"Why do I feel so lonely? Why does it feel difficult to make good friends, or meet a romantic partner?"
Welcome to the isolated life.
I coach a lot of people who struggle with social connection and relationships, and who spend much of their lives feeling lonely.
It doesn't need to be that way... but in order to change it, you need to see the problem clearly, and why isolation exists.
The Isolated Lifestyle Choice
As mammals, we're naturally wired to desire connection and relationships. We want to feel safe. We want to feel connected. We want to feel liked & appreciated. We want people to care about us, and we want people that we care about.
But our modern lifestyle choices isolate us from people.
If you're reading this on the Internet right now, you probably live in a first-world culture. You're likely in the US, or Europe, China, Japan or Australia. There's a good chance that you live in a large city with millions of inhabitants.
How much are you taking advantage of that awesome situation? How many of those millions do you know?
Probably, you have tons of opportunity to meet & connect with amazing people every single day... but you don't.
Let's have a look at your day-to-day lifestyle.
Many people in first-world cultures…
- Live by themselves, or with few flatmates.
- Drive to work alone, isolated in their cars.
- Work from home, or at an office but isolated in a cubicle.
- Wear headphones while in public, or at the gym.
- Engage mostly with people “socially” online, through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.
- When in-person engagement does happen, often alcohol is involved to minimize anxiety.
There are a lot of things wrong with this approach to life. We could talk all day about alcohol, social anxiety, and poorly-designed work environments...
But today, I want to focus in on technology, because it's everywhere.
How Technology Isolates Us
Technology is fantastic. It enables us in wonderful ways. We love our email, our calendar, our social media, our messaging apps.
On one level, we feel better-connected and more organized than ever before, because the whole world is just a click away.
But on a deeper level, most of us feel more disconnected, and more isolated than we've ever imagined.
Technology connects us well at the rational level, sharing ideas & information efficiently- but it tends to isolate us at the emotional level. We're connected 24/7, and yet we have no emotional connection with each other.
Thoughts & ideas communicate well through words, but emotions generally don't.
Emotions are communicated more naturally through voice tone, body language, eye contact, touch, scent, directed attention, physical presence- there is a huge range of sensation that does not translate well into the digital world.
For real emotional connection, nothing beats in-person face-to-face communication. Even a high-fidelity video call would be a poor substitute, and most of us depend on texting to build and maintain our relationships.
How's that for weak?
Why Don't We See This Problem More Clearly?
Our reptile and mammal minds are easily confused by the modern world.
It confuses our brains because we feel like we're reaching out, interacting, and connecting pretty well, and even getting quick responses. We get a nice little burst of dopamine every time someone messages us, or likes our post.
However on the most important emotional levels, we're not connecting at all.
To our brains, "texting = relationships" in exactly the same sense "junk food = food".
Junk food may taste great, feel convenient and cheap, and you may eat tons - but it's not the same thing as food, and it can't give you what you need to be healthy.
Your relationships are no different.
Getting Connected, for Real
Technology encourages us to embrace a lifestyle in which we experience-
- Physical isolation. We hang out less, and text more.
- Social isolation. Even in public, we wear headphones, sunglasses, and give more attention to our phones than the people nearest us..
- Emotional isolation. Tech is weak for communicating emotion, so they are left unexpressed, and we process them in isolation. Is it any wonder that anxiety and depression are on the rise as well?
These isolating effects contribute to our ever-shrinking comfort zone.
We like our comfort zone because we feel safe, and we feel a sense of “control” there, but the social-technology-based comfort zone is very emotionally isolating.
Let's look at how we can reverse these things.
Why Do We Seek Comfort in Our Relationships?
Many of us think of our social world as being about fun, pleasure, advantage, and entertainment.
Yes, sometimes people add those things to our lives, and that's awesome... but I want you to value your relationships just as much from another angle.
Human relationships aren't meant to be easy. They're meant to challenge & grow you as well.
Every aspect can be confronting.
- Our desire to control. Relationships challenge our ability to control the world around us. The moment someone else is making choices that affect us, or impacting our "space," or wants something differently from what we do... we feel challenged.
- Our sense of vulnerability. We fear rejection, judgment, criticism, betrayal, abandonment, unwelcome expectations... we feel exposed.
- Feelings of dependency & obligation. Our deepest connections come with feelings of obligation, protectiveness, jealousy, and the possibility of heartache, homesickness and heartbreak. These are not our favorite emotions. We can feel deeply dependent on those closest to us, and fear losing perspective and independence.
It's all to easy to lean away from that, and towards the most comfortable, non-confrontational relationships - and full-on emotional isolation - but at what cost?
Relationships can add joy, happiness & comfort to our lives in huge ways... but they are also there to grow & challenge us.
Without real relationships, we develop...
- Less emotional resilience.
- Less acceptance for things as they are, and a tendency to control.
- Lack of real connection.
- Isolation in dealing with our own emotions, and an inability to get perspective from, or learn from, others.
- Loneliness and misery.
That challenge that our social connections and relationships provide us is important.
Pursue it wholeheartedly.
Challenge Your Comfort Zone, Every Day
Look at your life. Can you see aspects of self-isolation in your lifestyle?
If you can see that isolation in your life, choose to challenge it directly.
Re-design your day so that you intentionally increase your social contact and social challenge, rather than isolating yourself.
Better Communication Choices
Whenever possible, I replace texting with far better forms of interaction. By preference, I start at the "most-connected possible."
- In-person interactions is of course at the top of my list. Simply, nothing beats it for 95% of my interactions.
- Two-way video call. Zoom, or Google Hangouts. Most phones and messaging apps now have video chat built in.
- Two-way phone call. Which is what a phone is designed for, by the way.
- One-way video messaging. If I'm sending someone a message, and we can't easily be online at the same time ( or I don't have questions ), I record a video. Loom is my favorite tool for this.
- One-way audio messaging. A lot of apps support audio messaging- I quite like WhatsApp's audio feature as it supports longer captures.
- Texting. OK for short messages, confirmations, organizing dates & locations for our catch-up.
When texting, if you find yourself using emoticons, then you're feeling the need to express emotion in your message and you probably should not be texting. Switch to a better option.
Make Your Relationships Real-World
Don't settle for digital relationships
Digital communications are OK for a client work relationship maybe, but not for a personal relationship. Most especially for a romantic one.
Be very aware of the difference.
It's OK to be digitally connected. But don't do that for you most important relationships. Make sure the important relationships at the center of your life are based in the real-world, with real-world interactions.
Intentionally, actively meet new people
I go to cafes and start discussions with other people there, I chat with the baristas, make friends with my neighbors, I make friends at the gym.
I meet people on the bus, or at bus stops. When I'm in a class, I make it a point to introduce myself to the people I don't know, and to get to know their names.
It’s completely random, and turns out to be incredibly fun, for all of us.
I’ve made some incredible friends that way, but it required me to be aware of my self-isolation barrier, and to intentionally crack it open.
It’s changed my world.
Master Emotional Vulnerability
Real connection is about sharing your emotions, and practicing empathy for the emotions of others. Without that, you have little more than an exchange of ideas.
Connection is about sharing emotion. If you're experiencing loneliness, start there. It's what you're lacking most.
You'll know you've found that place of vulnerability when you feel like you cannot be any more honest with someone, about who you are, what you think, and how you feel.
It's the most beautiful place in a relationship you'll ever find.
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Will Technology Catch Up?
Virtual reality is developing at an amazing pace, and intellectually I find that both fascinating and terrible.
Will technology ever be able to completely replace personal interactions?
If you think of all of our understanding of the world around us as being sensory based, then theoretically, it's possible to create 100% fidelity in our sensory abilities.
- Sight. Full 3-D virtual reality. See that person as slearly as if they were
- Sound. Spatial audio.
- Smell. Yes technology exists that can reproduce scents. However it's not clear whether
- Taste. Japanese researches are working on this kind of technology however currently, it's laboratory-only. However it's an important part of an intimate, sensual, sexual connection.
Of course for these to work, we also need recording technology that can capture all of these elements as well. Cameras for video, microphones for audio... but what about smell, taste and touch? It will be some time before those can be capture perfectly, to the level of vibrations and pheromones.
At some point, we can theoretically, go beyond 100% fidelity. We can see someone more clearly than our eyes naturally can. We can hear them more perfectly. All of our senses can be heightened or muted, as simply as turning the volume up or down in your favorite computer game.
We may even be able to "create" new aspects of connection that we don't really identify with presently-
- Digital empathy - the ability to feel what they're feeling, at a biochemical level.
- Digital telepathy - the ability to think what they are thinking.
- Digital sensation transference - The ability to physically sense what they are physically sensing.
Things will get interesting, and they will get weird.
But is there another dimension, a spiritual, energetic dimension that goes beyond what our 5 senses can detect?
Honestly, I can't answer that, because I can't point at it, and modern science for the most part can't either.
I do worry about that.
I sense that there is a difference. That even if you could 100% reproduce a physical interaction digitally- it wouldn't be exactly the same.
Something would be different.
And will we feel de-isolated then?
It's anyone's guess.