Finding the community that heals

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

By Katie Richardson, Registered Psychotherapist  Not long ago, Dig A Little Deeper had its first in-house, in-person conference. We are a large group of mental health professionals spread out throughout Toronto, the GTA, to Ottawa, and beyond. As a newbie on the team, I was invited to join and decided to make it happen.

I was not expecting was the tremendous emotional impact that finally being amongst “my people” would have after personal- and pandemic-life circumstances had pulled me so very far astray from anything resembling community.

Our best research on isolation prior to the pandemic came from our prison system. Research ethics boards would come to call experimental prolonged isolation an unethical practice. It may come as no surprise then when solitary confinement was deemed unethical by the Canadian government, after a great of evidence about the impact of chronic isolation on a human. In 2019, Bill C-83 was passed reform segregation practices, and arguments have continued about the ethics of alternatives because there is a strong indication that forced isolation is abusive and inhuman regardless of the circumstances.

Research demonstrates our brains process the pain of social deprivation the same way as physical pain, and prolonged social isolation can cause significant and sometimes permanent changes to the structure of the brain.

​Such consequences may include: 

I have not been in practice for very long compared to most of my colleagues, but one thing that stands out to me again and again among those who are suffering is the impact of disconnection.

And here’s a trade secret: of all the therapies and therapists out there, one foundational aspect of mental health care remains true: even one healthy connection with another human can be tremendously healing.

Interpersonal neurobiology (via Daniel J. Siegel) views mental health issues as impeded integration within the brain that can be influenced by external circumstances – for example, neglect or abuse, ostensibly social isolation. When our social-emotional needs are unmet, we fall into neurologically distinct states of chaos and rigidity snowballing into burgeoning mental health crises.

​The state of integration, or harmony, on the other hand, is represented by many names: social engagement, secure attachment, psychological flexibility, being within the window of tolerance, being in “Self” or having ample “Self energy” and flow. 
 
Everything I have lived and learned though brings me back to the profound value and safety of unconditional connection. To show up, hold space, bear witness, grow together, stand with through rupture and repair – to learn that your worth is determined neither by intentional action nor unintentional reaction; to learn that it’s okay to make mistakes, to be yourself, and, especially, to be vulnerable because while you may yet be alone in the presence of conditional acceptance, you are not alone among those who recognize that relational ruptures are par for the course.

​You are not alone among those who have learned to breathe in vulnerability and breathe out compassion – those you can talk to about and work through any emerging conflict because they know your inherent worth always exceeds the cost of discomfort. To learn “I’ll be there, even when I’m angry at you or disappointed with something you’ve done” or “I’ll be there even when our proximity to one another changes” or “I’ll be there even if we disagree about some things” is profoundly healing; it contradicts your inner critic:

Yes, you are enough. You always were.  

Not everyone has reached a place where they are able to provide this sort of connection. That can be at once painful and freeing to notice and acknowledge, because if it really isn’t about what you’re doing, it’s not within your control. We’re all growing, and when it comes to mental health, we’re all in different places for different reasons. Ultimately, they can’t meet you where they’re not; they cannot give what they do not have.

So I want to ask each and every one of you now: Do you know where your people are?

I’ll tell you, as a fellow human and one who talks to many lonely humans, that we are none of us alone in our crushing isolation (ironically). I meet so many desperately disconnected folks that wish I could lasso you all together. If you don’t know who your people are, I’m here to tell you that yes, you CAN find them. It takes some time and persistence.

​How do you do it?

  1. Ask your therapist if they know about any local in-person or virtual peer support groups for topics related to your struggles; if they don’t, ask if they know someone who might; see if they can survey their network.
  2. Consider your personal interests and any special interest groups or classes that are near you.
  3. Check out Facebook groups for your area to see events where folks are getting together nearby.  
  4. Check out local community and rec centres, libraries, art galleries, etc. for city-run low-cost or free registered or drop-in programs that might give you the opportunity to get to know others on a regular basis (just like in school!). 
  5. If you’re in school, look into existing clubs on campus or start your own!
  6. Get creative and have a brainstorming session with your therapist to come up with other ideas.

Given the nature of human beings, I feel confident in saying that you’ve arrived at this place of isolation because of things that have happened to you. People can be very harmful, so moving away from them is a completely understandable survival response. It might then feel unintuitive and even terrifying that healing begs you to run toward connection; but let’s discern: you’re not running to just any connection, but compassionate connection. You have the power to reach for that. And if you can learn to view connections gone awry not as personal failures but cases of “poor fit” (to borrow a therapy term) based on your values, needs, and what you have to give, you can grieve the loss and move forward confidently.

You are worthy of the support squad that all of our brains clearly need AND you can find it. Sometimes it smacks you in the face when you least expect it (thanks T!).

Let yourself in.

References

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Picture of Katie Richardson, H.BA, CYW, MA

Katie Richardson, H.BA, CYW, MA

Registered Psychotherapist  Katie works with individual youth (16+) and adults in Oshawa and across Ontario virtually. Katie has training, experience and special interests in ADHD, Autism, healthy interpersonal boundaries, LGBTQIA+ issues, emotional dysregulation, trauma, parenting neurodivergent children, life transitions, stress and burnout, and grief. ​​​

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