The fear rushed in. Am I going to isolate once again? These were my first thoughts and feelings when I decided to work from home three months ago.
I have a long history of social anxiety and withdrawal, and going to work every day gave me a good group with whom I could connect. Yet, over the last two years as my colleagues started working from home, these connections diminished.
I had much success in the last 13 years of overcoming the anxiety and the isolation that came with it. I created a good balance of social connection and time for myself. However, would working from home take me back to the isolation I faced when anxiety held the upper-hand?
In those days, my anxiety made me feel separate from others; this led to anger, trust issues, fear and jealousy. This all justified the withdrawal. Yet, I hated the isolation. I withdrew so much because it was difficult to engage with others while being so wrapped up in this “separateness”. It was less painful to isolate than fight through these negative thoughts and fears. The desire for connection and attachment kept pushing me, but so did the reasons for withdrawing.
What helped jar me loose from this mess was an accident and near-death experience. I had been trying to get on top of my anxiety for years, but could never gain or maintain consistent success. The accident pushed me to take more risks.
A theory I had held for a long time came in handy…“We all want what is best for ourselves”. This was not much to go on; we all have various ideas of what “best for ourselves” means and we have various ways of going after what we want. However, it was a starting point. On this small level, I began seeing a connection where I did not consider myself different/separate. From here, perhaps I could take some chances.
I was very aware of my own interests and idiosyncrasies. By recognizing that others’ interests and idiosyncrasies made them unique and not bad, I found an ability to connect. With this change in perspective, distinctions such as who I was drawn to and who repelled me, were easier to make. Those who might do me harm, I could consciously step away from, making them a smaller part of my life and those whose foibles (as I like to call them) drew me in, I could try to get to know better.
With the years of isolation, however, I was not very good at “being social”. This kept me anxious about interacting with others and because I was not as social as I wanted to be, it kept me quite depressed. Anger and jealousy easily resurfaced when I saw others being social when I did not know how. Anxiety, anger, depression, and jealousy all reinforced each other and I continued being stuck.
But, I took it a step at a time, such as paying more attention to subtleties of interactions and being more objective about it all, and I started practicing, first at work, then with family and friends. I tentatively opened up and shared more, showing a few of those foibles, taking risks, being more vulnerable.
I made much progress, but in the last few years I grew too comfortable with “just enough” social contact. I had not developed many new social networks. I was one of the last to start working from home because I wanted to hold on to these work connections. What I had not realized was much of it had already changed.
My social universe needed to expand; otherwise, the gains I made over the years would slowly die. I needed to go boldly, or even meekly, but nevertheless, go where I have not gone often enough…in search of new social outlets.
After three months, the early results show promise. I am spending too much time by myself, yet I am staying social enough that life seems nearly balanced. Today, I have a better feel for where my social/alone balance point is. The fight to not withdraw and isolate today is not the same fight I had years ago. I took risks and made big changes. It took a long time, but with the extent of the change, it needed some time. I am looking forward, not without some apprehension, to the challenges in front of me.
Reggie E., MSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor. Reggie has a master’s degree in Social Work as well as bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and the Comparative Study of Religion from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Prior to a career change to social work, he worked in a variety of fields including banking, trucking and metal fabrication.