Running on empty ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Running on empty

Busy people are just as prone to isolation and loneliness as anyone else

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 12/15/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
I’m a single woman in my late 40s and feel fortunate to own and operate my own business. While I’m extremely successful, I didn’t realize until recently how tremendous the sacrifices were that I made to accomplish this feat. In truth, I’m a workaholic without a significant other, children or close friends. My primary contact with others is limited to my employees — and it’s strictly formal.
 
Something happened yesterday that triggered a disturbing awareness. There’s a homeless man I pass every morning on my daily commute. Once, while waiting at a red light, I said hi and asked him his name. Some days I give him a few dollars, on other days we briefly chat. At the very least, I always smile and wave as I drive by. 
 
Yesterday, he told me how much it meant to him just to be acknowledged. I was stunned, because I realized that’s true for me, too. Days can go by, I may give out orders or instructions, but no one talks to me. I’m finally realizing how very lonely I am and that my success and wealth aren’t enough anymore. I’m also not sure I’m any more capable of changing than the homeless man. ~Jackie

Dear Jackie,
You have so beautifully explained it. Whether you’re a top executive in a room full of busy people or a homeless man on a corner, you can end up isolated and alone. It’s very painful, but it’s fantastic that you’re now facing your state of emptiness and want to change. The first step to changing your seclusion is to recognize the pain and sadness it causes. 
 
Many people compartmentalize their existence, working on only one aspect of themselves for decades. In the quest to become the best wife, parent, doctor or businesswoman, they may choose an intense focus — exclusive of all else — in order to accomplish that goal. Later on, they may discover that their life is out of balance. A person who loves being a full-time mother, for instance, may feel regret for abandoning her dreams of becoming an artist. Another person — like you — may have sacrificed intimacy and close bonds in order to pursue career success.
 
It can be difficult to step away from the part of your life that brings ego-strength and self-esteem, because it’s often the part that comes easiest. What’s challenging is to confront the difficult parts of your life that make you feel scared, uncomfortable, awkward and insecure.   
 
In order to connect with others, you need to look at why it’s so hard for you to interact emotionally. Now would be a perfect time to enter psychotherapy. Interview a few therapists until you find one you can relate to. Psycho-therapy can be a small representation of your life, so if you feel uncomfortable or critical of others and make a habit of leaving or canceling appointments, you’ll probably tend to do the same in counseling. Don’t. No matter what you’re feeling, share it with your therapist. By sticking with it, you’ll learn to face intimacy with this person and then slowly learn how to open up emotionally and socially to others. 
 
Write a list of the kind of relation-ships and people you want in your life. Friends? Renewed connections with family? A romantic partner? Use this list as a blueprint to move forward. Start small in exposing yourself to social interactions that yield positive sensations. Sharing conversations and physical intimacy is a social skill it is never too late to learn. In doing so, you’ll not only have to face your fear of rejection, but learn to care for yourself as well in the process of socializing. If your self-image is tied only to who you are professionally, that’s a start; be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished. However, it’s also time to face the reasons you feel inadequate. Make two lists — one that identifies everything you’re proud of (and have to offer to others) and a second one that delineates the attributes you’re critical of and need to work on. 
 
Take a hard look at all the things you do to sabotage potential attachments — always being too busy, creating negative labels about your looks, intellect, or conversation skills that inhibit reaching out. 
 
Strive to get rid of your excuses and avoidant behavior and make a conscious effort to connect with others.

Patti Carmalt-Vener has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.

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