Alone or Lonely Trade-offs of commitment and freedom
Jean-Paul Sartre once stated, "If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company." We can be lonely when surrounded by people, or feel connected while alone. A friend once proclaimed, “I am alone often but never lonely.” Our brains are wired for connection; we are social creatures. We can’t live on an island. Each life intertwines with others in seen and unseen ways. Because of the survival benefits of connections, part of our biological hardware urges for connection; we long for others and feel lonely when connections our missing. The power of these urges driving connections aren’t constant—some feel them much deeper and others hardly at all. Within the pushes and pulls, guilt and shame, closeness and distance, relationships are formed and destroyed.
The infant, biologically programmed, clings to the mother for survival. Without human contact, the baby fails to grow. During these early months and years, the child’s brain is forming, trimming the billions of neuronal connections, creating patterns of connection, emotions and behaviors. The child’s experience of longing for connection and the subsequent caregiver responses are etched into the hardware of the brain, setting course for a life time of secure or struggling connections. The simple building stones of biological hardware and early experience fill the chambers of the complexity of adult relationships. Fears of abandonment or overwhelming smothering that ignore a child’s autonomy follows the child for the remainder of their life. But the adult brain isn’t static. It still can change, adapt and modify.
Healthy relationships are within reach. Often the skills needed to succeed can be developed, improved and mastered. While we can gain direction from a book or a class, the success depends on practice, dragging new behaviors into the barren fields of connection. The scrambled feelings ignited by relationships need to be 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 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 of the past that mercilessly continue to play out in the present.
Success doesn’t depend on better friends, closer intimacy, or refined conversational skills. Success follows small progressions managing intense emotions that disrupt the pleasure of connection. We can’t ban these deeply engrained reactions. They are ours and we must own them. We can’t expect the world to change; friends will tire of constant outburst and lack of spontaneity, requiring constant measuring of words and actions to not incite another episode. Caring friends will not abandon us; but 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 this process in motion. We must identify the common triggers, feel the emotions, and acknowledge the destructive reactions. Each step—triggers, emotions and reactions—have their own remedies.
Many people dread being alone (the trigger). In the quietness, they are tormented (the emotion). In relationships they cling (destructive reaction). This chain of experience and reaction was set in motion long before choice. Similar to instructing the narcotic junkie to simply stop, we can’t expect relationship glitches to heal with ignorant instructions to stop feeling lonely. Childhood chaos or devastating adult relationships tear normal relationship skills apart, 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.
No matter the trigger, we desperately try to escape discomfort. Pain signals something is wrong and change is needed. We learn avenues of escape, repeated these escapes become habitual and automatic. When fears of abandonment, etched into our psyche from trauma, are easily excited, we become sensitive to the slightest signals. We commonly disregard our sensitivity and 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.
These childhood fears may piggyback on all our attempts for connection the remainder of our lives. They 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 fear strangles the joy out of love and threatens to become a permanent feature in our emotional structure. We can abhor these feelings, mistreat them, or hide from them but left unaddressed they will continue to ruin promising relationships. We can improve upon past destructive patterns; but not by blaming the triggers and ignoring the critical role of our own sensitivities.
Like a scared child seeking comfort, we also need a secure embrace, reminding us everything will be okay. Our partners, family and friends will help but true healing comes from security within, when we provide a dose of soothing to our selves. The larger our fear, the greater our need, and the more terrifying aloneness becomes. Even a loving partner, ever 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 relationship will be destroyed. The partner feels inadequate and suffers. Partners have needs which also demand attention; appreciation is one of those needs. By recognizing personal sensitivities, we can begin self-soothing, not expecting partners to be slaves to our emotions, walking egg shells, and sacrificing their needs for connection. Our active engagement in healing relieves a portion of the burden from the relationship, allowing more focus on the beautiful things a partner does provide. Only then can healthy bonds be forged and intimacy enjoyed.
The next time you feel the pains of loneliness compassionately embrace the scared inner child with understanding arms of kindness. 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 our loneliness. By creating room to feel lonely, we become the company needed for healing.