At the start of these blogs, I pointed out how we start off as infants needing healthy attachment with our parents. As we start to walk and explore our world we discover 2 words that pertain to boundaries and help us become unique individuals. These words are “no” and “mine” and they help us establish our identity. In other words, boundaries help us to discover those unique talents and abilities that God has created you to be. Boundaries are important. They help us to discover how we are uniquely made by God. The problem with boundaries, or saying “no” to everyone and everything, is that this “no” can lead to disconnection from healthy relationships and foster unhealthy isolation. Yes, we can discover some of our uniqueness by being alone, but some unique qualities will remain hidden as long as we hide ourselves from God and others.
For the person in the place of isolation or being disconnected, they don’t know when to say “yes” especially to healthy relationships. Like the child that learned the word “no”, some people learn to say “no” to just about everything, resulting in isolation with very few relationships and perhaps no healthy friends at all. These people often don’t know it, but they are handicapped, paralyzed, and trapped in a place of denial. They believe that their way is safe, comfortable, and free from problems, but the reality is they are disconnected from life itself. Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine and you are the branches” again a focus on attachment, but then Jesus adds, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” He continues to say that if you try to live disconnected from Him you will “burn out” and “dry up” (John 15:6).
I must admit that unhealthy isolation was a major problem for me as a youth. I told a patient that recently and she said, “You, a therapist had difficulty connecting to people?” I have to be honest, most of my life I leaned towards the unhealthy side of isolation. Sure, I justified my isolating tendencies by giving it a clever name – I’m an introvert – “I need my alone time”. Now, I am not knocking the need for us introverts to be alone from time to time. I need alone time to rejuvenate from all the energy needed to connect with people.
If you have ever been hurt, you know the benefit of taking some time alone to lick your wounds; to evaluate what went wrong and how to avoid getting hurt the next time around. In fact, healthy isolation can be a very beneficial form of self-protection. Healthy isolation help us take a good look at ourselves (our needs, wants, and desires in relation to what God wants, His will, and His direction for life), so that we can experience relationships with a sense of preparation, dedication, and rejuvenation needed for healthy attachment.
Isolation becomes unhealthy and even harmful when we avoid the good that God has for us. The Bible describes it this way, Proverbs 18:1, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment.” Harmful isolation keeps us from experiencing two very important, life-supporting, ingredients that we need in order to grow spiritually and emotionally. These two ingredients for healthy growth out of isolation are known biblically as truth and love.
People tend to enter into unhealthy isolation as a distorted form of self-protection, usually due to a life event that results in a serious emotional injury, deprivation of real love, or physical injury or pain. In other words, an unhealthy and often destructive relationship provides the real life experience that causes a distorted belief that relationships, and people in general, are not safe to be around and that, in this distorted, self-protective mode, it is important to limit being open and vulnerable. The problem with this self-protective mode is that the more we isolate in unhealthy ways, the more we hide from the very things we need to recover from our hurt - We need truth and love.
For example, I was abused as a teenager. One day my mother’s boyfriend hit me so hard that I blacked out and woke up with a black eye. Not wanting people at school to see me with a shiner, I didn’t go to school. With my mom and dad divorced, it was the weekend to go visit with my dad, but I didn’t want to go and have to respond to some awkward questions about my black eye. Despite wanting to hide my face, I went to see my dad anyway. Because I was often in trouble, I thought my dad would think that I must have done something really bad to deserve a black eye, so while around him and my grandmother I avoided looking at them directly and hid my face. What I didn’t know, due to my unhealthy hiding, was that I was isolating myself from experiencing healthy, safe relationships. Because I had just been abused by an unhealthy and not at all safe person, I started to believe the lie that everyone was unsafe. Believing in a lie, I had the mistaken idea that my dad and my grandmother would also be unsafe to be around. I found out, that was not the truth. When they saw my black eye, they didn’t scold me or blame me for the hurt I was experiencing. Instead, they expressed concern, love, compassion, and they even shared truth that I was unaware of. Due to their love, and informing me of truth, I discovered that when I am hit by someone, especially as a minor, I should call the police. My dad shared this same truth with my mother to let her know that my black eye was not going to be tolerated and that he loved me too much to allow abuse to continue.
If you have been hurt by someone and have responded to that hurt with consistent and ongoing forms of isolation or hiding from others, then you are stuck in an unhealthy place. To be restored to a healthy lifestyle, you will need to begin allowing yourself to be slowly and gently connected to safe and healthy relationships where you can experience real love and have the lies washed away with the truth. The dilemma is that relationships are where you experienced the hurt, so it is hard to trust anyone again. This lack of an ability to trust is why I rarely get someone into my office that wants help getting out of unhealthy isolation. Unfortunately, they come in for help when the bad fruit of unhealthy isolation begins to appear.
Now, I talk about being hurt leading to unhealthy isolation as if it is a knee jerk reaction, but the truth is that there are stages that a person goes through to get stuck in that that place of unhealthy isolation. The first stage does not start with the hurt, but rather it starts with a healthy need that goes unmet.
As I mentioned in past blogs, we have the need for healthy attachment to others and healthy boundaries with others. The need for attachment is a basic human need and when we don’t get that need fulfilled it becomes the first injury experienced on this journey towards unhealthy isolation. Parents provide for a child’s need for attachment and boundaries, but often these needs go unmet as a result of parental neglect, abandonment, or even abuse.
Let me restate from prior blogs that this focus, on the need for healthy attachment and boundaries, is not meant to put parents in a place of condemnation. The truth is that we live in a sin filled world and no matter how perfect you are in parenting you will always fall short of perfection. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23). The focus here is on how a lack of healthy attachment and boundaries will impact a child, and eventually an adult, and sets them on the road towards a lifestyle of unhealthy isolation.
In fact, we can’t blame all this on the sins of the parent. After all, our parents have their parents to blame for modeling harmful ways of attending, or rather not attending, to the needs of a child. Some may want to blame their parents, but then they also have to blame their grandparents and their great-grandparents and so on going all the way back to being able to blame Adam and Eve for the fall of mankind. The result, is having the fall to blame; this fall of mankind setting in motion disastrous events, and even minor situation, that cause an inability for a parent to tend to all the various needs of a child. The point that I am trying to make is that we come into this world as needy children and parents aren’t going to be able to meet the needs perfectly at all times, so these basic needs go unmet and that leads to the first injury of our soul. When a God-given need goes unmet, because of neglect or abuse, that part of us goes into shock.
This injury does not always lead to unhealthy isolation. It is possible to have a need go unmet and still recover from this injury though a renewed experience of love and truth. For example, if I say something hurtful to my wife, the injury is intensified if I wait a long time to apologize, don’t own up to how I have hurt her, avoid repentance, and don’t seek to repair the relationship. On the other hand, if I show love through not waiting long to apologize and my apology is sincere because she can see that I have repented, then the relationship has the potential to be restored and my wife is not likely to retaliate with unhealthy isolation. In other words, when love is expressed, without waiting for things to get worse, and when there is an ownership or an expression of truth in the form of taking responsibility for the injury, then the injured part of the soul is quickly brought back into healthy relationship and not left in isolation. The longer a person stays in hiding from healthy relationships, the greater the injury and the greater the chances for getting stuck in unhealthy isolation.
It is important to point out that in a relationship it is important to deal with the log in your own eye (Matthew 7:5) by admitting to mistakes and behaviors that cause the other person in the relationship to suffer. Parents, who consistently evaluate their own spiritual and emotional issues and can admit errors to their children, will minimize the effects of their parenting mistakes. This lessens the confusion inside the child’s heart about why they are hurting and the child does not have to blame the need as a bad thing, can forgive the parent, and realize that nobody is perfect. This realization can actually foster greater love between parent and child. For example, one of the things that have greatly impacted my relationship with my mother was her ability to admit her faults from our past. As my mother became more honest with herself and with me, then I was able to trust her and allow myself to love her despite her past failings.
We need to remember that not only do others injure us, but we also injure ourselves by our own sinful nature. We need to confess our sins to safe people who will love us, support us, and tell us the truth in love (rather than condemn us). When we feel condemned we tend to hide and this leads to unhealthy isolation. Instead, when we know we have done wrong, we should own it, confess it, seek forgiveness, and accept love from others in order to experience healthy connection.
The next stage in this progression towards unhealthy isolation involves a clever, yet very harmful, coping strategy. When a person does not get basic needs fulfilled in the areas of attachment or boundaries, then the need itself is labeled as a “bad” need. Let me put it another way. We learn from experience. If legitimate needs for comfort and safety are met with harshness or emptiness we learn not to ask for what we need. We come to believe that asking gets us into trouble and that part of us will be hurt again. It becomes more preferable to make the need the culprit than to risk again.
For example, when I was a child I can remember watching television and the electricity immediately went off. I wondered if we were experiencing a city-wide power outage, so I looked out my front door and noticed that the neighbors did not have their lights off, so I asked my mother what she thought was going on. Mother took my question as an accusation and began to get defensive. Specifically, she admitted that she had not paid the electric bill and started to blame her children, me included, for needing so many things like food, water, clothing, and electricity. I started to get the idea that my need for electricity was bad and that I was bad for bringing to her attention that she had not paid the bill. Notice I did not blame my mother for not paying the bill. Instead, I blamed my need for electricity as a bad need. As a result, I went to my room, in the dark, and slept in total denial that I even had a need.
Now you might get the idea that my mother is a horrible person from the personal stories I give about our relationship, but the reality is she has changed a lot from being that overwhelmed, angry, single mother of 3 children. Due to my change, as I grew in my relationship with Jesus, and her change as she grew in her relationship with Christ, we now have a great relationship. We changed individually first, then we were able to change our relationship with each other for the better. I share these life events only to highlight my own progression into unhealthy isolation and to point out the stages in this progression.
These stages thus far are: 1) having a legitimate need go unmet especially the need for love, 2) labeling that need as a bad need, and 3) denying needs exist. Denial is behaving, thinking, believing, and feeling as if some reality is not true. When our heart is injured, due to a need for love going unmet, then we blame the need for love as a bad thing and deny that we even need love.
Denial of our need puts us further on the road to unhealthy hiding as we develop lies that help us cope with the lack of meeting our real need. In other words, a denial of a need results in the 4th stage: development of defenses. These defenses are false solutions, beliefs, and lies we tell ourselves in order to make sense of not having a need fulfilled. These false beliefs we will cover in greater detail in a future blog about defenses. The problem with defenses as a function of denial is that we can’t fix what we keep hidden. In other words, denial leads to the inability to take responsibility for some aspects of our lives. The problem with defenses or false beliefs is that they lead to distorted perceptions about self and others and this often leads to a fear of others and personal insecurities which limit one’s own potential.
As we read the life of Jesus, we see how much he loved to get people out of denial by highlighting their need. One group of people in denial involved the Pharisees and their inability to tolerate weakness and failure. Jesus countered this by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). When Jesus taught, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (9:12), He reaffirmed that the needy, not the self-sufficient, are the ones who connect with Him. Putting His words into practice - when we express our needs, we move toward connection with Him and others.
The last stage on this road to unhealthy isolation is: Rotten Fruit. Ultimately, when our needs are not met, we will experience some problems in living. This is generally experienced in the form of symptoms like depression, anxiety, panic attacks, marital tensions, job difficulties, and health problems. In response to the stress, anxiety, and depression many people turn to an addiction to “feel better”. These addictions to sex, drugs, or even being a workaholic are unhealthy ways of “feeling good” because they are a fantasy lifestyle. The opposite of a false belief (A defense resulting in a fantasy lifestyle.) is reality involving real connection to meet real needs. Unfortunately people seek help for their symptoms and rarely continue the therapy to become more connected to healthy relationships. In a future blog we will cover the topic of safe people and the importance of not only becoming a safe person for others, but how to find a safe person where you can experience truth and love.
Many Christians confuse the symptoms of depression and anxiety as the root cause and try to pray away, or memorize a scripture verse to eliminate the problem, and then they wonder why it is not working when they continue to have symptoms. The symptoms, however, are signals that something is not right. In other words, depression is often a signal that we are not living a lifestyle of truth mixed with loving connection to others and instead we are experiencing a fantasy lifestyle full of unhealthy isolation. Once an isolated person becomes connected to a healthy relationship filled with truth and love, then symptoms begin making more sense and they can be managed or even overcome.
How did I go from an unhealthy lifestyle of isolation and grow to actually love being in healthy relationships? My change came mainly through experiencing the unconditional love of God, but also by traveling to Australia and experiencing a lifestyle much different from where I currently live in Southern California. You may not realize it, but Southern California is a very unique culture. Some historians and sociologists blame it on our love for the automobile and a transition away from trains and streetcars. Conspiracy theorists believe that between 1938 and 1950, National City Lines and its subsidiaries,—with investment from GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Federal Engineering, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Trucks—gained control of and removed the streetcars and other rail transit systems within Los Angeles in order to make the automobile the main source of transportation. This theory has been publicized in print and media and even movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Whether or not this theory is true remains a mystery, but the fact is that we rely on a car to get around, not a train or streetcar, and I have not been on a bus in California in years. This love for an individual transportation source comes with a cost psychologically and I only discovered this while living in Australia where many rely on public transportation to get around. In Australia and most of Europe, transportation results in rubbing elbows or bumping into – literally – another person and it is much easier to connect with someone as you travel to work, college, or even church. Meeting so many people and sharing my life with a variety of individuals, I discovered that it is much more enjoyable to connect with a total stranger than it is to be isolated in a bubble we call a car. I think in California, we continue with that bubble mentality into our workplace, gym and even the church where we stay in a bubble of unhealthy isolation never really connecting with someone else.
As a review, let me state those stages leading to an unhealthy isolation:
1) Having a legitimate need go unmet especially the need for love,
2) Labeling that need as a bad need,
3) Denying needs exists,
4) Developing a defense to stay in denial,
5) Acquiring rotten fruit or unhealthy symptoms.
Reading this blog, my wife expressed the question, “Opposite to the person that says ‘no’ all the time, what about the person that says ‘yes’ all the time?” In response to that question, the next blog will addressed this concern as we explore the topic of codependency.