BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 2012 (edited September 12, 2021)
We can be alone in a crowd, or lonely in a relationship. Being alone is not necessary for loneliness. We need others physically and emotionally.
Jean-Paul Sartre once stated, "If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company." Sartre in his usual genius style exposes the often-missed difference between loneliness and being alone. Many people fight the stinging hurt of loneliness by retreating into crowds, surrounded by others. This is a normal response. A frightened child is soothed by a long embrace from his or her mother. When anxiousness from our need to belong arises, we seek cuddling protection from a place of security. But, we must ask, are the superficial connection of crowds healing? Perhaps, our loneliness exists inside our own souls.
We Can Be Alone and Not 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.
Emotions and Relationships
The urge driving connections vary—some relentlessly driven, never finding security; while others feel content with a few brief moments of validation. Emotions stir behaviors with pushes and pulls, guilt and shame, closeness and distance. These feelings become the underlying drives that form and destroy relationships.
The Infant and Need for Connection
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 child’s story isn’t complete, the adult brain isn’t static. We still can change, adapt and modify these internal models.
See Abandonment or Engulfment for more on this topic
We Can Learn Attachment Skills as Adults
Healthy relationships remain within reach. The essential skills to connect can be developed, improved and mastered. While we gain insight from a book or class, relationship success relies on practice, dragging new behaviors from vaguely understood theories into the barren fields of new interactions. The scrambled feelings ignited by relationships must be recognized, sorted and soothed.
Painful bouts of loneliness left unattended 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.
"Healthy relationships remain within reach. The essential skills to connect can be developed, improved and mastered."
Successful Bonding and Security Requires Personal Work
Successful escape from loneliness doesn’t depend on better friends, closer intimacy, or refined conversational skills; although these may help. Success is achieved through small progressions, managing intense emotions that self-perpetuate the fears by disrupting connections.
We can’t easily ban deeply engrained feeling reactions. They are ours, part of our psychological heritage from childhood; 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 to constant measure their words and actions to not incite another insecure episode of anger or depressed withdrawal.
Caring friends will not abandon us; but may set boundaries to limit the emotional toll our neediness extracts, this in turn may ignite further insecurities. The change we need comes from within. Simple awareness begins the process. Instead of blindly marching to the powerful firing of neurons, attempts at manipulating others, and suffering repeated losses, we must see the hurtful cycle in motion and intervene.
"Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone."
We identify common triggers, feel the emotions, and acknowledge destructive reactions. Each step of this cycle (triggers, feeling effects, emotions and reactions) have their own remedies. We must work on all of them.
Many people dread being alone (the trigger). In the quietness, they are tormented (feeling affect), they integrate the feeling with the past (emotion) and in desperation carelessly respond (reaction).
In relationships, the lonely fear abandonment so they cling or remain guarded. This chain of experience and reaction is set in motion long before choice. Similar to instructing a narcotic junkie to simply stop, we can’t expect relationship glitches to dissipate with simplistic and ignorant instructions such as, “stop feeling lonely.” Childhood chaos or devastating adult relationships tear through the normal development of attachment, magnifying sensitivities, and spoiling pleasure in love.
The discomfort of anxious love must be compassionately understood by the experiencing individual, the partner, and/or the professional before the destructive behaviors can be addressed.
We naturally seek to escape discomfort. Pain signals something is wrong, and change is needed. We learn avenues of escape; when adaptations provide measured escape, we repeat the action; the response becomes habitual and automatic. When fears of abandonment are easily excited, we become sensitive to small signals. The ego disregards the role 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 our company (or perhaps, everything to do with the value of our company).
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 will 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.
See Anxious Lovers for more on this topic
As a mature adult, we can enlist others in soothing our torment, but the greatest care and most consistent care comes from within, as we patiently work through emotions, redirecting blame to the past, and carefully building supportive relationships in the present. This process helps to dismantle the self-perpetuating cycle, instead of angry reactions that weaken relationships, we resort to behaviors that strengthen bonds.
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 all the time. If we constantly ask for more than a partner can give, the partner tires, and the relationship struggles. The partner will feel inadequate and suffers. Additionally, partners also have needs that deserve attention; appreciation is one of those needs. When our anxiety flares, our attention is directed inwards and others are ignored.
"At the innermost core of all loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for union with one's lost self."
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 graceful and loving contributions the partner provides. Only then can healthy bonds be forged, and intimacy enjoyed.
The next time you feel the pains of loneliness, compassionately embrace that frightened child with understanding arms of kindness. Reassure the lonely child within of the appropriateness of the feeling, reminding her that it’s okay to feel this way. When appropriate, 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 warm and welcoming company needed to heal. We then can be alone and not lonely, be in love and not afraid, be together and not demanding.
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