The Isolation Trap

We are naturally social beings, it is literally part of our DNA to come together in groups, it is the foundation of our society. Human connection is key to our wellbeing. A hug of fifteen seconds or more releases oxytocin in our brain, which makes us feel good. Being with each other is good for us.

And yet, when we are going through a transition or a trial of some sort, we often become isolated. This not only negatively affects our well-being, it impairs our cognitive abilities and makes us more prone to depression and anxiety. So why do we do this?

Working with people who are leaving the corporate environment, I know that this can simply be a case of circumstance. There is no office to go to, there aren’t any meetings you have to be at, there are no longer a group of people who are expecting you to show up. So you end up on your own, probably sitting in your spare-bedroom-come-home-office or at the dining table, trying to work things out by yourself.

Added to this are feelings of vulnerability and shame that are associated with going through this transition. When we are changing our role, changing our appearance or our position in the world, we often feel challenged. It’s a sort of existential crisis, we know we are not the person we were but we don’t yet know who we are to become. At times like this we can withdraw from social contact because it is too difficult to explain what is going on in our lives. Besides, most of the people we speak to won’t understand even if we could explain it because they’ve never been in our situation.

So, as well as physical isolation we add social isolation. We think we can figure things out on our own and we avoid meeting people until we’ve ‘cracked it’.

Tied up with this is the image of the heroic leader, the intrepid explorer, the lone maverick. Entrepreneurs are glorified as individuals who are the authors of their own success, using their unique and individual talents to forge new opportunities. These popular mythologies are reflected back to us our culture and media, so trying to do it on our own ‘looks’ right.

The problem is that these are myths and the reality is that very few, if any, do it by themselves. They succeed because the join with others, they help and are helped by other actors. Even in the hero’s journey, the basis of many stories, the hero is assisted along their journey by other, often mythical and wise, characters.

What’s more, whilst you are one your own you are ‘stewing in your own juices’. Your imagined failures and problems feed upon each other and grow, each negative thoughts adding the earlier ones and pushing you into a downward spiral. Once you get amongst others you realise that they have very similar problems and you can talk about the issues. It’s amazing how much smaller a problem is when you have spoken it out loud and exposed it to the cold light of day.

You also get the chance to help others with their problems, which makes you feel good and boosts your self-esteem. It’s also surprising how often you find your own answers as you solve someone else’s problem.

So, basically, isolation is counter-productive. We need to have that connection with others and to reach out for help. However, it’s important to find the right groups and people to be with. Whilst it undoubtedly better to get out and meet people, any people, to staying in your bedroom office, if you are only spending  time with people who have no experience of your situation, no empathy for you and no understanding of your challenges, then you can still feel on your own in a crowded room. (although, just to be clear, that’s still better that being completely on your own!).

There a lots of groups that you can go and try and experience. It is a case of experimenting and looking for the places where you meet people that you click with, where you feel comfortable and that feed your curiosity. It’s good to have a mix, so go to some events that feed your mind, others that you enjoy and yet others that give you the business connections that help you.

They don’t have to all be dry business meetings, either. Doing activities that you enjoy with people really builds deep relationships and you may find opportunities flow out of those because of all the people that they know. Go to art clubs, writing groups, drama societies, macrame clubs – whatever floats your boats. If it makes you happy, then people will see you at your best and will imagine you being that good in other areas of your life, like your business.

Don’t fall into the isolation trap. Get out and meet people. Only good can come of it.

Feel your way forwards, stop forcing it

As well as learning new skills and developing a new mindset when we leave our corporate role, we have unlearn a whole set of beliefs and behaviours. Things that were helpful, or at least functional, in the corporate world simply don’t work outside. In fact, some of them can actually be harmful to us and what we’re trying to achieve.

One of the hardest things I have had to learn is to use my intuition and to trust that answers to problems will emerge if I just stay with the issue long enough. In coaching, we call this ‘sitting with the problem’. It a very uncomfortable experience, sitting in that uncertainty and ‘not knowing’.

Our response to this is to wriggle out of it, reduce the ambiguities to black and white and end the uncertainty by leaping to a solution. These behaviours have been re-inforced in our corporate life, which operate under an illusion of certainty and control. We were constantly challenged to ‘have the facts’, to ‘bring solutions, not problems’ and an admission that you didn’t know the answer was a seen as a sign of weakness.

The solutions we readily grasp for, the familiar ones, are never the right ones. The ambiguities that we try to flatten out hold the very answers that we seek. In a large organisation we see many of these sub-optimal decisions but the organisation continues, albeit in an inefficient and wasteful manner. However, when we are making decisions for ourselves, this approach can be extremely harmful. We don’t have the resources and momentum of a large organisation and poor decisions can blow us far off track.

This over-reliance on rationality is not how we are in the world naturally. Our intuition is deep wisdom, it is the product of our unconscious mind that is far more powerful and rapid than our intellect. We use our ‘feel’ continually in our personal lives, in our hobbies and pursuits, in our daily activities but we have been taught to ignore it in our business and professional life. Re-connecting with our intuition and re-introducing it into our whole lives takes time and emotional labour but its a very necessary step to learning to flourish after the mothership.

Allied to this is the habit of forcing things. In our corporate life we could ‘make things happen’ though our effort, personality and will. We could pressure people to do the things we needed to do, we could influence events and push things through. This was only possible, however, within the hierarchy and rules of the organisation. Once we are outside of that structure, our attempts to bring pressure on people will simply push them away because they are free agents. We have no hold over people or resources and the only authority we have is that which we generate through trust and respect. Forcing simply doesn’t work.

However, so deeply ingrained is this behaviour that we continue to try. We make plans and forecasts for events we have no control over, we make demands of people that they have no obligation to fulfill. Instead of allowing events to take their course and focusing on the things that we can control, we impatiently try to ‘hurry things up’, to push things through. The consequence is that we often sabotage our efforts. Forcing is a rather unpleasant behaviour and it repels people, it reduces the resources that are available to us and it prevents the serendipity and mutuality that will bring us what we want.

The biggest signal that we are ignoring our intuition and trying to force things is when we are looking for short cuts. When we start signing up for courses that will show us the ten step process that guarantees our objective, when we look for some marketing trick to ‘massively grow’ our lists, or try to learn some sales tricks that will have us ‘closing, closing, closing’. When we are desperately grasping at someone else’s formula and trying jam our business and ourselves into it.

This never works. These always prove to be a waste our time and energy and push us further away from our desired objective.

In my experience, every dead-end is disguised as a short-cut. Avoid them and focus on doing the work instead.

The hard lessons that I have learnt are these: Learn to listen to and trust your intuition and use it feel your way forward rather than trying to think it. And stop trying to force things, just let them unfold.