When I was at my lowest, there were times when I would lie under my duvet brooding on how isolated I was, how I could die under my duvet and no one would be the wiser...or even care! It took effort and the skillful use of distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills to get out of bed and keep body and soul together. Having decided to live life and engage with the world outside again, I discovered that there is a paradox which can help to end my isolation: When I immerse myself in working with or helping others,suddenly I feel better about myself and talking to people becomes easier; when I hide myself away for fear of being hurt I become more vulnerable to rejection.
I started 'contributing' by helping with a kids' holiday club - I found it easier to talk to the kids (no judgements - perceived or otherwise!) at first, but soon I was able to talk to other 'helpers' and then to parents.
In DBT, getting involved in the lives of others is called 'contributing' and it is a skill that I had not considered key to my recovery until I looked back over the past 18 months of treatment. There are some key things that I have learned about this skill:
1) It helps me to become involved in a world that is bigger than my own pain and distress. Although under the duvet is a safe world - I am not engaging with the world outside of my own emotions and thoughts when I stay there longer than is helpful.
2) It helps me to know that I am not alone in feeling what I feel about the world. How can I know if anyone else is dealing with the same issues as me, if I don't talk to people?
3) Joining in with organised 'helping' is a good way to get across the gaping chasm between feeling isolated and trying to get to know new people. When you have a role, however basic, you have a place in the world and there are simple lines and boundaries which make initial relationships easier to manage.
4) It reminds me that I have something to contribute to the world and people around me - I am not a failure, nor am I totally useless - sometimes being part of a team (with no defined role) is enough - just being there for the elderly or vulnerable as company is enough to feel I am giving something.
5) Often rather than feeling emotionally spent I am nurtured emotionally by the people I am helping and the people I am helping with.
6) So often, we forget that our very presence in the world is valuable - hard not to think of 'It's a Wonderful Life' at this time of year - but it's so relevant our lives touch and impact on so many others - even if we have felt that we don't for a long time.
7) My first experience of contributing was not with people but with pets. I couldn't take the risk of rejection from people, but having a dog and getting out to make sure she was well exercised and happy actually helped me to look up and see other people around me as we walked. The dog walking community is a surprisingly open one and so many conversations when walking my dog, helped me to feel I had made some human contact. At some point I must have felt that I could cope with risking deeper human friendships, but I know it started with caring for my dog.
8) I feel good when I have done something for someone else - there is a reward emotionally from seeing someone appreciate the shopping you have brought them, or the fact that you have taken them for a coffee.
Barbra Streisand was right... People need People! And people like me, need people so we can heal.