Alone or Lonely
Working through the trade-offs between alone and lonely
BY: Troy Murphy |January 2012
Jean-Paul Sartre once stated, "If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company." Should we avoid being alone or should be avoid being lonely? Loneliness depresses, we are driven to connect. Loneliness is much more than social contact; we can be lonely when surrounded by people, or feel connected while alone. A friend once proclaimed, “I am alone often but never lonely.” We are social creatures, wired for connection. Most can’t live on an emotional island without going mad. Each life intertwines with others in seen and unseen ways. Our biological hardware urges for connection; we long for others; when connections are missing, we feel lonely. The urge driving connections vary—some relentlessly driven for security while others find content with much less. Within the emotions stir with pushes and pulls, guilt and shame, closeness and distance, the feelings become the underlying drives that form and destroy relationships.
The infant, biologically programmed, clings to the mother for survival. Without human contact, the baby emotionally starves and physically fails. During the early months and years of life, the child’s brain forms, trimming billions of neuronal connections to create adaptive patterns of connection. The child’s experience of longing and the caregiver’s response etches into the hardware of the brain, setting course for a life of secure or struggling connections. The simple building stones of connectedness create the future complexity of adult relationships. Fears of abandonment or the heaviness of smothering follows the child throughout their life. But the story isn’t completely written, the adult brain isn’t static. We still can change, adapt and modify.
Healthy relationships remain within reach. The essential skills to succeed can be developed, improved and mastered. While we gain insight from a book or class, relationship success depends on practice, dragging new behaviors from vaguely understood theories on written pages to the barren fields of new connection. The scrambled feelings ignited by relationships need to be sorted and soothed. The painful bouts of loneliness spill over into interactions, poisoning connections with fears, jealousies and angers. Instead of simply enjoying a night out with friends, the excursion becomes a constant trial, evaluating strength or weakness of the connection. The broken soul experiences powerful emotions, not just in romance but with all close connections. The anxiety builds, fears accumulate, and the lonely soul runs for the hills screaming from the wounds that mercilessly continue to play out in the present.
Success escape from loneliness doesn’t depend on better friends, closer intimacy, or refined conversational skills; although these things may help. Success follows small progressions managing the intense emotions that disrupt connection. We can’t ban deeply engrained reactions. They are ours and we must own them. We can’t expect the world to change; friends tire of constant outburst and lack of spontaneity, requiring additional work for them by constant measuring of words and actions to not incite another episode. Caring friends will not abandon us; but may set boundaries to limit the emotional energies we extract. The change we need comes from within. Simple awareness begins the process. Instead of blindly marching to the powerful firing of neurons, manipulating others, and suffering repeated losses, we must see the hurtful cycle in motion and then intervene. We identify common triggers, feel the emotions, and acknowledge destructive reactions. Each step—triggers, emotions and reactions—have their own remedies. We must work on all of them.
"These childhood fears may piggyback on attempts for connection the remainder of our lives."
Many people dread being alone (the trigger). In the quietness, they are tormented (the emotion) and in desperation carelessly enter a new relationship (reaction). In relationships, the lonely fear abandonment so they cling or remain guarded. This chain of experience and reaction was set in motion long before choice. Similar to instructing a narcotic junkie to simply stop, we can’t expect relationship glitches to heal with simplistic and ignorant instructions such as, “stop feeling lonely.” Childhood chaos or devastating adult relationships tear through the normal development of a relationship, magnifying sensitivities, and spoiling pleasure in love.
The discomfort of the sick must be compassionately understood by the individual, the partner, and the professional before the destructive behaviors can be addressed.
We seek to escape discomfort. Pain signals something is wrong and change is needed. We learn avenues of escape; when reactions provide measured escape, we repeat the action and the response becomes habitual and automatic. When fears of abandonment that are etched into our psyche, are easily excited, we become sensitive to the smallest signal. The ego disregards the involvement of our sensitivity and we blame the trigger—usually our partner. In a panic, we criticize the small behaviors we deem responsible for our over-stimulated system. A caring partner will carefully adjust to refrain from exciting our fears, but they can never eliminate them. In these scenarios, contrary to Jean-Paul Sartre statement, loneliness has nothing to do with the value of company.
As a mature adult, we can enlist others in soothing our torment but the greatest care comes from within, as we patiently work through emotions, redirecting blame to the past, and carefully building supportive relationships in the present.
Childhood fears piggyback on all future attempts for connection, possibly for the remainder of our lives. The fears have intricately woven into our cellular memories, jumping to action with each close connection. Deeper understanding of the cause may not release the embedded fears—being alone may always terrify. The living fear strangles the joy out of love and becomes a permanent feature of our emotional structure. We can abhor these feelings, mistreat them, or hide from them but left unaddressed they continue to ruin promising relationships. We can implement change, inviting healthier patterns. We can improve upon the past, not by eliminating the triggers or ignoring our own sensitivities. We acknowledge who we are and work through the stumblings, often with the assistance of caring friends and competent professionals.
Like a scared child seeking comfort, we also need a secure embrace, reminding us everything will be okay. Our partners, family and friends help but do not resolve. The healing must occur within. The larger our fear, the greater our need, and the more terrifying aloneness becomes. Even a loving partner, attentive to our needs, may lack the necessary resources to satisfy the intense needs. If we constantly ask for more than a partner can give, the partner tires and relationship struggles. The partner feels inadequate and suffers. Partners have needs that also deserve attention; appreciation is one of those needs.
By recognizing personal sensitivities, we can begin self-soothing, not expecting partners to slavishly dance to our emotions, walking on egg shells, and sacrificing needs. Our active engagement in healing relieves a portion of the burden from the relationship, allowing more focus on the beautiful things a partner provides. Only then can healthy bonds be forged and intimacy enjoyed.
The next time you feel the pains of loneliness, compassionately embrace the scared child with understanding arms of kindness. Reassure the child the appropriateness of the feeling, reminding that it’s okay to feel this way. It’s okay to share these feelings with a partner; but share in a non-demanding way, without expectation of them resolving the loneliness. By creating room to feel lonely, we become the company needed for healing. We then can be alone and not lonely, be in love and not afraid, be together and not demanding.