What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear.
Unmet longings for intimacy can be lethal. Sociologist Emile Durkheim’s research revealed that factors such as social integration and anomie, a sense of purposelessness and disillusionment rooted in the breakdown of social morals and norms, influence the rate of suicide. Loneliness, defined by analyst Frieda Fromm-Reichman as the want of intimacy, is associated with higher rates of mortality, surges in adrenal hormones, high blood pressure, alcoholism, obesity, and relational discord and familial estrangement. Undeniably physical and mental illnesses take their toll on the lonely. Journalist and science writer of the New Republic Judith Shulevitz has gone as far to describe loneliness as “a public health crisis.”
At some point in therapy, the subjective experience of loneliness, complex in it’s depth of emotional experience and circumstance, is an identified source of distress for the clients I treat. In the United States NYC is unrivaled as the leader in single-individual households. Yet even urbanites who reside with others and/or have strong networks of support, report feelings of isolation, alienation, and rejection. They often describe dynamics with myriad friends as superficial, limited, and unsatisfying. In fact what is consistently passed off as intimate bonds appears comparable to what sociologists refer to as ‘weak ties’. Social media, action groups, and business networking are dependent on having a wide range of ‘weak ties’ or acquaintances. While these fleeting encounters may prove beneficial with advancing personal and vocational goals, and can even offer a temporary sense of well being, the need to be fully seen and understood remains unrealized. And as Fromm-Reichman contended, denied longings for intimacy leaves one bereft with loneliness.
For those who present with “traumatic loneliness”, a condition rooted in histories of severe psychological, emotional and sexual abuse, the intensity of desolation and despair is staggering. While eastern philosophy posits the paradoxical wisdom of embracing one’s essential aloneness so as to cultivate a compassionate relationship with our malaise and ‘non-being’, for those suffering with traumatic loneliness this guidance is tantamount to psychological annihilation. The absence of a secure, safe, sustaining and loving attachment in childhood results in developmental arrest in which innate fears of abandonment, absence of a core identity and pervasive feelings of not existing persist. Such individuals live in a state of perceived danger, locked into psychological defenses designed to protect the self from further harm. Relationships are either shunned or compulsively sought to assuage interpersonal distress. The basic psychological need for connection is mired in fatalistic assumptions, and traumatic enactments of abuse and victimization. Additionally, such early life traumas are correlated with neurobiological abnormalities compromising the body’s ability to regulate stress. Clearly the sequelae of chronic trauma requires a more realistic and comprehensive approach when addressing the plight of loneliness.
Author Jodi Picoult wrote, “Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” Suffice it to say, throughout life numerous losses, betrayals, and rejection contribute to one’s experience of loneliness. As Picoult alludes, it is not so much the relationship itself, but what occurs in relationships that can foster feelings of disillusionment and discouragement. Yet in order to persevere one must consider that all suffering can potentially be a catalyst for growth and change.
With that in mind, “pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” (Dag Hammarskjold) If as Bertrand Russell contends, love is the guiding principle to escape loneliness, than it follows that finding bonds– be it spiritual, vocational, creative, therapeutic, romantic or filial, which are great enough to live or die for, means the fundamental pursuance of what inspires love. It may seem overly simplistic to contend that love is the panacea for loneliness, and yet any sort of communion characterized by compassion, conscious commitment, and generosity enhances our physical and emotional well-being. Nevertheless, crystallizing what form love needs to take to afford healing and wholeness is a complex individualistic task. It is an emotionally demanding journey requiring risk, consciousness, and humility. Yet it is through this courageous undertaking that loneliness becomes solitude, and the peace of one’s inner Spirit and imagination triumphs.