“We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible.”
Stephen Marche is one of many writers who is identifying the same problem facing our digitally-connected world. As our time spent online increases, especially in the social media space, our sense of loneliness and isolation does too.
Interestingly, this problem is not simply limited to social media. It happens in prison too.
Isolation in Prison
In late January 2016, President Obama announced an executive order to eliminate solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prison. This news made me curious, so I did what any millennial like me does – I Googled “solitary confinement”. I found this fascinating piece from PBS’s Frontline chronicling the way solitary confinement impacts one’s mind.
The piece begins by defining solitary confinement within a prison.
“When corrections officials talk about solitary confinement, they describe it as the prison within the prison, and for good reason. For 23 hours a day, inmates are kept inside a cell that is approximately 80 square feet, smaller than a typical horse stable. Cells are furnished with a bed, sink and toilet, but rarely much else. Food is delivered through a slot in the door, and each day inmates are allowed just one hour of exercise, in a cage.”
President Obama listed the psychological impact of solitary confinement as one of the reasons for his decision. In the Frontline piece from PBS mentioned above, a 65-year old study was described.
“In 1951 researchers at McGill University paid a group of male graduate students to stay in small chambers equipped with only a bed for an experiment on sensory deprivation. They could leave to use the bathroom, but that’s all. They wore goggles and earphones to limit their sense of sight and hearing, and gloves to limit their sense of touch. The plan was to observe students for six weeks, but not one lasted more than seven days. Nearly every student lost the ability ‘to think clearly about anything for any length of time,’ while several others began to suffer hallucinations.”
Is Isolation Changing Us?
I wonder if the kind of isolation many of us experience often leads to a smaller-scale experience of these prisoners and these human guinea pigs. We no longer have the support of other people or any other external stimuli to lean on in our fight against fear. According to this report, when we are isolated, we increase the chances that our fears will win.
“Solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory.”
[Tweet “When we are isolated, we increase the chances that our fears will win.”]
The Impact of Isolation
While I believe (with some certainty) most of us will not end up in solitary confinement within a prison cell, we’ve probably all experienced isolation on some level and know its impact.
Isolation magnifies our insecurity. Isolation also makes it harder to discern truth. When we’re left with simply the voices inside our head, we give greater weight to destructive voices and we often go to darker places.
Meet My Author Coaching Network (#TeamACN)
This weekend I was reminded of the power which comes from rejecting isolation. I traveled to Nashville to participate in the first face-to-face meeting of an author coaching network of which I’m a member. Our first 3 meetings have been via video conference call. This in-person gathering drew over half the network’s members together.
Honestly, I got on the plane last week thinking, “I have no business being in this community.” One participant is a best-selling author who has produced movies in Hollywood. Another has written 8 or 9 books. One woman is a ninja at social media. I felt like a JV football player invited to play in the NFL.
Battling insecurity as I prepared to leave, I nervously printed my materials to share. I got up and shared quickly each time we were asked to make a presentation. I didn’t get up quickly because I was confident or courageous. This was my strategy because I knew I was only going to feel worse and more scared the longer I waited!
Isolation Ends Where Community Begins
Yet, at the end of the two-day conference, I walked away realizing I wasn’t alone. Everyone in the room had questions. Everyone struggled. Other people confessed the feeling of being overwhelmed or insecure. Other people wondered the same question aloud I had wondered silently, “How did I get invited into this group?!” Everyone compared themselves to someone who was further ahead.
It was only after 24 hours together and a lot of sharing that we all realized we weren’t alone. People who I felt like were much further along than me expressed fear and insecurity. However, the community we had been discovering over video conference and a Facebook group had moved to hugs, handshakes, coffee refills, pats on the back, tears, and tacos. This community experience pulled us out of isolation into collaboration. And all of us were leaving better than we came.
The Power of Collaboration
Collaboration gave us what isolation could not. When we came together and heard those two powerful words (“me too”), everything changed. As one person said, we didn’t just have a meeting of a coaching network or teaching sessions; we had “church”. The community came together and loved, supported, challenged and affirmed one another. Today, we’re back in San Diego, Phoenix, Columbus, Raleigh, Denver and the list goes on, but each of us is back home with more friends and collaboration.
[Tweet “Collaboration gave us what isolation could not.”]
This weekend reminded me how fear grows louder and stronger when we’re alone. But when we drag our fears into community, other people call out the lies and the light shines into the darkness.
You Can Know Isolation in a Crowd
One of our conversations this weekend explored why some authors become ego-driven and unbearable. Sadly, too many men in my profession (pastors) were popular on that list. These people may have been surrounded by a community (handlers and an entourage), but they were isolated from a community of fearless truth tellers. Telling the truth demands incredible courage. Without a community who loves us enough to help us overcome our insecurity as well as call out our pride, any of us are capable of becoming our own worst nightmare.
Moving From Isolation to Community
If you realize you’re isolated and it’s gotten to an unhealthy level, I challenge you to intentionally pursue community with other people. Here’s a few ways you could get started.
Put it on the calendar.
Sometimes, scheduling time with friends feels less than authentic. But for me, at least, what gets calendared is what’s important. I intentionally saved spots in my weekly calendar for meetings and coffees to reconnect with friends during first two months of 2016.
Reach out and ask for help.
The people in your life want to help you, so give them an opportunity. Last week, I needed to craft a benefit statement for a writer’s event I was attending. I sent a special email to my best blog subscribers and several of them gave really helpful feedback.
Take online relationships offline.
It’s not social media which makes us more isolated, but rather how we use social media. I met someone through Twitter at the end of last year after listening to an interview with him on a podcast. I reached out asking for further contact and we had a great conversation over Skype where he shared some great insights and encouraged me. I’m excited to talk to him again later this spring.
Remind people in your life that you want accountability.
Most of us think we’ve told the people in our lives that we want them to be real with us and push us. But those conversations are scary and people forget. Some of our friends doubt we actually mean it. We have to constantly remind the people around us that we want their honesty. This is the only way to create a safe environment to grow our self-awareness.
We’re all wired differently. Some of us truly enjoy being alone regularly, while others thrive on being constantly surrounded by people. Regardless of whether you’re an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between, we must replace our isolation with the kind of connection that pushes back against our fears and empowers us with confidence, courage, and hope.