I had woken up for the 6th, maybe 7th time that night. That wasn’t a problem though, it was necessary and I was thankful rather than frustrated. I immediately turned the car on and the interior light. In the same instance, I was checking my hands and making sure my fingers were able to move normally.
As I checked my body, I realised my feet were numb and I couldn’t move my toes. A moment of panic washed over me as I ripped off the blankets and random assortments of clothing I had wrapped myself in.
My feet were completely numb, no feeling, no movement, and a slightly pale bluish tinge washed over them. I began to rub at them frantically. The panic was overwhelming as I was practically hitting them. I threw my legs up onto the dashboard so they were directly over the heater vent and continued to rub them.
I’m not sure how long it really was before sensation started to come back. At first, there was a strange almost burning sensation. Similar to the tingling and numbness we’ve all felt in limbs, just much more painful.
There was an incredible feeling of elation when I finally managed to move my toes and feeling crept in again. That relief, however, was fleeting. It was fleeting because after I had sufficiently warmed myself up, I was going to turn the car off, wrap myself up again and go back to sleep.
I wouldn’t be sure if I’d wake up quickly enough next time.
This is a memory from when I was homeless, living out of a car during one of Scotland’s harshest winters that it had faced in years.
It was in those moments just after I had gotten through another night. When I had survived relatively unscathed, I felt incredibly alone. I had made it through the night but I had nowhere to go. I was just waiting to do it all over again the next night.
It’s a strange experience to feel that isolated. It’s also a very different experience than what I think we mostly associate with loneliness. Loneliness is described in the psychological literature as the difference between the social interactions we desire and our real experience.
There’s a missing piece to this, however. We should also consider the situation we are currently in. Our environments heavily influence our feelings.
I wanted to have close relations around me yet I didn’t expect it due to my circumstances. This meant that ultimately it was less painful or immediate than other situations. The feelings or need for social interaction were not salient, they were not the focus of my attention.
A more common experience and relatable example would be being invited to a party by a friend. Within that party, the friend disappears talking to some of their other friends and you are left alone.
It is not uncommon to struggle to click with others around you during such a situation. People are talking amongst their own groups, perhaps you have nothing in common with people around you that’s noticeable. Or they are focused on ingroup conversation that you struggle to join.
There’s this sudden isolation, a feeling that you don’t belong. You’re surrounded by people and in a social environment so there’s an expectation for you to engage. Yet you don’t feel connected to these people and are shut out in a way that can feel incredibly isolating.
There’s clearly a gulf between what you want and what you’re experiencing but it’s exaggerated further by the expectation of the environment.
In many ways, this normal experience can be even more isolating and difficult to deal with than the isolation I experienced while I was homeless and truly alone.
I’ve been surrounded by people and felt more alone than I ever did while I was completely shut off from normal society.
It turns out that social dynamics are more complicated than they first appear. There is a critical difference between social identification and social interaction.
Groups are formed by people coming together through shared beliefs, values, interests or experiences. They often have a representation of the ideal of that group, whether explicit as an actual person or more abstract through the general values. Members of that group will conform to a certain degree towards that ideal when they are engaged with that group either literally or internally.
There are a number of ways we can become associated with groups. Importantly, however, in order to feel truly a part of that group we have to identify with those core beliefs or values that it formulated around.
It’s been shown that group identification is far more important towards all the health benefits associated with social engagement than just the interaction itself.
This is also where we get the idea of black sheep. A black sheep is someone who is a part of the group but doesn’t conform to those core ideals.
This is important because groups show greater hostility towards ingroup members who do something against the core values compared to outgroup members doing the same. This is because we expect outgroup members to do things we don’t agree with.
Black sheep often find themselves ostracized from the group because the others feel their very presence to be wrong.
What all this means is that you can be surrounded by people, you can even be actively engaged with them. However, if you don’t identify with them, you will feel incredibly isolated from the group and even rejected. This is especially true if the group also feels you don’t conform to the group values.
The importance of group interaction to us at any given time is dictated by 2 factors. The context and environment we are in and what kind of social interaction we desire at that time.
In my example at the start, while I had a desire for more social interactions, I wasn’t in an environment that necessitated it. I wasn’t in a situation where social engagement was a focus for me, it wasn’t in my immediate attention.
So the significance of group interaction at that time was only minimal and while I felt isolated it was different and in some ways less than other more common situations.
In an environment where you are surrounded by people, a specific social situation. Then social interaction is at the forefront of your attention. It is very salient, the key focus and assuming you have a normal desire for interaction; when you don’t have it, that is when you really feel alone.
We feel most alone when we are surrounded by people we don’t identify with and we are in a context that is highly social.
What’s worse is that these experiences can be very damaging to us. We can develop a powerful cognitive schema that makes it harder to reintegrate and socialise effectively later on.
When you couldn’t connect with people and you felt ostracized and isolated. You may have experienced that discomfort of being surrounded by people and feeling completely alone.
You may have shut away, cut people out and developed behaviours that kept you safe. Protecting yourself from situations that could make you feel that way again because you assumed that it was down to some flaw in your character.
You may have blamed yourself and felt like you are just a loner or will never be able to find connection with others. You may be self-isolating even more because it feels comfortable, because you no longer put yourself in those social contexts.
Without those hard social environments that make interaction the key focus of our behaviour, we won’t feel that discomfort as easily. Even if we experience moments of loneliness, they won’t be as powerful because there isn’t that situational focus.
Not everyone wants to socialise all the time. We all want time to ourselves and we all need different amounts of interaction. A critical part of that formula is how much social interaction you desire.
However, if you’re holding yourself back because you believe you can’t do things for fear of not fitting in. Or you believe that you won’t be able to connect to anyone. It’s probably time to challenge those views and realise they might have been developed from past negative experiences that weren’t your fault.
We can’t fit into every group, we can’t identify with everyone. There are too many people with too many differences. But that doesn’t mean you should give up if you do want to start a new hobby or meet new people. Don’t let those past experiences hold you down and don’t hide behind the safety of self-isolation.
We can feel isolated because we’re cut off from society, we can feel isolated when we’re surrounded by people we don’t identify with. But we are social creatures and if you want to live a fulfilled life, it’s important you don’t give up on living because of negative experiences that you couldn’t control.
Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A. J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 238-249.
Sani, F., Herrera, M., Wakefield, J. R., Boroch, O., & Gulyas, C. (2012). Comparing social contact and group identification as predictors of mental health. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51(4), 781-790.