Social withdrawal: Gift or punishment?

I think, it depends how you look at it and what mindsets influence how you perceive the term and any words you might associate with it.

I see it as a gift if it’s not confused with social isolation or loneliness. These things are social withdrawal in its extreme form… and they’re not always voluntary. Social withdrawal is a deliberate choice and it’s a gift. Social isolation and loneliness are punishments whether chosen or not. Over time they breed mental illness, disconnection, derision, inhumanity, hatred and violence.

As a gift, I generously give myself social withdrawal. I like solitude. To me, solitude represents freedom. The freedom to be 100% me – no having to consider how my ways of being and doing impact others. I don’t like it all the time, but I need it – daily, weekly, monthly and annually. I need it in the same way as I need air to breathe. I need the space to rest, recharge and readjust. I like reading and to read is to withdraw. I like creating and writing, and I’m better at these things when I’m alone in my zone. My home is the cave I retreat to.

Even though I’m comfortable making myself unavailable, others don’t always understand my need for it. They see it as weird, unhealthy, selfish, wrong, reclusive. I’m not comfortable with their judgement. Solitary practices, solitude and other forms of social withdrawal aren’t inherently dysfunctional and undesirable. They allow me to think, daydream, improve my self-esteem and personal mastery, get clarity, make decisions, they make me better at self-regulation (which is a huge gift for others), they make me more compassionate. In short, I find them highly therapeutic.

I see solitude as the joy of being alone, and isolation as the pain of being and feeling alone.

When I choose to be alone, I still feel deeply connected and loved. I still feel like I belong and like I matter. Sometimes I’m in company and I feel isolated, emotionally withdrawn and lonely. Recently, I’ve felt this when I’m around people who are openly and proudly bigoted (obstinately attached to a belief, opinion, or faction and intolerant towards other people’s beliefs and practices) or racist. I struggle with balancing tolerance and being complicit through my silence. This struggle tires me, it wears me thin. Then I crave social withdrawal – time to think about how to create a more inclusive society while still being compassionate to ‘haters’. The gift: Me becoming my best self.

Now for the punishment. I do notice a disturbing tendency in some of the more affluent South African suburbs: The desire for self-enclosure, for expensive social isolation (not social withdrawal). In other suburbs, I see this longing for social isolation expressed as overt and sometimes violent xenophobia. Fear – perceived and real – fuels this.

I believe people can spend their whole lives in some kind of a ‘hiding place’ where they think they’re safe from danger and harm; then one day they wake up and realise that the thing they’re keeping themselves from is the fullness of participating in our rainbow nation… our rainbow world. I have no interest in being safe in this way. I do however have an interest in being wise. This means stepping into the new, the unexplored, the unknown, the ‘danger’ and moving forward. Staying safe is standing still or worse, it’s going backwards. It’s the punishment.

Now for the rub. I’ve always thought my social withdrawal was a gift to myself AND to others. When I’m cranky, sad, depressed, anxious, angry, I withdraw until I feel better. Why? So I don’t inflict my bad self on others and bring them down in any way. It’s my gift to them. Only my very nearest and very dearest – the ones I’ve earned lots of emotional credits with – see Terrible Tracy.

On Thursday, after a chat with a coach, I had my mind cracked opened yet again. He asked if my social withdrawal might have a negative impact on others. I promptly said no and went on to explain about not wanting to inflict my worst self on them. After some probing and eventually a sharp poke, he used the example of my Mom dying explaining that she’s withdrawn herself from me. Then he asked, “Was her death, her withdrawing, a gift or a punishment?” He knew the answer was both. So did I.

The lesson: Sometimes my treasured gift of social withdrawal has a negative impact on others. I was reminded, yet again, of the importance of standing in other people’s shoes when deciding what impact we may or may not have on them.

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