I was standing in a bar and watching all the people there
Oh the loneliness in this world well it's just not fair
Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight...
-- Brian Wilson, "Love and Mercy"
Holiday seasons often intensify feelings of loneliness for many -- even if you're in a crowded bar, as in Brian Wilson's song, or in an unfulfilling relationship. Aside from what some people experience during holidays, loneliness can intensify at any point in the year. And it can have different roots for different people.
For example, Anne, a therapy patient, tells me that she's felt lonely throughout her life. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and sometimes-present father, her intimate relationships have been brief and her friends, few, throughout her adult years. Now in her early 40s, she's suffered from one physical ailment after another.
Another patient, Brian, has an active social life with friends and business associates, as well as a long-term marriage and an extended family. Despite this apparently full relationship life, he speaks of feeling lonely "right in the midst of everyone around me... something always feels missing." Brian, too, suffers from frequent illnesses and allergies.
That both have physical complaints isn't surprising, since our mind/body/spirit are all one. Each "part" affects each other "part." In fact, some new research underscores this. It finds that loneliness can weaken your immune system, which then sets the stage for a range of physical illnesses.
Loneliness takes different forms, and it may also signify different life experiences, both past and present. Some people's loneliness may be rooted in long-term emotional issues that have thwarted forming and maintaining relationships. Here, it's the residue of trauma or conflict in early attachments to parents or parent figures, as well as to siblings.
Others who avoid or are unable to create close, sustaining relationships as adults and who suffer from feelings of loneliness or isolation, aren't necessarily dealing with significant conflict or trauma in their early relationships. Here, they may be seeking to fulfill an essentially healthy desire for validation and affirmation which has been insufficient in their lives -- either from external sources, their particular needs, or from their own actions. For example, one's innate temperament and emotional reactivity may have required more direct affirmation than the parents were aware of, or for other reasons didn't provide it sufficiently. The person may then seek it unconsciously from prospective partners as adults; become disappointed when they don't receive this "parenting," and then withdraw, leaving themselves lonely and isolated.
In these cases, the person's psychological aim is positive and healthy: striving for positive connection, although it may remain unconscious and expressed in the above ways. Somewhat different is the person who feels lonely despite extensive relationships. He or she may also yearn for healthy, authentic intimacy and connection in the sense of being on the same "wavelength" with others. For some, that may be absent not so much because of early conflicts or gaps in their life experiences, but because they suffer from the limitations and superficiality so integral to much of the conventional, successful life they've created. That is, if they've tipped too far in the direction of seeking self-worth via money, power and position. That inflated sense of self, which, itself, is linked with adult emotional disturbance, may join with jockeying for control, manipulation and game-playing in intimate relationships. The latter is another dimension of superficial self-interest: treating people as commodities, and equating love with performance and conquest rather than intimate connection and mutuality.
In short, you may experience increasing loneliness from seeking external validation of your self-worth and self-esteem. Anxiety may mount as you see that you have -- or are -- "less than" someone else, measured by the above criteria. That's a short step to feeling isolated or lonely inside, even if your world contains many social connections and recognition.
If you're socially isolated and want to become more engaged, then efforts to meet new people or learning to improve your social skills are like to be helpful antidotes. But keep in mind that your inner being is the source of true security and well being; the source of resilience and actions that create meaningful connection in all parts of your life, not just in the social realm. Ultimately, what helps alleviate loneliness from any of the above sources is creating a larger vision of life purpose; something larger than just your own self that you connect with. Something that's meaningful and engages your soul.
Meditation helps, because it reconnects you with your inner life awareness and wellbeing that's always present, inside. And research shows that it alleviates anxiety and depression, as well. Small actions can be helpful, also. For example, research finds that exposure to nature, such as taking a hike through the outdoors, enhances your wellbeing and your capacity for problem-solving. That can help you find new ways to free yourself from loneliness.
Awakening your inner life and enlarging your sense of purpose and meaning in living, beyond just yourself, are good antidotes to feeling lonely -- whether you have few human connections or live within the midst of a crowd.
Photo Credit: CPD archive
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.