In this article I will examine what constitutes ‘loneliness’ and how to discover your own cure for loneliness.
Let us start by outlining what Louise Hawkley from the University of Chicago has this to say about loneliness: There is a human need to be embedded, connected, integrated in a social network, she notes. When that social network is missing, “the consequences are very real in terms of mental and physical health.”
The physical consequences of loneliness
Genomics Researcher Steve Cole from the University of California had never really thought much about loneliness and the pain it causes until he looked into a molecular microscope at a small sample of white blood cells. What he saw there changed his life.
The sample was one of several that had been taken from a handful of very lonely men and women, and Cole’s observations were startling: In each of the samples, the blood cells appeared to be in a state of high alert, responding the way they would to a bacterial infection. It was as though the subjects were under mortal assault by a disease — the disease of loneliness.
This implies that loneliness is not just a feeling, it seems to be a social pandemic.
According to Cole the research into those impacts has produced a wave of headlines. Every day it seems scientists discover more ways in which loneliness can attack our bodies and shorten our lives. It leaves us more likely to die of heart disease. It makes us more vulnerable to e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, suicide, even the common cold. It’s more dangerous to our health, researchers tell us, than obesity, and it’s the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
There are organisations devoted to combatting loneliness and there are several suggestions made on the web on how to deal with it. Most of these recommend social interaction and various interventions, such as CBT and other social cognitive theories. However, Hawkley, in looking at the limitations of e.g. CBT states:
The theory does not focus on emotion or motivation, other than through reference to past experience. There is minimal attention on these factors.
In other words, such interventions only scratch the surface.
It seems as though until we look deeply into the emotions, motivation and root causes behind loneliness it may not be possible to find a solution.
Why we feel lonely
During the Covid pandemic whilst in lockdown many people suffered from feelings of isolation and loneliness. That is understandable as many were cut off from family and friends and could not attend the activities that may have been part of their routine and social life. The usual opportunities for Communities to gather were not allowed, leaving many people without any outside contact. Streets were silent and a visit to the supermarket was the highlight of the day for many people.
So, when lockdown ended and life got back to ‘normal’ was that the end of the isolation and loneliness? Apparently not.
Over the years of supporting people emotionally, many people who were able to get out and about and socialise under ‘normal’ circumstances told me they felt lonely. What did they mean by that?
I offer a definition of loneliness: A feeling of being on your own of there being nobody there for you. An all-pervading sense of being isolated and cut off from intimate connection with others.
Loneliness vs aloneness
Not to be confused with aloneness. Aloneness is a state we choose; ‘Alone time’. Loneliness is not a matter of choice, it is an inner sense we develop throughout our lives.
Loneliness in relationships
We don’t have to be on our own to experience loneliness.
Earlier in my life I was hopeless at being on my own. I felt as though I might as well not be alive. I looked desperately for the next intimate, or close relationship. Anybody was better than nobody. Consequently, there were a lot of unsuitable and undesirable ‘anybodys’.
When a friend of mine called one day and asked me how I was I told her I was lonely and she replied ‘Don’t be ridiculous how could you be lonely. Look at the busy life you have and how many people are around you!’
My plan of convincing people that I was OK and my life was perfect was obviously working!
Defenses against loneliness
I began to look at what the source of this ‘loneliness’ might be. Could loneliness be created by building defensive walls around ourselves to protect ourselves from hurt and pain?
I am pretty sure, in retrospect that one of my ‘walls’ came from the false self I had created in order to be ‘acceptable’ and not be rejected. Having a deep-rooted sense of being a bad and unacceptable person (which I learned in my childhood) made me desperate to be accepted and to belong.
So, I had many ‘relationships’, however people were not having a relationship with me, but with the false self I had created. I did not feel ‘known’ and so could not feel connected to others. It felt as though there was a hole in my soul. There was a sense of being empty and of not knowing who I was – of having sold out on myself.
The emotional consequences of loneliness
The pain of loneliness might be greater than the hurt and pain that others can inflict, but at least it is a familiar pain. We can habituate to the pain of loneliness. We feel safe within those self-built walls. But it is so loveless and isolated.
The loneliness within a close or intimate relationship feels marginally better than the loneliness outside one, but this situation usually ends up with us feeling trapped and bewildered. There is something not quite right about it, but there is too much fear of being alone, of not having any connection with anybody, to enable us to leave.
Why we hide loneliness
This poem called Masks by an unknown author describes the problem very accurately:
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear, for I wear a thousand masks, and none of them are me. Don’t be fooled, for god’s sake, don’t be fooled. I give you the impression that I’m secure, that confidence is my name and coolness is my game, and that I need no one. But don’t believe me. Beneath dwells the real me in confusion, in aloneness, in fear. That’s why I create a mask to hide behind, to shield me from the glance that knows, but such a glance is precisely my salvation.
That is, if it’s followed by acceptance, if it’s followed by love. It’s the only thing that can liberate me from my own self-built prison walls. I’m afraid that deep down I’m nothing and that I’m just no good, and that you will reject me. And so begins the parade of masks. I idly chatter to you. I tell you everything that’s really nothing and nothing of what’s everything, of what’s crying within me. Please listen carefully and try to hear what I’m not saying. I’d really like to be genuine and spontaneous, and me, but you have to help me……
The poem goes on to say that in order to escape from this self- built prison it will take someone to be gentle and encouraging. Unfortunately, behind this mask you look as though you do not need anything of the sort. In fact, you are ‘Fine’!
The Poem then goes on to identify the person who is the subject of this poem:
Who am I, you wonder. I am every man you meet, and every woman that you meet,
And I am you, also.
I have watched and worked with people for many years who have a huge fear of loneliness. The solutions they seek can vary between isolating themselves and insisting that they like being on their own to keeping very busy. As my husband Tim says: you can’t hit a moving target!’.
I used to judge my acceptability by how many friends I had, how much time I spent ‘enjoying’ myself and how successful and therefore ‘respected’ I was. If I had status and a busy social life I must be OK – mustn’t I? I did not feel OK though.
There were moments in my life when I could not avoid the misery of loneliness. I began to realise it went back a very long way. Had I ever not felt lonely?
My earliest recollection was triggered by someone rejecting me. When I got back home on my own I was overcome by a sense of being very small – about three or four perhaps. I have an image of me going upstairs on my own, hugging my blue teddy bear and crying and crying. I can’t remember what had caused me to cry but I do have a very clear sense of the feeling of being totally alone – that there was nobody there for me. To a young child that is devastating. The fear that comes from abandonment is overwhelming. A child who is alone fears for his or her very survival. Without others who care there is no hope of salvation.
You may think that my parents had left me on my own. I do not think that was the case. There was someone in the house, but there was no one I could turn to for solace or comforting. There was no one who would understand or even care that I was so hurt. I could not trust my mother’s reaction , which would probably have been to tell me to stop ‘skryking’ (crying) or she would give me something to cry for. At that moment I decided there was nobody there. I was on my own with my misery. It was very painful then and later and it was quite a revelation.
The creation of masks to hide our loneliness
This pain could not be allowed to continue. I had to do something.
I have no idea when I decided to create the ‘life and soul of the party – miss popular – the entertainer – mask’ but at some stage I definitely created one. I had (I think) a good sense of humour, could tell a good tale and I had a burning desire to bring people together. Perhaps this was to create ‘community’, or family but I was not consciously aware of this. Entertainers have to be creative too and I think I had a fair share of that.
It was, in its way, a very successful mask, except it did nothing to address those feelings of being lonely.
The benefits of masks
Not all ‘masks’ are destructive or self-defeating. Mine had its productive sides.
I set up groups which brought people together. In particular I set up a social group for separated, single and divorced people. It had stringent rules – one of which was that there would be ‘no obvious partnering of couples at the group’s events.
It was not a popular rule but I realised that in a group where people had suffered bereavement of some kind; lost their partners in some way; found themselves on their own or were simply unable to form close relationships, seeing people clinging together emphasised their loneliness. It was a way of causing others to feel excluded. Of course, people did not intend this, but they did rather exhibit their new partners like trophies. ‘Look what I’ve got! As the leader of this new group I of course had first pick of any men who joined!!
The quest for connection
I formed another group later on in my life. This was after I had taken part in my first self-development course. This was to bring together people who were on the same ‘journey’ towards self- fulfilment. We called it ‘Quest’.
I still have contact with many of the people who were part of this group 40 years later. I know that many others are still in contact and meet up with people who were in this group also. I am pretty sure that this outcome goes back to the basis of ‘Quest’. People were attempting to find out who they were and connect at a deep level with others.
There were meetings which began with people sharing what was happening in their lives and how they felt; there were process which encouraged people to risk being vulnerable. They began to ‘know’ each other at an emotionally intimate level and feel connected in a way they had not experienced with previous encounters.
They felt safe and accepted even at their most vulnerable. All of them had taken an Emotional Education course. The idea of Atlow Mill Centre was born out of this group. It would be a community of people who were willing to be vulnerable and ‘real’ with each other and it would provide opportunities for others to develop in the same way.
When people entered into intimate relationships subsequently they did so with the capacity to be vulnerable, be themselves and connect deeply with people. This did not always happen of course. We are reared in a culture which values ‘romance’ highly. We are brainwashed from an early age by fairy stories, TV and film productions which are of the ‘hand in hand into the sunset’ and ‘it all ended happily ever after’ variety. They also emphasise attractiveness and strength of feelings when finding a partner.
If they do not then, sometimes in these fairy stories they rescue a frog / ogre who turns into a Prince, eventually becoming a suitable contender for the hand of the Princess who rescued him.
A friend of mine used to say that in her experience it was the other way around, she met Princes who would turn into frogs. She coined a phrase, ‘familiarity breeds frogs”.
Falling in love is not a cure for loneliness
People who participated in the course and had their eyes opened to the reality of ‘love’ rather than the fantasy could not let go of their cultural conditioning. Even though they now knew ‘better’ they were still addicted to the oxytocin rush of ‘falling in love’. Many of them preferred the fantasy and did not give it up. Quite a few people met and married on the courses and quite a few of those ended up divorced.
The feelings around ‘falling in love’ are extremely addictive and like other addictions they are very hard to kick. They are not to be relied upon. Mark the words of one ‘romantic ‘song : falling in love with love is falling for make believe . Falling in love with love is playing the fool. Falling in love is such a juvenile fancy, falling in love is just for children in school. The song goes on to say that the person fell in love being ‘unwise with eyes unable to see’. It ends by saying that ‘love fell out with me’!
Pity we didn’t take more notice of that one!
Why our masks create loneliness
Does this mean that you cannot have romance and strong feelings in a relationship? Not at all but it is healthier for the future of the relationship if you recognise them for what they are and develop a more emotionally aware basis for choosing a partner.
You can find out what that might be by reading my article on What is genuine love and how to attain it.
Many of us are reluctant in the early stages of a relationship, with friends, partners or even family to allow other people to see who we are without the mask. After all that’s what they fell in love with/ find acceptable is it not?
The cost of wearing a mask
However, wearing that mask comes with a cost, which has to be paid eventually. The true cost is not being known and being unable to connect deeply and authentically with others.
My mother’s ‘Angry’ mask kept her away from all her children emotionally and they, in turn, developed masks to attempt to try find a way to connect with her or to protect themselves from her.
This is the basis of family dysfunction. Dysfunctional relationships breed loneliness. My mask relates to your mask and there is no depth or connection to it.
So, falling in love is rarely, if ever, the answer to loneliness. It simply medicates us for a while like any other addictive substance. When the feelings wear off we are back where we started – looking for the next ‘fix’.
Questions for your loneliness cure
I do not offer you solutions but I will ask you some questions at this point:
- Can you identify one or more of your ‘masks’?
- Do you know how to operate without this mask?
- What do you think the consequences of doing so would be?
- What would it take for you to be authentic with people?
- How often are you truly vulnerable with people with whom you are in relationship (friends, lovers, partners, business associates)?
- How connected do you feel with the people you have relationships with, of any kind? (For instance, can you connect to the check-out person in the supermarket, your doctor, your neighbour, your children, your partner?
- Can you surrender your construct of love and embrace a wider and healthier meaning of that word?
If you are willing to address these questions then you might begin to have some idea of where to begin in your quest to deal with loneliness. Taking a course of Emotional Education may be the first step in that process.
Love and best wishes