Enforced isolation - when taking a step back isn’t a choice

Two years ago, I wrote an article around isolation, and what might be going on when we find ourselves withdrawing from the social world around us for a while.
We’re now in the middle of a situation where we’re being asked to be socially distant for our own and a greater, societal, good. We’re being told, in effect, to isolate. This is quite different from either finding ourselves withdrawing or choosing to take a step back. The situation in which we find ourselves is one where there, really, is no choice. The choice is imposed on us.
So, this is rather a different kettle of fish that we’re looking at. What happens for us - how are we experiencing that sense of having no choice around our engagement with our external world? I wonder how we experience our ‘selves’ when that experience might have been pegged on our role in the world around us and the routine and relationships that might have created. What meaning did that routine have for us - what sort of scaffolding or container did it help create for us? What happens when that changes, when that’s gone - and gone because it’s been taken away, rather than by choice? How we see ourselves, when we can’t see ourselves reflected in those habituated and historical relationships and activities, might well change and that change might well be uncomfortable.
What happens for us when we’re isolating because we’re facing a contagion - something that can be lethal (though it mightn’t be) that we can’t see, that we mightn’t know we have till we are hit between the eyes with it? How we experience robustness and resilience could well alter when we can’t really know if our own physical edges are doing the job of keeping COVID-19 out and our internal workings healthy and functioning. And there might not be a choice about that either - we might not be able to ensure or know that we are well.

Do we experience the world as threatening or inhospitable as we try to fit ourselves into the demands around how we can safely shop or exercise? How do we manage the space between ourselves in the container of our homes, and ourselves in the wider world? If neither of these settings feels as they usually do, how do we manage if we’re feeling uncomfortable? How do we cross that threshold from inside to out?
Perhaps we’ve used the outside world as a distraction - those familiar activities and routines, those relationships that might have helped us define who we are, might also have helped insulate us from bits of our histories or circumstances we found uncomfortable or even distressing. Seeing ourselves in ways that are based on externalities, or tiring ourselves out with activities can both be affected by this “lockdown”. If we have been depending on these to avoid other aspects of life or self, then what are we now being locked down into? And what might be accompanying us?
What is it like if we are isolating in a household with other members - perhaps loved ones - and experience that as busy and crowded when we might have been accustomed to being easily able to carve time alone to ourselves for replenishment? That might conjure up all sorts of feelings, some possibly conflicting, around it - being constantly surrounded by others (and perhaps their needs), fear for everyone’s welfare and health - are we being good enough parents, children, companions. It might well feel chaotic and intrusive and that might be hard to acknowledge when, regardless of our own baking activities, social media is filled with people baking loaves of bread. What is (or isn’t) being baked?
How do we experience being told to isolate? We might feel frustrated, rebellious, resigned. It might remind us of how when children, we had no choice but to follow direction.

When, under threat of contagion, we might reasonably be feeling driven to either the 'fight' stress-response (and how does the militarising of the health crisis play into that?) or 'flight' response (retreating to a more remote place of safety or security), or we are being forced to stay put - to fix. And that might create some difficulties. Is it frustrating? Frightening? Do we find the confines of our homes comforting? How we experience the removal of choice in this instance might remind us, on some level, of how we’ve experienced it in the past and that might not be so comfortable.
I wonder if it isn’t understandable that we might be finding aspects of this enforced isolation truly difficult and hugely challenging. When worries about day-to-day living: keeping a roof over heads, earning enough to cover food and utilities are added to this mix, it’s a potent one indeed! And any and all of the responses explored here might well be thought of as ways in which we might protect ourselves from emotional assaults such as being afraid, being disappointed, grieving the loss of a way of life we’d always known and taken for granted.
Having to physically isolate doesn’t necessarily mean having to endure this unaccompanied. If some help in processing this would feel supportive, many counsellors are now working via video link and telephone and can connect with anyone anywhere in the country. Additionally, if perhaps it’s necessary to be more mindful around financial commitments, many counsellors are offering temporary concessional fee structures.
Being told to isolate doesn’t have to mean being alone.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Quenington, Gloucestershire, GL7 5BG
Written by Merri Mayers, MBACP
Quenington, Gloucestershire, GL7 5BG

Merri Mayers, an MBACP registered counsellor, works near Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Merri is an integrative therapist employing the most effective aspects of person centred, gestalt, psychodynamic, systemic and TA models. She works relationally, understanding that how we engage with others can illuminate how we see and feel about ourselves.

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