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  • Anna F Jolliff, Counseling Intern

What's wrong - and not wrong - with loneliness.

You might have heard it said that loneliness increases risk of mortality. I know I have.

I’ve heard it said enough times that it has warranted some personal Googling. It turns out that multiple sources with varying degrees of credibility are noting this same thing: a relationship between feelings of loneliness and risk of death. (There was a good article in Psychology Today, but because it also contained fat-shaming language, I chose not to link it. I’d caution you against reading it.)

I don’t know that any of the research has been able to establish a causal relationship between loneliness and death, and I can think of many third variables off the top of my head which could explain the relationship. (People who are lonely may also be under-resourced, disabled, geographically isolated, or struggling with mental illness, to name a few.) But more interesting than the possible explanations for this connection was my personal reaction -- my “countertransference,” as it is described in counseling. The idea stirs things up within me, “my own stuff,” so to speak, and means my reaction to the idea is not simply rational but deeply emotional as well (a false dichotomy, yes - but let’s save that for another blog post.)

I first remember struggling with loneliness in the sixth grade, when I transitioned from home-schooling into middle school. I felt it again when I transitioned from middle to high school, and once more when I transitioned from high school to college. Historically, my efforts to avoid or prevent loneliness have ranged from from brave and adaptive to fear-based and self-destructive.

Transitions put us at risk for facing our fears. For me, and for many, that fear of feeling alone - misunderstood, “other,” uncared for -- is the most compelling fear of all.

And of course, it doesn’t help that we live in a culture that worships extroversion. In western culture, we revere people who “command attention” -- people who are talkative, enthusiastic, charismatic, charming, sociable, and “natural leaders.” People who do not want or need to be alone, people for whom spending time with friends is a constant and viable option. Simultaneously, as Westerners we often revere individualism. People must have lots of friends, but they also be different and better, on a path that others can only dream of! We are so enamored of this combination that our only word for it is - well - IT. We call it the IT factor, and everyone hopes they’ve got - you know - it.

If loneliness kills people, I would imagine the search for IT - charm, charisma, and many, many friends - kills people even faster. And indeed, I would imagine that the two risk factors are related.

Loneliness kills people in part because connection and intimacy are beautiful components of the human existence and, when absent, they are sorely missed.

Loneliness also kills people because the state of incongruence between who one truly is, and who one feels they should be, gives rise to many serious problems: depression, anxiety, hopelessness, addictive behavior, and other ways of avoiding pain and attempting to assert control.

Clients frequently tell me rather embarrassedly that they don’t have friends, or don’t have many friends, or that their only friends live far away, or that their cat or dog is their best friend. I sometimes feel pulled to respond to this admission as if it is a problem -- partly because it is presented to me as such, and partly because I, too, grew up in this culture. Luckily, the term “problem” now sets out alarm bells in my head. I am reminded of the quote by Frank Dune:

“The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune

As an introvert who has struggled with loneliness myself, it is better for me to engage - and curiously, at that - with the mystery of loneliness:

  1. What does it mean, for me, to feel lonely?

  2. What do I expect I could receive from another person that would relieve my lonelienss?

  3. What types of connection feel good? (Not according to the culture. According to me).

  4. What is the fear beneath loneliness? Is it that I am unlovable? That I don’t matter? That I am broken or unworthy?

  5. How can I learn to separate loneliness from shame?

Upon reading the last question, you might have begun to worry. Without a cloud of shame over my head, where will I find the motivation to become less lonely?

If shame is truly the only aversive thing about the feeling of loneliness, then loneliness isn’t a problem at all.

Shame is only “rightly” attached to things that need fixing because they are causing harm to oneself or others.

Otherwise, shame is just construction on a Sunday morning when you're trying to sleep in, and all you need to do is shut the window and turn on the fan.

With this in mind, I encourage you to separate shame from your loneliness, and see what is left. Probably something - and probably not everything. Learn to forgive yourself for feeling lonely, and see what happens.


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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

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