Is It A Need For Alone Time Or Are You Socially Isolating?

Looking back over my history with an eating disorder, I can see various times when I withdrew and socially isolated. This lack of connection with others contributed to the depression I experienced.  I’ve been mulling over parts that can get confused as they have a similar outcome of feeling like you need alone time. Some come from wounding though and are just a way to keep safe, while others legitimately require that space to recharge. These 5 parts are the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) trait, Empath, Introvert, Shy and Avoidant Attachment Style. In this post I am going to explain the difference between these 5 and what each actually needs when this part is activated. My hope is that this helps you understand if you’re socially isolating from a place of fear or that you just have a need for alone time.

The Highly Sensitive Person trait was studied by Dr. Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. and is characterized by the acronym D.O.E.S. The D stands for Depth of Processing. In the research they found activation in a part of the brain called the insula, which integrates moment to moment knowledge of inner states and emotions, bodily positions, and outer events. The O stands for Overstimulation. According to Aron, HSP’s can become overstimulated when a situation is complicated, intense (noisy, cluttered, etc.), or goes on too long.  The E stands for Emotional Reactivity and Empathy. In the research they found HSPs reacted more to both “positive” and “negative” emotions and that there was more activity in their mirror neurons when looking at photos of strangers expressing various emotions.  These mirror neurons are partly responsible for empathy as well. The S stands for Sensing The Subtle which often shows up in an HSP as sensing the little things, that most people miss.

In the book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Aron states that essentially being an HSP is about having a more sensitive nervous system and according to the research occurs in 15-20% of the population. I’m still seeking more information to understand if early childhood trauma has anything to do with the trait. I’m not sure if it was considered in the research, although they do talk about attachment and how HSPs that experience a healthy secure attachment with their caregivers thrive, while HSPs that don’t and experience an insecure attachment are greatly impacted and more so than those who don’t have the HSP trait with similar childhood experiences. It would make senses to me that an HSP would be more impacted by lack of nurturing, mirroring, and the ability of the caregiver to meet the infants needs. One thing to also note is that 30% of HSPs are extroverts, while the remaining 70% are introverts. 

When the HSP part is activated, it’s about understanding our needs and setting boundaries with ourselves and others to thrive. Knowing how long we can handle being in a crowded or noisy environment and understanding what we need in our environment to thrive. There’s also a piece around acceptance of this part of yourself. If you are an HSP, you likely grew up being told you were too sensitive and began to reject this part of yourself. Maybe you feel like your sensitivity is a burden and weak. Often we can get the message of not being enough because we’re too quiet and we develop what Aron calls in the book, a wrong sense of being flawed. Starting with acceptance of this part of yourself will allow you to settle into its gifts. This requires slowing down and listening to your body, so you can begin to understand your needs and reinforce them with boundaries.  It also requires connecting to the inner child, and reparenting this part of you, as you were likely misunderstood as a child. This is especially important if you experienced an insecure attachment with your caregivers. We get to create a secure attachment with the sensitive child within.

Empaths are different than HSPs as they don’t include the depth of processing, overstimulation and sensing subtleties parts of the trait.  All HSPs are empaths, but not all empaths are HSPs.  Being an empath means that can feel others energy and emotions. All humans are empathetic to varying degrees. One thing to note and be mindful of is whether you’re an empath or codependent. In co-dependency there’s a focus on managing how others feel and believing you’re responsible for the emotions of others. Empathy without boundaries, is just co-dependency. As with the HSP trait, if this part of you is activated its about understanding what you need. There are energetic practices a person can also learn to support their energetic alignment, while not taking on others energy. This would include energetic boundaries, clearing, and cord cutting. Feeling is a beautiful thing and when we’re touched by something that’s going on in the world it’s normal for emotion to arise so I feel it’s important to normalize empathy.  

Introversion is different than both HSP and being empath as it means that you recharge alone, while extroverts recharge around other people. As mentioned above 30% of HSPs are extroverts.  If the introverted part of you is activated, it’s just a sign that you’ve hit your threshold of being around people and are in need of some alone time. Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you aren’t outgoing or sociable and it also doesn’t mean that you’re shy. Introverts love being alone and don’t feel lonely when they are. They also prefer working alone or in small groups.  We can work with this part of us by again understanding the needs and setting boundaries to thrive. 

Shyness comes from a place of wounding. It’s a fear of rejection and judgement that leads to being withdrawn and hiding. I feel there’s also a link to Social Anxiety here in which you get nervous and self-conscious in social situations. This wound is created from past experiences of social rejection, ridicule, etc. Both introverts and extroverts can be shy. In my experience shyness can become an identity that holds us back. Growing up and into adulthood I was always told by teachers and bosses that I was too quiet, too shy and that they wanted to hear more from me. Classmates called me shy and I remember getting embarrassed very easily. In fact, I was so terrified of rejection that when people asked me questions I would try to respond in a way I thought they would accept. If I didn’t know what they’d accept, I wouldn’t say anything. I remember eating my lunch in the bathroom at my first highschool job because I felt too shy to eat in the lunch room.

Those who’ve experienced shyness know that visceral feeling in the body when it’s activated. This is a part that can lead to unhealthy social isolation. Often with this part, there’s a sense of loneliness and desire to connect and be included but the fear is greater and holds the person back. When this part is activated it’s about learning to self-regulate and self-soothe. Connecting with the inner child will be an important part of self-soothing, as this wound is created in childhood. We’re often identified with this part of us but when we start to see it as just one part, we can start to access the adult part, who can soothe the inner child. With this part, we need to feel the pain of rejection, not enoughness and fear. As we learn to self-soothe, we can start to take micro-actions to engage in more social activities to build up new evidence that we’re safe.

The Avoidant Attachment Style is another part that can lead to withdrawing that comes from wounding. I talked a bit about attachment in the HSP section. HSPs can have various attachment styles (secure, anxious, avoidant or disorganized) and not all people with an avoidant attachment style are HSPs, shy or introverted. I left out empaths because again everyone is empathetic to varying degrees. At the core of the avoidant attachment style there is a deep fear of intimacy. Attachment Theory was first introduced by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and are our style is developed based on how we were emotionally responded to and comforted by our primary caregivers. Initial romantic relationships can also have an impact on our attachment style, which can shift depending on who we’re in relationship with and how secure their attachment style is. For the purpose of this blog I will only go into the avoidant attachment style, as that’s my personal experience and I see it contributing to social isolation and potentially being mixed up with some of these other parts I’ve discussed. 

Avoidant attachment styles tend to develop when a child’s caregivers are emotionally unavailable or unresponsive. This can include issues at birth that end up in separation; for instance a premature baby needing to spend time in an incubator. These children experience this as rejection and learn to suppress their needs and emotions, often becoming independent and feeling like they don’t need others. This often looks like disconnecting from the body’s needs and learning to self-soothe through external means (ex. binge eating, shopping, smoking, drinking, etc.). In adulthood those with an avoidant attachment style tend to neglect their own inner child needs, and appear as low maintenance when in relationship with other. When this part is activated, it can sabotage relationships and lead to withdrawing. Understanding and awareness of this part will support in understanding the needs. 

The practice for the avoidant attachment style is to stay in connection with others when triggered and learn to co-regulate. It’s about reconnecting with the body and inner child, learning what their needs are and meeting them internally and with the support of others. It’s about creating safety in relationship with others, so that you can begin to move towards a more secure attachment. Often independence is revered in our culture, but I see it being confused for this avoidant attachment style, lack of connection to needs and fear of intimacy. Independence is the opposite end of the spectrum of codependency, when what we want is to move towards the centre which is known as interdependence. We are relational creatures and are wired for attachment.  In interdependence we support one another, but maintain a healthy sense of self within the relationship.

These 5 parts are not inclusive to social isolation but are the 5 parts I’ve personally experienced. If you notice yourself living the #hermitlife but part of you feels that pull to connect with others, perhaps this blog will support you in understanding some of the parts in you that are active. Building this understanding comes from the journey back home to our body. We can start to discern the difference between which parts are active, through felt sense. They feel different in the body and as we become intimate with these parts of ourself we build awareness, which gives us the opportunity to meet their needs in healthy ways. This can change that behaviour of social isolation that comes from a fear based place, and still support the needs of the parts of us that require alone time to reenergize. Instead of identifying with these parts, we get a greater picture of ourself and learn to work with all parts that make up who we are.

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