On being lonely

A few weeks ago Marion McGilvary wrote an article in The Guardian entitled I’m lonely. Is that so odd?.1 This was the latest in a series of articles that she has written over the last couple of years on the trials and tribulations of being a fifty-something divorced mother.  However, it is only in this article that she finally admits that she is lonely – and you can almost sense as you read this that she is awaiting the tide of condemnation from her readers.  There don’t seem to be many taboos left in our culture but loneliness appears to be one of them.2.

Although loneliness, and the fear of loneliness, appears to be widespread in our society, most people are not as articulate as McGilvary in expressing how this is experienced on a day to day level.  Furthermore, in this article she highlights one of the paradoxes of modern life: in one sense most of us are probably more ‘connected’ than at any time in history, courtesy of modern communications and media technologies.  And yet, at the same time, we never seem to have been so isolated.

Perhaps part of the problem is precisely because of the promise of all this technology:  it’s now got to the point where you can be literally anywhere on the planet and still be able to call home, or set up a webcam broadcast.  So, in principle at least, there is no reason why anyone should feel lonely, cut off, disconnected.  But the reality is, of course, a lot of us do.  To quote McGilvary:

No calls, no emails, no texts, no Facebook notifications, no tweets, and there’s nothing blinking on the answerphone because the landline hasn’t rung since December, except people in call centres who can’t pronounce my name.

All these methods of communication and yet nobody’s communicating with me.

McGilvary admits that there was a time when this might have been heaven: a few hours solitude, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.  But like most heavenly things on this earth, they are only heavenly in small doses.  And McGilvary also admits, that for the time being at least, this loneliness about to come to a (temporary) end, when two of her children return home after university.  However, she is already aware that this may only be short lived (though in the current economic climate, maybe not…..)

It has to be said, though, that there does appear to something of a social stigma attached to loneliness.  It is not something that is seen as positive, in the sense that being alone might be seen as an opportunity to reflect, to feel, to have time for themselves, just to be in fact.

There is also the fact that more and more people are alone, and potentially face many years of loneliness.  For example, in the UK 30% of the population live alone and this is expected to rise to 40% by 2012.3 This may be because of personal choice, relationship break up, or through the death of a partner.  The latter is likely to be a growing phenomenon with an increasingly aging population.

And yet, relationships are valued at almost any cost, even when they are damaging ones.  This might help explain why some people remain in bad or abusive relationships rather than face the prospect of being alone.  It could be argued that human beings are naturally sociable; but if this is the case they seem have a strange way of expressing it sometimes.

It is also true, of course, that loneliness is not the same as being alone.  John Cacioppo argues that loneliness is not feeling connected to others:

Three of the most idolized women of the twentieth century, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana, were famously lonely people. And yet a fourth, Gretta Garbo, was famous for saying “I vant (sic) to be alone.” Which serves to remind us that there is nothing inherently problematic about solitude in and of itself. Loneliness isn’t about being alone, it’s about not feeling connected.4

However, none of this explains the dread of loneliness experienced by so many people.  Is it something that is wired into our DNA, or is it just external pressure to be sociable?  Or is there an underlying fear of confronting something within ourselves when we are alone or isolated?   Perhaps when we are alone we start to experience all kinds of thoughts, feelings and memories which we would rather not know about.  Not for everyone of course, but for many people, it is precisely the opportunity to reflect, to think and feel, simply just to be, that is so problematic and frightening.

Why this might be so will be different for each person, and this is where psychotherapy can be a helpful intervention.  It can provide each individual the opportunity to explore their particular sense of loneliness, in their own way and in their own time.  It should be pointed out at this juncture that psychotherapy is not a ‘cure’ for loneliness, at least not in the sense that after a programme of therapy the individual will (necessarily) stop feeling lonely.

Rather, psychotherapy, and especially psychoanalytic therapy, can help the individual explore the exact nature of their loneliness, and how this might be connected to other aspects of their lives and their history.  Of course, this might create other problems for the individual; believing that loneliness is the central problem and that if it can be ‘cured’ or alleviated then everything will be fine might be a lot more preferable to the possibility that there might be other factors at play in that particular person’s life.

However, it is also quite possible that allowing the individual to situate loneliness in a wider context might help them come to realise that loneliness is not such a problem after all, and in the process they will have learnt something new about themselves.

Notes and references

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/21/marion-mcgilvary-lonely-empty-nest?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 []
  2. Along with being old, mentally ill or dying []
  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/apr/03/living-alone-depression []
  4. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/connections/200905/epidemic-loneliness []

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