“It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.” -Albert Einstein
In all counseling theories there is discussion of the importance of connection and healthy relationships with other people. Attachment theory focuses deeply on the innate need humans have for connection and how not having a safe attachment figure leads to various difficulties and even mental illnesses. One of the things that I hear over and over again from many of my clients is how alone and isolated they feel. In this world of billions of people how is it that so many people feel so alone? In his book and Ted Talk, Johann Hari discusses how he believes that a lack of connection is a root cause of addiction. He uses as evidence the famous Rat Park study. In the early research of addiction they put a rat in a cage and presented two bottles of water, one laced with heroin or cocaine and the other one plain. In those experiments all of the rats kept going back to the drug water and eventually overdosed and died. Then an experimenter in the late 1970’s thought about the fact that rats are social creatures and he wanted to see what happens when rats are placed in a social environment. They called it Rat Park and provided a large cage filled with about 20 rats. They had all kinds of things for the rats to play with and explore. When the rats of Rat Park were presented with the same two bottles of water none of them overdosed, none of them died. When I share this study with my clients many of them discuss how they always felt like the ‘black sheep’ of the family or they talk about how they never felt like they truly fit in or belonged with their family or friends. Through their addiction they hurt others, which then lead to even more isolation and stigma. In effect, they describe what living in the cage of isolation feels like. What is going on that so many people, not just people dealing with drug addiction, feel alone even when they are surrounded by people that care about them? I believe that it comes down to how we see ourselves and what we say about ourselves when we look in the mirror. I had one client say to me that he felt that he should have a warning label when he is around others because he believed that if others got too close to him, he would eventually hurt them in some way. For him, he felt it was better to stay isolated then to hurt others, but what he didn’t see was how his choice to stay isolated was also hurting those who cared about him. While we all have an internal critic, for some that voice is so loud and so persistent it is becomes hard for them to believe that they are worthy of love and connection. It is the fear that others will see their unworthiness that creates a separation which cuts them off from connection. That internal programing of self-doubt, insecurity and fear is like a self-inflicted cage. So how do we develop the courage to step out of the cage and into life? I’ll talk more about that next week.