Reframing Isolation to Independence
By Amanda Polster, LMSW
In recent sessions with clients, I have been confronted with identifying the difference between independence and loneliness. Experiences of independence and loneliness can look very similar from the outside, but internally can feel very different and can lead to contrasting perspectives and outcomes of a situation.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary shows us how these two states can look alike, but have varying outcomes and consequences. Let’s look at the definitions below:
Independence: freedom from outside control; not requiring or relying on others
Loneliness: the state of being without company; the state of being cut off from others
While both of these definitions describe a separation from others, the difference between these two emotional and physical experiences relates to freedom of choice. Independence offers a level of freedom to choose to be separate, whereas loneliness is often a forced and/or unwanted disconnection and separation. For this reason, experiences of independence and autonomy are often associated with liberation, freedom and empowerment, whereas experiences of loneliness and isolation are often associated with feelings of abandonment, sadness, and rejection.
When we reframe experiences of loneliness and isolation, we can restore a sense of relief and healing. Below are some tips of ways to reframe disempowering experiences to feel a greater sense of freedom and success.
1. Tap into our intentions
Basic cognitive behavioral therapy describes the ways our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected and influenced by each other. The outcome of situations, and the feelings we attach to the outcome is influenced by our intentions. A great example of this is looking at situations when we have offered support to others for the intention of being accepted or being perceived as kind and nice. Even if our intention was to provide unconditional support and love, our focus on others does not obligate others to provide the same support to us. If we continue to offer support without receiving it in return, we will likely begin to feel frustrated and even resentful.
This is similar to feelings of independence versus loneliness. When our intention is to be accepted or wanted, we may feel lonely when we are unable to connect with others. Therefore, if we seek to seize the idea of yearning connection, the generated feeling will no longer manifest. If our intention is to seek self-awareness and genuine connectivity, we may feel greater power doing things independently, as it provides an opportunity for self reflection and personal growth.
2. Focus on self talk language
An important aspect of cognitive behavioral therapy is identifying and changing harmful self talk. It is normal in times of feeling isolated to spiral into harmful self talk that leads to feelings of isolation, unworthiness, neglect, and rejection. Some common thoughts that are normal include:
“Everyone was busy this weekend” which leads to “No one wanted to be with me” which leads to “I’m not good enough”. We can use the visual to the right to illustrate how self talk can unravel to feelings that question our self worth, or conversely can re-wind back towards feelings of empowerment and worthiness. Self talk that can be reframed to help us feel more empowered includes “Everyone is busy this weekend” to “This is an opportunity for me to spend time by myself” to “This weekend can be productive and freeing.”
The harm to healing diagram is similar to an infinity sign that goes around and around. If we envision an infinity sign, we can notice the ways harmful and/or healing thoughts are infinite depending on which way they go. This means we can have infinite momentum in either direction. If we reframe this in a healing manner, we can notice the ways our calming, freeing, and empowering thoughts are endless.
Practice: Take this moment to think of some empowering, affirming thoughts that come to mind. Notice how many affirming thoughts you can think of in a row before feelings of doubt or judgment seep in. Notice what this experience was like for you, and invite yourself to the challenges of trying to beat this number tomorrow by reaching an additional affirming thought each day.
3. Using mindfulness to counter lonely symptoms
Cultivating mindfulness is a great opportunity to reflect on ways we are connected, even when we feel isolated or believe we are not fitting in. Mindful awareness helps us identify the normal human experience of being alone, and the ways we are actually connected through this experience because many others are experiencing this sense of loneliness at the same time. Naming loneliness and validating, “It’s ok to be alone” relieves us of some of the judgment we may have and allows us to observe loneliness in a different light. Take this moment to accept any feelings of isolation and invite yourself to observe loneliness, and any other feelings that come up without judgment.
4. Reflecting on our supports
Most of this blog discusses ways of reframing or rethinking loneliness to come out feeling more independent and empowered. However, it can be important to acknowledge supports in our lives, and the possibility of building on our support system if we are feeling disconnected and isolated. If we have a goal of expanding our social network, we can take this moment to reflect on what that goal might look like by asking ourselves these questions:
Who is part of my support system right now?
Do these people provide me with the support I need?
What type of support am I looking for and what do I need to do to advocate for it?
These questions hold us accountable for our own support, and acknowledge ourselves as key players in seeking the support we need.
Being lonely can feel lonely, but it doesn’t always have to. Being alone can also feel freeing, and we have the freedom to choose that option too.