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

Loneliness Part Two

For this article I have consulted with Kelly Smyth-Dent LSW, a Denver psychotherapist who is creating a series of wellness academies and workshops.  These workshops will create socializing opportunities for people who wish to reach out to others from their loneliness and other challenges.  We will discuss these workshops with her in a later article.

Last week we had an introduction to loneliness and how it is instinctual for people to be together in groups or “tribes” as it can ward off danger. We also heard some lonely voices: Edward, Gloria, and Fran.  This week we hear more from Fran but also meet some new lonely people and hear their stories.

Loneliness is considered a motivation response.  This means its existence serves to motivate us to do something to snuff it out. When we are lonely our instincts kick in and we look for a socializing experience. Extinguishing loneliness when it happens is a protective measure and a life-saver. It’s like saving money in a social bank that we can take a withdrawal against in the future.  We take a withdrawal by calling a friend or a family member if we have a crisis.  Getting out of the house to a place where we can socialize makes a social “deposit.”  However, there are chronically lonely for whom the natural response of getting out is extremely difficult.

People who are chronically lonely have experienced a prolonged bout with loneliness.  They have not yet been able to figure out how to end their desperation and ask for the companionship they need.  Many of them have tried to socialize but lack social skills or the self-esteem to continue trying initiation.  Maybe they have been rejected and don’t know how to recover from rejection.  These people have hurdles, both emotionally and behaviorally, to overcome before they can learn to find sustaining relationships.

I asked Kelly Smyth-Dent about these situations.  How does one avoid becoming so lonely that they don’t end up in a state of depression?  She really emphasized personal responsibility.  Smyth-Dent believes strongly in people learning how to ask for help.  Often, people don’t ask.  She acknowledged that it can take a lot of courage for someone to step out of their comfort zone.  Calling someone to say they’d like some companionship, or would like to just talk, or ask someone if they’d like to meet for dinner is courageous.  However, she applauds those who take that step to reach out and make contact.

We all have the ability to ask to get our needs met within us.  Smyth-Dent says that we come out of the womb instinctively knowing that we need to ask for what we want.  That is why we are born crying.  Obviously as we get older, our needs become more varied and specific.  That is one reason we develop language.  Some people might not have the language needed to ask for support.  It is a skill that comes with practice on one’s own or can be helped through feedback in therapy.

It might be better to first practice asking for what we need in a one-on-one situation.  As discussed before, groups of people can be intimidating for a lonely person.  In my conversation with Charlie he said, “To tell lonely people to ‘join a club’ is rubbing salt in the wound.  People already affiliated seem to run away from lonely people as if [they] were an infectious disease.  If people were successful joiners they wouldn’t be lonely in the first place.”

Fran shares an example of what Charlie is talking about.  “I thought I’d start attending church.  There were hundreds of people there.  No one said hi.  I went back a few weeks later.  The same thing happened.  I went off and on for a year and only had one person talk to me once but when I called her outside of church she never responded.  I thought I’d try a different church.  I went to the second church several times before anyone talked to me.  I’m really shy and really wanted companionship but didn’t know how to approach anyone because I was an outsider.”  Fran eventually started talking to people at the second church, but it took her a year because of her need to develop asking for what she wanted.

Speaking of church, one previously lonely person, “Hailey” said her loneliness was solved by Jesus.  In our conversation, she invited me to be saved.  I thanked Hailey for the invitation and asked her several times how Jesus solved her loneliness.  I wanted her to find words to describe her experience for you, my readers.  Unfortunately, Hailey was never able to fully explain how Jesus took away her loneliness, for which I was disappointed.

I asked Smyth-Dent about this.  Her response was that usually churches of any faith provide not just a spiritual aspect, which can be helpful for lonely people, but also a social aspect.  You meet new people there, the church community can be supportive, and usually people watch out for each other.  Additionally, there is positive self-talk at church.  When you insult yourself, you are insulting a creation of God.  This negative self-talk is changed through the new narrative given in a church setting. Additionally, having a faith can give a person an identity, which acts like a connector outside of a person’s own group of worshippers.

Smyth-Dent mentioned that a similar experience of community can be found at gyms.  There is a social aspect in a gym, especially in classes.  There’s a lot of positive talk going on there, “You can do it!” “You’re doing amazing!”  Plus, getting the body moving is always good for creating happy chemicals in your brain.  People who are into fitness and health can more easily connect with others who have similar interests.


Along the same lines as the dismissive attitude and stigma toward people who have mental health issues, a similar phenomenon exists for the lonely.  It is common for a person who has close family members, close friends, or a significant other to say, “You just need to love yourself.  You don’t need anyone!”  When this is the answer to the lonely person, the implication is that the lonely person is weak or something is wrong.  Often people do not understand their own blessings and fail to see that there literally are people who have no family and have no friends.  People with no one crave even more to have a significant other or even just a friend.  Often people who say they are “self-made” really did have a lot of supporters behind them or someone who gave them a break.  Unfortunately, they do not see that their lonely acquaintance, who they have told to love themselves, don’t have these advantageous relationships.

I asked Smyth-Dent why the stigma around loneliness and mental health, in general, exist.  She reflected that if you consider the history of mental health, these early images have been carried through the years.  People were taken away and locked up in a mysterious place where others like them cried and screamed all day and all night.  They were isolated in rooms with padded walls and forced to wear straitjackets.  Or tied to beds in large rooms with others also tied to beds in the same room.  They were given electroshock therapy or had part of the frontal lobe of their brain scrambled or removed.  There is an implication of “weakness” attached to being “crazy.”  And in our society, being “weak” is often considered unacceptable and undesirable.

“Do you know how many times I’ve been blown off by people who told me to ‘just love myself’ or to ‘be happy alone first’?” says Fran.  “As if I’m not a strong person.  I was a single mom.  I came out of a neglectful family.  I successfully raised my kids alone.  I am strong.  But somehow admitting that I want relationships like everyone else means I’m less than everyone else.  I just want what everyone else has.  A few friends and maybe a boyfriend.  Why is that wrong?”

If a lonely person has tried to reach out to others and has been dismissed (rejected) by “Learn to love yourself,” sometimes the lonely person will suppress the urge to further reach out for support or help.  These unconscious actions on the part of others can actually push lonely people further into their belief that there is something wrong with them.  The sustained message is that they really don’t deserve any close relationships and that the world is full of people who one cannot trust with their emotions.  Stigmas around loneliness only serve to intensify the oppression the lonely feels when they reach out and are dismissed or rejected.

In response to rejection, Danny feels crippled.  He is resentful and bitter.  As a result, he has developed an attitude of rejection toward the rest of the world.  “I start to get reckless as I reject pretty much everything the outside world wants me to do in regards to both “real” rules and social customs.  This happens because, ‘fuck it.’ The world has left me all alone anyway.  Why the fuck should I follow anything these same people [who rejected me] ask of me?  This whole thing leads to court dates, probation, and even more [isolation].”

The pain of rejection is registered in the brain the same way that pain from stubbing your toe, or any other injury, is.  The only difference is that the sensation of physical pain has a physical place to land on your body.  If the emotional pain of rejection doesn’t have a physical place to land then what happens to it?  Often people who have suffered emotional pain get headaches, upset stomachs, chest pain (which could be why it is sometimes called a broken heart), chemical changes in the brain, or any number of physical ailments.  Just as a person will change where they place their feet after stubbing a toe, a person who has experienced rejection like Danny above, will change how they respond to their rejecting environment.  Danny has decided that since he has been rejected by society, that he will reject society by doing what he wants…which leads to legal trouble.

While Danny’s example may be extreme, it’s not exceptional.  Having worked in the juvenile justice system, I saw this kind of behavior response often.  The children who were in juvie almost always had neglectful or abusive families.  The bottom line is these children suffered from trauma.  This trauma informed their reactions to the world.

Next week we will look again at the connection to trauma and its impact on loneliness.  We will hear more from Edward.  I will also offer suggestions to overcome loneliness.  And we will hear more words of wisdom from Kelly Smyth-Dent LSW.   If you wish to learn more about Kelly or her programs you can visit her at


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