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

Loneliness Part Three

This is the third part of a three-part series on loneliness. Today we will again hear from psychotherapist Kelly Smyth-Dent LSW and from Edward whom we heard from the first week. We will also be offering some solutions to loneliness.

In a perfect world, all loneliness happily ends at some point. Sometimes, tragically, a lonely person FINALLY finds someone who wants to be their friend: the wrong person. A chronically lonely person can be blind to the red flags that tell them to be wary of their new friend. This deep desire for connection facilitates people getting into abusive relationships.

This can start subtly. Danny, who was getting into unlawful situations in our last article, said that because of his loneliness he frequently looks for hidden meaning in meaningless things, such as spam email. I have also talked with two lonely people who said that they burst into tears in response to the kind gesture of a stranger holding a door open for them at a store. If a lonely person is exaggerating meaning in these small things, they may be more easily led into a dangerous situation.

Just one example of this are the stories of older women financially being taken advantage of by much younger men. Once the older woman has drained her entire estate and livelihood toward the younger man, he moves on to find another sugar-granny leaving the woman bankrupt with no way to care for herself in old age.

Consider how dismissive it would be to tell granny that she should cure her loneliness by “just learning to love herself” as lonely people are often told. Is this really something you could say to a senior citizen living alone? However, consider another perspective: imagine how the ancient idea of being in a “tribe,” described in Part One, might have protected granny in this situation.

The consequences of loneliness are not trivial. As outlined throughout this series, reducing it to a dismissive “love yourself” can extend the sufferer’s lonely episode. Loneliness can create mental health problems, physical health problems and can even bring about an early death. Loneliness opens doors for people who are looking to victimize others because there is no one watching out for the person being victimized. In fact, it is a trait of many victimizers, to isolate their victim in order to reduce witnesses.

There are serious societal consequences to loneliness, but mental health supports have continued to be defunded. Kelly Smyth-Dent says financial costs to society around the stigmatizing of loneliness and mental health are great. One third of women are sexually abused and 50% of marriages end in divorce. These traumatizing incidences are expensive emotionally to those involved. But the incidences are also expensive financially to both the individuals involved and society. As discussed before, health issues can be spawned and hastened through stress caused by loneliness. Mental health issues caused by trauma can be intensified by loneliness. Smyth-Dent says even if you yourself have not ever suffered an emotional trauma, someone you know has.

Earlier in this series we talked about how children who are not touched and nurtured as infants are known to grow up with adverse effects. There are rumors that some of these infants died from lack of touch. A study completed by The Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in 1995-97 found that 38% of adults in the study had experienced two or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). An ACE is defined as neglect (which includes lack of touch), abuse, witnessing violence, a parent in jail or similar event(s) in childhood. Twenty six percent of the participants had experienced at least one ACE. The more ACEs a person has experienced, the greater the chances that this person will experience loneliness and other negative life events.

However, there are some unfortunate things about this study. The study was overwhelmingly white (75%), educated (75%) and over 50 years of age (65%). In my first loneliness posting, I noted that people of color and less educated people are more likely to experience loneliness. It is also my belief that white people over the age of 50 in the 90’s would be likely to under report an Adverse Childhood Experience. I believe that culturally that generation may consider it an acceptable part of childhood, as you hear the jokes older people made about being abused as children. The study found that 36% of participants reported they had NO ACEs. I believe that this study ought to be updated to be more reflective of the melting pot that is the United States. It should include equal numbers from various demographics such as age, ethnic background, and education levels.

Edward talked about having had lousy parents and having to keep up a certain appearance since childhood. He talked a lot about not trusting because the world is full of fakes. In our exchange, even as he said he was starting to trust me, I believe he began creating reasons to sabotage our conversation. He said the reason he began to trust me was that I had disagreed with him. But I had not disagreed at all. When I asked him for clarification, he suggested that calling his belief a theory was insulting. It was interesting because first he said I had disagreed with him. Then he jumped to saying I had insulted him. When I apologized he said he was finished with the conversation.

His line of reasoning felt disjointed to me. This seemed unusual as Edward was probably the most intelligent person I interviewed. Rather than continuing in the conversation, I felt as if Edward had decided that if I were a trustworthy person, he had better not share any more with me. I theorize, had we continued, there was a chance that his belief that the entire world is full of fakes would have been challenged. Sadly, there are people whose upbringing will keep them where they are comfortable. Even if it’s an uncomfortable place. To his credit, Edward told me that he had been in and out of therapy throughout his life.

Therapy might be one way to troubleshoot solving loneliness. But reaching out in other ways first can be effective and more efficient. Especially if you are still feeling as if other things in your life are relatively manageable. One idea that I have run across in my research on this topic is to be friendly with people who work at places you frequently go to. As you get to know people there, you might find that you have something in common and it will be easy for you to suggest that you get together sometime. Upon reflecting, I realized I have made several friends myself in this way. From a gas station I used to go to, a store I used to go to, a bar I sometimes go to, and a fourth friend I made at an annual picnic that neither of us go to any more.

I asked Smyth-Dent for more ideas around solving our own loneliness. She says the most important thing that we can do for ourselves if we experience loneliness is to develop language around asking for help. As mentioned before, we are born asking for help by crying. However, as adults, it might feel juvenile to say, “Will you be my friend?” like we used to in third grade. We might not know how to ask for companionship. However, Smyth-Dent says it is important to step out of our comfort zone and make the first move.

Call someone or even just text someone whose number is in your phone, even if you don’t know them very well. Mention something that you talked about with that person in the past or send them a link about it. Suggest that you get together to continue the conversation. If it is someone you know a little better, come right out and say something like, “I really need to get out of the house” or “What are you doing for the game?” or even admit, “I need to start hanging out with people more often. I’ve been isolated.” If that person says yes, tie up the date and time before you end the conversation. This is important so that you have something to look forward to which will improve your outlook.

Smyth-Dent says another important part of recovering from loneliness is to be very careful about how you talk to yourself. If you call someone and they say, “I’m busy” it’s very important that you don’t take that as, “I suck. All I did was bother that person. No one ever wants to hang out with me. Why would they? Look at me! I’m so stupid!” Smyth-Dent says that if you are talking to yourself that way, first it’s not true, and second, you will discourage yourself from continuing to solve your loneliness.

Self-talk is so important that it can drive a person up or down. A better way to handle rejection would be to say to yourself, “That was really good to visit with John again. Too bad he’s busy. I’ll just call Kevin instead. I haven’t talked with him for a while.” Smyth-Dent acknowledges that making these moves can be scary. Getting out of our comfort zone takes courage and makes us vulnerable.

However, being vulnerable is not the same thing as being weak. Reaching out and making the contact is the opposite of weak. You are advocating for yourself which takes courage. Yes, it does make you vulnerable to tell someone you need companionship. But being open in this way will help you to get your needs met more easily for companionship. Being vulnerable in this way is like dropping the Ego Shield which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Yes, you might be hit by something unpleasant, but you are also open to experiencing something amazing! Vulnerability doesn’t look so bad when you think of it this way.

Smyth-Dent suggests that you build what she calls an “inner-circle” of friends of about five or six people. Remember the “social bank” I wrote about in Loneliness Part One? It’s good to diversify your ‘investments’. What that really means is that if you’re having a bad day and you only have ONE friend, you might call that one friend and they have something very important right at that minute they are dealing with. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough resources to help you at that moment. No one person can be everything to another person. It is impossible. Therefore, it’s important to have several friends.

Although you, yourself, might not feel chronic loneliness, there are people in your world who might be: your parents, your neighbor, the guy whose desk you walk past every day. For many reasons, loneliness demands our attention and an investigation into solutions. If you are not a lonely person, you can help. The next time someone says to you that they are lonely, or that they wish they had a relationship, think twice before you minimize their pain by saying they need to love themselves. Instead, ask them if they’d like to have dinner, come to a party, or just hang out. Maybe even just take a few minutes to talk with them. You might make a friend. And, by reducing contributing factors to health issues, you could be saving their life!

Kelly Smyth-Dent is devising a series of wellness academies and classes which can help with loneliness and other challenges people are working on. Next time we will talk with her more about these workshops and how they can help. In the mean time you can find more information about her at

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