Recently I have been curious about differentiating the finer points between isolation and inner work in the context of life and recovery. On the surface it may seem clear that these two things are different; however in practice isolation may creep up on us, masquerading as inner work.

While there is great benefit in solitude, spending time alone, reflecting and listening to our inner wisdom, engaging in a spiritual practice or getting connected in a deeper way with nature – we need connection with other humans as well. If we are disconnected socially, it can actually negatively impact our overall state of well-being.

So the question presents itself: how do we tell the difference?

Isolation and solitude are both states of being alone. How are we to know whether the time we are spending alone serves to maintain depression and fear or supports development and growth?

The quality of these two states is vastly different; however, human nature and response to painful life experiences may blur these lines.

See, so often our tendency as humans is to immediately close ourselves off from human connection in times of distress or suffering. It is just instinctual that it feels safer to crawl into a metaphorical shell. It makes sense right? If we have been hurt by a human, why would we trust another human to provide support and a healing space? This is a complicated instinctual reaction though because at the very time when we might need people the most, we do the opposite. It is actually quite a normal protective mechanism to hide or run from perceived danger in our lives and when we are hurt by humans, connecting with another human might be the last thing we want to do. The tricky thing is that this avoidance of connection is often done under the guise of “just needing some alone time” or the very easy trap of hiding behind texting and social media, rather than seeking out face-to-face human connection. It is here at this decision point that the door to isolation has been cracked open and we have a decision to make – will we enter?

The difficulty with these isolation responses is that as humans we are social creatures – what this means is that even in the midst of pain and suffering, we need connection and meaningful experiences in life.

Now, I want to be clear: I actually am a huge proponent of “alone time”, carving out intentional private space to journal, meditate, engage in artistic endeavors, and get in touch with our spiritual nature and what is at the core of our beings… and I’m going to talk more about that and how that is different from isolation; however when thinking specifically about recovery from an eating disorder and healing from the pain so often originating in the context of difficult relationships to self and others, if that alone time isn’t balanced with connection, there is potential for the sense of pseudo-safety found in the shell of isolation to become a powerful force in one’s life.

Disconnection and isolation are the very things that serve to maintain human suffering and create fertile ground for continuing harmful behaviors in secret, often accompanied by overwhelming shame and self-hate, making it increasingly difficult to imagine, let alone act on, letting others see the deeper parts inside.

Certainly for those struggling with the shame and psychological pain underlying eating disorder behaviors, this is profoundly true. Isolation, disconnection, and disavowal of the complexity of one’s own feelings, although on the surface may seem to effectively protect from further psychic injury, ultimately ends up supporting the continuation of the eating disorder behaviors, fear, anxiety, and depression in one’s life.

This kind of withdrawal from life is the exact opposite of what is needed for sustainable recovery.

So, what is the difference between Isolation and Inner Work? How do we know if we have entered the shell of isolation or engaged in a healthy retreat to deepen our relationship with ourselves, the world, and life?

Well, I have heard it described that isolation is associated with pain while true solitude is associated with replenishing. Deep sigh… If only it were that simple!

In reality, it is entirely more complicated than the categories of “pain or replenishing”. It is simply not that cut and dry.

The difference between isolation and solitude cannot be determined by the existence of or lack of pain in the experience. In fact, both states of being often have pain. For example, when we are alone with ourselves in a place of solitude, intentionally deepening into our internal world, we may be confronted with painful aspects of our life or character that require attention. Also, when we are doing the conscious work of refusing isolation and engaging in healthy connection with others, we might also feel pain in the form of fear or uncertainty. It might be, and often is, incredibly uncomfortable to move from a place of disconnection to one of connection. Why? Well, connection brings with it vulnerability and that is the very thing that isolation and disconnection is protecting us against – so it can be scary, uncomfortable, and perhaps painful. Ah, stick with me here… let’s keep going and see what we find.

Isolation and Inner Work

Let’s start by taking a look at how each of these constructs is defined in order to really differentiate them from one another.

Inner Work: Quite simply inner work is defined as the process of natural introspection that serves to increase self-awareness and bring it to consciousness. It is a process of discovering purpose and meaning in our lives and an avenue to reclaim aspects of our being that have been lost through various difficult experiences. This is often something done in solitude or perhaps in relationship with a guide such as therapist or meditation teacher. Solitude is typically a meaningful experience, not linked with running from pain but rather with finding meaning in the experiences that may have brought pain into our lives. It also includes a withdrawal from the pace of normal life; however the key is that it also carries with it an intention to connect again and integrate into life that which was learned in the solitude or the inner pilgrimage. At its most basic level, inner work is intentional solitude.

Isolation: This is also about a withdrawal; however it does not carry with it an intention to return into life and re-connect. Isolation is removing oneself from relationships and activities of life either physically or emotionally and socially. Physically this may look like not leaving one’s room or house for days, calling out of work, refusing social invitations or withdrawing from school. Emotionally this may show up in limiting sharing of feelings, lack of engagement in conversation, feeling mistrustful of relationships, having the feeling of being very far away or lonely even when in close proximity to others. It is important to note that one can isolate without actually physically withdrawing from an environment.

Loneliness often arise here and as we know is a normal part of being human. We move, change jobs, end relationships and engage in other sort of life experiences that bring up feelings of loneliness. The question arises, does it motivate us to seek connection, reengage a lost friendship, join a group, OR does it feel safe, protected, and do we lean back into the isolation?

So obviously my bias is toward the value of going inward with intention, not to isolate, but actually to connect… to deepen into one’s internal life and then integrate those experiences into outer life and relationships, deepening into one’s outer life as well.

The main guiding questions in this endeavor to distinguish between these two states of alone-ness is: “Is this in the service of healing?” and second “Does this serve my soul?”

I want to now look at some of the key qualities of going inward to explore a deeper connection to oneself, others, and the world versus going inward as an isolating and protective defensive movement. These are just 5 ways that I have identified that nurture the soul and help us deepen into our lives with authenticity and self-awareness… I am sure there are more that you can think of to add to this list.

5 Ways to Deepen into Life

  1. Practice Courage (even when it’s scary): Inner work requires courage to look at what is unknown inside of us and increasing awareness of the aspects of ourselves that are requesting attention. This might be something that was sacrificed in service of the eating disorder like artistic work or music for example. This could also be a deep depression or fear that we need to work with in order to continue personal growth.
  2. Engage Curiosity (even when you don’t really want to know): Asking yourself the question “what is this feeling (or symptom or desire, etc.) trying to tell me?” Adopting a curious stance when going inward can help quiet the inner critic and keep an openness to whatever arises.
  3. Feel the Feelings (even when it’s easier to avoid them): It is essential to recognize that life holds joy and pain. Ask the question, what am I avoiding? Sit with it, stay with it. Watch it rise and fall, watch the intensity change, watch the quality change… and again, back to #2… get curious about those feelings!
  4. Access Creativity (even when you feel stagnant): What activities bring you peace, joy and relaxation? Try painting, coloring, cooking, making music, writing, whatever it is that helps you live artfully. Ask the question, “what is seeking to come through you?” and then do that, or make that thing.
  5. Seek Connection (even when it’s easier to be alone): Bringing whatever you have discovered in your time of intentional solitude into an integrated place in life. This means bringing it into a relationship, perhaps practicing peace or acceptance with another human being. Inner work also requires that we share elements of the journey with trusted friends and family. This is a practice of vulnerability and courage.

It is important to remember that people seek isolation to think, rest, and recover. Isolation can also become a force that can stop the beautiful flow of connection to yourself, others, and nature. I encourage you to be intentional about how you integrate alone-time into your life.

I want to end this journey we have been on in discovering more about isolation and inner work with an opening or an invitation of sorts from the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.