Can loneliness be a valuable experience?
Loneliness is in the news. A BBC programme last year (The Age Of Loneliness) showed it to be a ‘silent epidemic’ affecting millions, young and old.
Loneliness might be described as a longing for intimacy and connection with others, for being known about, responded to, understood, nurtured and nourished in relationship. It may be felt as a kind of ache in the heart, a tightening of the body, which at times may spiral into distress, with feelings of shame and inferiority and ‘catastrophising’ thoughts and storylines that spin in the mind: ‘I will never be loved again’, ‘there’s something fundamentally wrong with me’. The desperate measures that might be used to manage these feelings can bring other problems: drink, drugs, compulsive sex, gambling, eating, shopping…
The common sense advice at this point might be to join an evening class, get out more, maybe volunteer for a charity. But it may not be as simple as that. When we are deprived of nourishing relationship contact for an extended period we can enter a state called ‘hypervigilance’: because we are by nature social animals that have throughout our evolution depended on each other for our survival, our bodies associate loneliness with threat. In the hypervigilant state our bodies and brains become preoccupied with safety, scanning the environment for evidence of threat. In modern cultures ‘threat’ is not usually to physical survival but emotional well-being. We become very sensitive to small signs of rejection. A defensive cycle of isolation may result: cutting off from others brings more loneliness.
Here our common sense advice giver might suggest that what we need to do is recognise the hypervigilant state and override it – feel the fear and do an evening class anyway. And in many cases this will work.
But again it may not be that simple. Loneliness may seem on the surface to be a situation where there is too much relationship with self and not enough with others, but loneliness is just as much a lack of relationship to self as to others. It is as if self-other is one continuum. What we long for when lonely, the presence of a responsive other, depends on a channel being open, and this channel is partly within ourselves.
The responsive other, in our longing, would be someone who could meet us, know us, love and celebrate us for who we are, and give us the experience of being able to love and know them in the same way. As children, this of course, is what parents do for us – if all goes well. We then internalise a sense of ourselves as fundamentally ok, loveable, good enough. We develop a capacity for self-soothing when we experience rejection or setbacks of another kind. Because we can befriend ourselves and our experience, hold and contain it within an internal atmosphere of love and acceptance, we also have a capacity for making a real connection with others. Our channel is open.
For those who do not have this inner ‘container’ of loving presence inside themselves, experiences of isolation and rejection will be more wounding and more likely to provoke a defensive closing down of the channel. Like security gates topped with barbed wire, this defensive attitude admits no one in or out very easily.
This is where help is needed. For those stuck in this kind of dilemma, the responsive presence of a therapist or counselor can be a bridge back into relationship with self and others. It can make defences more permeable and less rigidified. It can help to install a loving presence inside.
Turning to works of art for solace can also be really helpful. There would be very few great songs, paintings, novels or plays were it not for loneliness! When lonely we are in good company, as this is a universal human experience.
Loneliness is intensely painful and if it goes on for an extended period there is evidence that it also has physical health risks – it shortens life. But If loneliness leads us to greater self-understanding and ultimately to a richer relationship with ourselves and others, it can be a valuable experience, one that increases awareness and deepens our capacity to feel and to love.
The Age Of Loneliness, George Monbiot, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us
How Art Helped Me See The Beauty In Loneliness, Olivia Laing
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About Steve Silverton
I am a UKCP Registered psychotherapist working in Central and North East London.