Tired of Being a Lone Wolf

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Reader’s Question

Something has been bothering me for a while, and I don’t know if it’s some kind of avoidance disorder. I also fear it may lead to a depression. The thing is I just can’t express my emotions, so they’ve been bottling up over the years and driving me crazy! I’m a 23-year-old guy and it’s something that I’ve been conditioned to since childhood.

I’m cautious of people in general and I don’t like being vulnerable. I don’t really share big secrets and I don’t open up emotionally, nor do I like to even admit that something is wrong. I mean, on the outside I always put up an optimistic, cheerful face. I might have been a little less enthusiastic at times but never did anyone see me sad… I’m an emotional wreck inside, but no one knows about that. When something bad happens, I don’t waste any time whining about it — I look for the solutions, etc.

I have plenty of friends but I must add they are mostly superficial — I’m not all that close to any of them. I have listened to and helped solve their troubles sometimes but I still can’t open up to them. Maybe it’s my ego, afraid of breaking an image built over the years. I’m pretty certain I can’t talk about it to my parents despite being close. Dad’s busy as always, I don’t want to cause him any more tension; mom would freak out. Besides, it might be a big shock to see someone who’s supposed to be ‘level-headed’ become a melodramatic fool… they’d probably think it’s madness.

My solution was to start writing a diary. That helps a bit but definitely not the same as talking to a living, breathing person. I’ve been ‘fixing’ myself for a while now. For example, when I was in high school I was a bad student; there was a possibility that I would be a dropout, and I was suicidal. I sat down by myself… but before I did anything stupid, I thought for a while and managed to pull myself back together… and I worked. Now I’m an engineering graduate. But the thing is, I’m beginning to get tired of being the lone wolf. I could use some advice. And it was easier saying it here, probably because I’m talking to a total stranger.

Psychologist’s Reply

I am impressed by your insight about your solitary lifestyle –- being a lone wolf may keep you protected, but social isolation can also leave you lonely and contribute to feelings of sadness and even depression. When social isolation includes extreme symptoms of anxiety and avoidance that significantly impairs life functioning, it may indicate social anxiety disorder.

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You indicated that you have been “conditioned since childhood” to suppress your emotional vulnerability and always seem level-headed and happy to others, but you didn’t mention why. For some children, there can be a ‘code of silence’ in their families around negative or painful emotions in order to keep up appearances or as a means of coping with abuse, mental illness or substance abuse in the family. Other kids experience bullying or intense shyness that leads to a bad habit of hiding emotions from others; what starts off as a protective strategy becomes counter-productive. Although there can be many different pathways to social isolation, a common theme is a fear of humiliation or judgment from others. You mention that confiding in others might shock them or cause “freak out.” Even your preference to talk to a “total stranger” suggests that you may fear judgment or rejection from those you care about.

You indicate a real strength in resourcefulness and resilience — you’ve had success in turning your academic struggles around and overcoming suicidal thoughts in the past. Your idea of writing in a diary is a helpful tool where you can have a safe space to identify and articulate some of your feelings. But having only one tool in your toolbox isn’t enough, and you still crave deeper relational connection. As you noted, it becomes tiresome to be the “lone wolf.”

Your resourcefulness in utilizing your thoughts and problem-solving skills can help you to identify the thoughts that are propelling your social isolation. In particular, pay attention to thinking errors such as ‘mind reading’ — where you project that others will share the negative thoughts that you have about yourself — or ‘fortune telling’ — where you anticipate negative judgments or rejection from others if you revealed the real you. The next step is to start changing those negative thought patterns — for example, modifying exceptionally high expectations of yourself, such as always having to appear level-headed, or your unrealistic expectations that others will reject you if you are not perfect or have troubles of your own. Modifying your thinking patterns will help you to get ready to start engaging in more open conversations with others. You might pick a relationship where you feel the most safe (i.e., the least risk of rejection) and start by revealing small details of your inner self. Test the waters and see if the other person meets your dreaded expectations.

Opening yourself to more authentic connections with others can get overwhelming when you do it alone. Consulting with a therapist could be helpful in identifying some of the faulty logic that keeps you hidden, and for developing new strategies to start changing your behavior. The nice thing about therapy is that it gives you a safe, judgment-free forum to both explore and practice new social skills. In addition, a therapist could help you to identify and work through some of the childhood experiences, such as abuse or bullying, that may underlie your current social isolation. Group therapy can be a particularly helpful treatment to start connecting with others on a deeper level, and develop skills that can translate to your everyday relationships. Keep in mind that even small changes in opening up to others can make you feel more connected and less of a lone wolf.

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