We all feel lonely from time to time. How quickly and intensely we experience loneliness varies considerably among people. Some of us may immediately feel pangs of loneliness when we’re by ourselves; others can be alone for long stretches of time and seldom feel lonely.
At some point, the experience of loneliness may intensify and act as a signal for you to reach out to a close friend, call a family member, or get out to be around people (even if you do not interact with anyone). In this instance, the part of you that craves interpersonal contact comes to the forefront of your mind and says, “Hey, do something about this loneliness!”
Loneliness as a reflection of need
We become lonely because we need others. If this powerful need didn’t exist, loneliness would never be an issue for us. In this regard, our attachment needs make us vulnerable to the whims of others — we are most vulnerable when we let our need for another be known to that person.
The need for connection is a part of who we are — we were born ready to form meaningful connections. And this need doesn’t dissipate once we become self-sufficient adults. John Bowlby (the father of attachment theory) stressed how our attachment needs follow us “from the cradle to the grave” (Bowlby, 1977, p. 203).
Transient loneliness versus chronic loneliness
Above I mentioned how loneliness can act as a catalyst for us to reach out to someone.
But the reach-out-to-someone-to-quell-loneliness solution isn’t always so straightforward. For some of us, making our needs known to another feels very risky. This is especially the case when our relationship history has been tumultuous, and those we’ve needed most have betrayed our trust.
Prior attachment wounds can cast a shadow over our desire for connection. It’s not that this desire vanishes completely because prior relationships have brought us significant disappointment or pain. In many ways, erasing the need for connection would be a logical solution (solution = self-protection) to dealing with the pain caused by others.
But how can we erase something that is such an integral part of who we are?
Despite our emotional scar tissue, the need for others remains (even if it’s denied to some degree) — but now this need is accompanied by the expectation that trouble is inevitable, i.e., “It’s just a matter of time before I’m rejected or betrayed in some way.”
Need (for others) and fear (of further wounding) now merge.
When this occurs, seeking emotional contact stirs our deepest insecurities.
And if the risk of connection is too consuming, we may choose isolation over others, or superficial relationships — relationships that require less from us emotionally — may predominate. Both of these are attempts to gain greater control over further relational injuries.
Self-protection comes with a cost
In these instances, isolation gives us greater control over our lives. In this arrangement, predictability is preferred over the messiness of relationships.
But existing on the periphery of relationships can be a lonely place. One solution to this dilemma is to ignore the pain of loneliness in order to tolerate isolation. Activities may be used to achieve this end:
Reading and television may bring solace by allowing us to enter into the lives of fictional characters; hobbies can offer temporary distraction; throwing ourselves more completely into our work may help; the unconditional love of our pets may be enough to quiet our loneliness.
Intense loneliness can make us feel like we’re drowning with no one to hear our calls for help. In these instances, more intense (and, at times, harmful) coping behaviors may be used: Excessive alcohol/drug use, sexual acting-out (indiscriminate, non-intimate sex) and excessive porn viewing are a few ways we might attempt to keep from sinking into the pit of loneliness. But, of course, these behaviors bring their own negative consequences.
Shame and Loneliness: The Barriers of Shame
“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” ~ Brene Brown
Shame is the self-experience that emerges when we feel inherently wrong at our core, broken and not worthy of love or attention. Shame is what’s left when we blame ourselves for relationship failures — children are highly prone to experiencing shame and covering it up with anger or behavioral acting out.
All we want to do is retreat once the tentacles of shame begin choking us. When this shame dynamic is at work, we segregate ourselves, hiding in an effort to reduce the onslaught of self-loathing that feeds shame. In this self-segregated state, loneliness is inevitable. We can have dozens of friends, spend time around others, yet feel completely alone when the barriers of shame divide us.
Shame may be at work whenever you feel the urge to “cut and run” after an intimate moment with someone. In these instances, shame may lurk behind the scenes of your conscious mind where it exerts its power — berating you for sharing too much; making you believe that rejection is a given; punishing you for becoming vulnerable.
Shame is one of the greatest saboteurs. It undermines our efforts and convinces us that we should never open up emotionally. Shame usually intensifies when we make efforts to emotionally reach toward another. As long as shame keeps us cut off from others, its message that we are unworthy of love can never be proven wrong. Shame doesn’t like being challenged; it prefers we bask in the pain of loneliness.
So, interestingly enough, the intensification of shame may be an indication that we are moving in the right direction!
✓ Do you struggle with intense bouts of feeling lonely?
✓ Does this loneliness feel related to something specific that has occurred in your life (like the loss of someone important; a recent move)?
✓ Or are feelings of loneliness more pervasive, a familiar experience recurring and reappearing throughout the different situations of your life?
Understanding the role of loneliness in your life is an important step in examining your current relationship circumstances as well as exploring any emotional barriers that may stand in the way of the connection you desire.
I hope this article brings you a step closer to this self-understanding.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and marriage counselor in Georgetown, TX.