Isolation vs. Relation
As I began to make conscious efforts to be more present with myself and how I live my life, my heightened sense of self-awareness also led to the increased awareness of my sense of aloneness—the life anxiety that Otto Rank (cited in Yalom, 2008) warned us about. In coming to the Bay Area, I experienced first-hand, rather than just understanding the concepts intellectually, that no matter how close I am to my loved ones, I am ultimately alone—alone in my search for my identity and meaning in life. “Each man is at once a part of all other men and yet he is apart from all others” (Bugental, 1976, p. 102).
For a long time, I have been blessed with the presence, love, and support of my family and friends. After the passing of my mother, they have done their utmost to ensure that I did not feel lonely, given that I was alone without a family of my own. Although I felt happy being part of their lives and vice versa, I could not help but feel a deep sense of loneliness even when I was not alone. I was a part of their lives, yet I was not. I could not fully understand the source of this sense of loneliness, and sometimes felt guilt for feeling that way. Now I understand that it all stemmed from the isolation I was suffering from within.
Yalom (1980) wrote about this sense of intrapersonal isolation when we either deny or suppress our own feelings or desires for the sake of conformity and acceptance of others, when we distrust ourselves, and bury our potentials, replacing it with the “oughts,” “musts,” and “shoulds” we have adopted from others—for example, parents, society, or religion. Without realizing it, I have been doing that for so long that I have become so isolated from a big part of myself.
It was not until I confronted this way of being through the EHI experiential sessions, my individual therapy, and consultations with Orah Krug that I was able to begin to learn to reconnect with and accept the parts of my rejected self in order to feel whole again. In that process, I learned that it is only in connecting with myself, accepting and loving my own way of being, that I could finally truly learn to love and accept others.
It was not an easy process. At times, this awareness of one’s isolation made me question whether to be in touch with one self means I have to pay the price of being alone. That realization was terrifying, to say the least. And it was tempting to want to be attached to someone just to avoid being alone. But that would also mean being with others out of anxiety rather than out of one’s desire to relate to another wholly. Thus, I can appreciate why some clients desperately long to be connected to others, even at the expense of losing oneself. Many (including myself for a long time) may think that it is easier to live through another person than to confront one’s own fears, doubts, insecurities, and responsibilities. But can one be truly connected to another when one is isolated from one’s self?
According to Bugental (1976), it is in learning how to relate to one’s self, attending to our own inner sense, that we learn to be aware of how much and in what ways we are with others. When one is isolated with parts of one’s self, one is unlikely to be able to fully relate to others authentically (Yalom, 1980). It is crucial for one’s own growth and relationships to be able to be with one’s own self before one can be truly with another—the concept of being “a-part-of and apart from” that Yalom (1980, p. 362) described.
It is also through this that I was able to begin to understand the power of I/Thou relationship, of encountering another as a whole being without holding back. This “skill” (for lack of a better word) is perhaps one of the most life changing ones, as an individual and a therapist-to-be, that I have learned through my experience here. Through the EHI experiential sessions, consultations, and my work with the residents of AgeSong, I was able to experience the impact of genuine encounter between self and others as who we are and who we are becoming, without judgment or intention to move each other along, but merely bearing witness and holding the space as we experience the struggle and the shift. So, in separating myself from all those whom matter to me to reconnect with myself, I was able to reconnect with them genuinely. And my relationships have never been better.
As I experienced the paradox of isolation and relation, I could begin to appreciate what Yalom (1980) meant when he pointed out that no matter how much guidance and support one gets from others, or how close one gets to others, one needs to take ultimate responsibility for the way one lives one’s life, and face life alone. I alone will have to make choices for my own life, and face the consequences of those choices. While I may have others accompanying me in that journey, it is a journey that I must take on my own.
Meaning vs. Meaninglessness
To Frankl, the “lack of meaning is the paramount existential stress” (Yalom, 1980, p. 421). That was indeed true for me for a long time. On top of my list of stressors was trying to find the answer to the ultimate question—What is the meaning and purpose of my life?, followed by Am I fulfilling them or am I just wasting my life away? Yalom (1980) posed a similar question when he asked, “How does a being who needs meaning find meaning in a universe that has no meaning?” (p. 423).
My decision to come for the EHI Certificate course originated from that desperate need to find some meaning and purpose in my life. Throughout my life, without being aware of it at times, I have been in search of some meaning in my existence. Foolishly, my idea of meaning has always been centered on what I do with my life, to accomplish some purpose. I guess in some ways, it helped relieve my discomfort from facing life that would otherwise be deemed meaningless and not within my control.
As a result, meaning and significance has always been attached to “what I do” with my life. So when I first started my journey in the Bay Area, my desperate need to create and find some meaning from the experience by doing something “useful” or “significant” was robbing me of my ability to actually embrace the experience. I was caught up with concerns of not “making” something out of this decision that I could “show.”
It took me a long time, but after much struggle and reflection, I finally understood that it is not what I do that gives meaning to my life or my experiences, but what meaning I give to what I choose to do. For ultimately, life itself is meaningless, but it is in the meaning that we assign to it that matters. And in that journey, I learned that the greatest meaning one can ever find in life is to truly love and be loved. Everything that originates out of love is full of grace, beauty and meaning. Whether it is in loving others, loving yourself, loving God and His beautiful creations, or loving your passions in life, whatever it may be. Love gives a beautiful meaning to this otherwise meaningless existence. And to me, that is ultimately what my life is about. Love is the basis of my existence and everything I choose to do.
According to Yalom (1980), “meaning is something to be found rather than given” (p. 463). In his book, he wrote about Frankl’s idea that “each individual has a meaning that no one else can fulfill, and these unique meanings fall into three general categories: (1) what one accomplishes or gives to the world in terms of one’s creations; (2) what one takes from the world in terms of encounters and experiences; and (3) one’s stand toward suffering, toward a fate that one cannot change” (as cited in Yalom, 1980, p. 445).
This could probably be interpreted in many different ways. In the past, I would have read it as what I could contribute to the world in a productive sense, especially through what I could do in terms of being a daughter, sister, aunt, lover, friend, and therapist. But now, for me it all comes back to love. It is through love for human beings and nature that drives one to give and create for this world in every way. It is through love of self and others that one truly encounters and experiences the world wholly and authentically, whether it is in giving or receiving. And it is through love for life that one accepts and deals with the givens of life.
The famous quote by Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live, can bear with any how,” has always been very meaningful to me. But I’ve always associated it with just the idea of having found an objective meaning or purpose to live for. But I now know that underlying the meaning for me is love. Love for life, love for others, love for self, love for freedom, love for nature, and love for knowledge. It is our love for something or someone that ultimately gives us the reason to cope with any obstacles in life. And that is the “why” I have found to deal with any “how.”
…to be continued…
Bugental. J. F. T. (1976). The search for existential identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schneider, K., & Krug, O. (2010). Existential-humanistic therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Yalom, I. (2008). Staring at the sun: Overcoming the terror of death. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
— JoAnn Loo
Today’s guest contributor, JoAnn Loo, is a therapist-in-training from Malaysia. Inspired by the great existentialist psychologists including Yalom, Bugental, and May, she came to the U.S. a year ago to learn the workings of existential therapy through the Existential-Humanistic Institute in San Francisco, CA, and has been consciously practicing her new-found way of being ever since.