been working very well. My behaviors are changing. Unfortunately, my mentality relapses very easily. I still don’t quite feel like I fit in. Outside of work I know how different I actually am from these people; my interest, my lifestyle, how I think, my issues. Even at work, in my nice, normal, business casual attire I’m different. I’m female, in a highly male dominated environment. It’s a rare day that I’ll even speak to another woman at work, our paths cross so infrequently.
Once on break one of the guys made a passing comment about telling a story later to one of the other guys. I was like, “What, think my delicate sensibilities will be offended?” (Fair emphasis on the sarcasm). His reply was, “Sorry Haven, You’re just not one of the guys. Don’t get me wrong, we’re really glad you’re not. You’re great just the way you are.” A lot of the guys here are a little old fashioned and won’t swear or say rude things in front of me. On the one hand it’s polite and respectful; on the other hand my inner feminist wants to punch them in the mouth. I’m not one of them, I’m different. No matter how comfortable they are with me, that’s not going to change. That doesn’t mean they don’t accept me (apparently?), it just means I’m different so they’re going to act different around me. I already feel like an outsider, on some level I actually am an outsider, though a welcomed one, usually. So what do I do?
People are so careless with their words. I know most people just don’t think about what they say, probably don’t have any ill intention, but those words stick with me. They’ll be with me forever. They don’t leave.  Growing up I was always one of the boys. All I want is to be treated the same. Too bad. I really resent being female sometimes. It just makes it that much harder to go down there and smile and chat and pretend like I fit in. Fake it til you make it. I’ve got the faking it part down alright. I don’t know if I can actually make the feeling of inclusion stick.