Lifting seldom-heard voices in order to re-examine traditional social constructs and to cultivate love and empathy

Loneliness Part One

It’s hard to believe that we are only one month away from Valentine’s Day.  Many people cannot stand Valentine’s Day.  The obvious reason is that they do not have a significant other in their lives and as a result feel lonely and perhaps a little resentful.  The advertisements, red hearts, overheard conversations all serve to remind them of their aloneness.  Sometimes well-meaning acquaintances offer support that the alone person will eventually find someone.  Or sometimes the advice is given that they should just love themselves because it’s weak to “need” someone.

This dismissive advice can be damaging to the person who is struggling with going through day-to-day activities wishing for a close emotional relationship.  Just what is loneliness, anyway?  And why shouldn’t we just tell someone (or ourselves) to go get some self-esteem and self-love instead of expecting someone else to give it to us?

I have held interviews with several people about past and present loneliness.  Their names have been changed so that they remain anonymous.  Their stories will be woven throughout this series.

Everyone feels lonely occasionally, but who are the people who are most prone to chronic loneliness?  The disabled or elderly who cannot get out to where people are.  People of color are more likely to experience loneliness than whites.  Uneducated people feel lonely more than the educated.  Sometimes the chronically lonely have had alienating childhood experiences.  Other contributing factors can be poverty, the perception that someone is ‘different’ and so should be avoided, the incarcerated, people who are discriminated against or bullied, and those suffering from certain illnesses or diseases, or even their caretakers.

Maybe you’ve heard it said that people are social creatures.  It is in our nature to be with one another.  Ancient people stayed in groups or “tribes.”  Belonging to a tribe holds several primal advantages.  In a tribe there are more eyes to watch out for dangers which are all around us.  In a tribe there is the added security of others to help provide food, if scarce, and shelter, if absent.  In a tribe there are more ‘hands’ to help with rearing children, caring for sick, and tending the elderly.  In modern times we are warned against going hiking or swimming alone for similar safety reasons.  We have been hardwired through millennia to exist in groups as a form of protection.

“Gloria” is suffering a tremendous amount of stress because of her loneliness.  She left her home and career in another state to move to Colorado and get married.  She has since retired and is taking care of an ailing husband who is negative, angry, and demanding of her attention.  Even though it has been many years since she left home, she feels she cannot speak with her family about her loneliness.  They were not supportive of her far-away move to get married.  Gloria has lost the “tribe” that she once had through employment and family.  She is missing someone to help watch out for dangers.  She is the sole emotional and material support for her husband who does not provide this security in return to her.  She feels the need to ‘step back into the world’ but feels as if she cannot while she needs to care for her husband.

Without the protective factor of someone to help watch out for you, feeling lonely can create a tremendous amount of stress.  The fight-or-flight mechanism is constantly activated within the lonely individual.  Without someone watching out to make sure we’re safe, fed, sheltered, healthy, and balanced, the responsibility of all this is left up to ourselves.  This is also why loneliness is considered a contributor of many illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.  Not only does being on constant lookout create stress, there’s not another person around to notice that something is wrong. Loneliness, therefore, is serious and does shorten the lives of those who suffer chronically from it.

As a result of her current situation Gloria shared that she feels like she is the painting Scream.  She added, “My insides are in knots.  I used to write lots of letters back home but I stopped. I don’t want to write letter after letter of problems.  If I had to draw a picture of myself and my environment I would be wandering outside without a soul in sight.”


Some of you might be saying, “But I want to be alone!”  Wanting to be alone and loneliness are not the same thing.  Everyone wishes to be alone from time to time.  Loneliness is defined as the desire to have deep, meaningful relationships but feeling as if you do not have any.  By this definition, it is possible to be in a room full of people but still be lonely.  How?  Because if a person does not have someone they trust or can call on in a time of crisis, it doesn’t matter how many people are surrounding them.  In fact, being surrounded by strangers could even add to their stress because they don’t know if those people are “safe.”

Another person I spoke with, “Edward,” said that he prefers to be alone until he is in a social situation.  Having social situations makes him feel profound loneliness because it contrasts with his normally isolated life.  However, the social situation also is stressful for him because he has a difficult time trusting anyone.  This lack of trust is compounded by his feeling as if he must keep a particular appearance in order to gain acceptance.  Edward stated that needing to keep an appearance is a response he’s carried with him since childhood.

Loneliness can be more profound in those who have had a dysfunctional upbringing.  If a child was neglected as an infant or into childhood, that child is more likely to continue isolation throughout their lives.  While dysfunction in adulthood resulting from child neglect is well-documented, there is also a theory that infants will die without physical nurturing. I could not find a concrete source confirming this theory, however.

Children can also develop a fear of touch when it is not a part of their lives.  They may become jumpy or frightened when someone touches them.  Once children from these backgrounds grow up they often lack communication skills or social cues about how to respond to the world around them.  This continues the isolation throughout their lives which can create loneliness and a feeling of awkwardness or not fitting in as an adult.

“Fran” can relate.  “Every time I think back to my childhood, I was alone.  I was playing with fire when I was eight with no adult supervision.  No one taught me I should bathe, wash my face or comb my hair.  I was riding my bike alone, like 10 miles away from home before I was 10 years old.  I made my own food as a child which is why I was skinny until third grade.  Then I figured out how to feed myself and I got fat.  The only time an adult talked to me was to scream or to insult me.  Now, as an adult, I haven’t had a close friendship for so many years I can’t remember.  I haven’t had a boyfriend in almost 10 years.  And when I see old acquaintances, it never occurs to me that I’m supposed to hug them.  They usually initiate physical touch.  And then when they do, it feels strange to me.  I wish there were someone to hug me more often to get used to it.”

While Edward didn’t share as much of his childhood with me, Fran did.  Children who do not experience adult interaction and appropriate touch are more likely to continue to live that way into adulthood.  These early-learned circumstances are difficult to re-wire and can take a lifetime for a pro-active person.  For Fran, the connections are clear and she’s working to overcome this.  Edward has been going to therapy throughout his life, but feels less positive about his future.

In next week’s article we will learn some of the perspectives of Denver psychotherapist Kelly Smyth-Dent LSW around loneliness.  We will also hear more from Fran next week as well as some other lonely people with compelling stories.




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