Web of Loneliness

New thinking about a chronic state of being

The Loneliness of Elliot Rodger

Lessons we can learn from a terrible tragedy

Lessons Learned
As details begin to emerge about the horrific acts of violence that Elliot Rodger committed, I think many of us may be feeling a duality of emotions, both utter shock at the brutality of the attacks, but also a bit of frustration that these acts of violence continue to happen in the country without any real meaningful attempts to stop them. Without a doubt, the acts that young man committed were absolutely terrible and my hearts goes out to the families who have suffered a loss as a result of this tragedy.

His story though, more than some of the other mass shootings that occurred, has a strong theme of loneliness in it and the shooter himself used the word in his YouTube video. People often link these mass shootings to the theme of a loner, solitary person. However, there are also some other characteristics that are thematic including the fact that they are generally young males, utilizing guns that are legally obtained to perform these acts of violence. To say that being a loner, or suffering from loneliness is the sole reason for these mass shootings would be misleading. However, it certainly appears to be a factor. Indeed, feeling separated from the rest of humanity removes one barrier to committing these crimes. If you don’t feel a part of the human race or worse, you feel injustice from others, you probably feel less guilt about killing them.

After looking through Elliot’s story, there were some very strong themes of loneliness in it that I typically see in those that are chronically lonely. Individuals who are chronically lonely, often experience a constant, overwhelming feeling of loneliness in which there is little relief. The loneliness themes include:

  1. A troubled childhood. In Elliot’s case this included his parents’ divorce. In his autobiography, Elliot mentioned his parents getting a divorce when he was 7 years old. This caused him much grief as a young child. Individuals with chronic loneliness often experience at least one very traumatic event in their childhood. These traumatic childhood events leave wounds that are often difficult to heal and overcome, especially if there is not the kind of supportive network needed to go through these very difficult experiences.
  2. A heightened and distorted awareness of others’ relationships. You often hear lonely individuals lament the fact that everyone else seems to be in such loving relationships and they are the only ones who cannot seem to get one. I call it a heightened awareness because when you do not have something, you tend to notice it all the time, whereas ordinary people often are not as acutely aware of it. I also call it distorted because every time a lonely person sees a couple, the assumption is often that they are a happy couple in love, that they have no problems, and have attained the very thing the ultimate close relationship the chronically lonely person so desperately desires. What they don’t see (or choose to ignore) are the fights that such couples may have, and the troubles and doubts and fears that may underlie the relationship. They see what they want to see in the couple, a mirror of their own desires rather than the reality that actually exists there.
  3. Reacting to chronic loneliness with violence. If loneliness is chronic, the reaction to that feeling can become violent. Think of violence though in a much broader sense. In Elliot’s case, violence was directed towards others and was brutal. The violence does not have to reach the extreme of killing, but it can manifest in other ways, including being physically, verbally, or emotionally abusive. Indeed, even before Elliot’s Day of Retribution, he had been aggressive towards others. But violence can also be turned inward as well. The most brutal of these involves death as well, in this case suicide. But it can also involve more subtle forms such as taking drugs, cutting, or overeating.
  4. A lack of awareness about one’s own contribution to their loneliness. Everything about Elliot’s situation was always everybody else’s fault. It was other people’s fault that they rejected him. He was baffled by how his roommate and others, who he considers less than himself, could get into a relationship and he could not. He considered himself a perfect gentleman and yet somehow was still rejected. We all have a blindside, and for lonely individuals that blindside is often how they themselves contribute to their own loneliness. Given Elliot’s actions, it is clear that he may not have been the perfect gentleman, there were clearly things about his behavior that was a cause for concern for people about being in a friendship or relationship with him. What those things were, were unknown to Elliot because he refused to acknowledge his own contribution to his loneliness.
  5. A growing distrust and hatred for others. Chronically lonely individuals also have flawed thinking and expectations with regards to others. They often assume that ALL people cannot be trusted and/or that they will always get rejected in social situations. From a teenager, Elliot began to assume that all of the popular kids, especially girls would reject him. It is safe to say that some of them had, but he then assumed that everyone would. This kind of defeatist thinking would certainly influence his interactions with these groups of people in ways that would continue to support his expectations, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Indeed when he decided to throw drinks at others because of his assumed rejection of him, it only enhanced his status as an outsider.
  6. A romantic partner is the best way to cure loneliness. A very common thinking of chronically lonely individuals is that the best way (if not the only real, meaningful way) out of loneliness is through a romantic relationship. Elliot highlighted this again and again as what he desired the most, the love of a woman. It tormented him that he was still a virgin, something he viewed as a failure, because he was unable to gain the affections of a woman. His assumption is that if only he had that romantic relationship, everything would be better. Sadly, this is rarely the case. Just because you are in a relationship with someone else, it doesn’t mean that the loneliness goes away for good. It may certainly go away for a few months, but eventually it returns. There are lots of people in relationships, who are also still chronically lonely. What is really, truly desired is deep meaningful friendships, whether it is in a romantic relationship or not. The trouble though, is that creating and maintaining these deep meaningful friendships requires a lot of hard work and a lot of growth and maturity on the part of each individual. You have to be able to love yourself before you can love anyone else.
  7. Constant rumination instead of seeking help. Rumination means to go over thoughts constantly. Usually rumination is used as a means of managing one’s emotions, especially anxiety. It was clear that Elliot ruminated a lot based on the YouTube videos he made and the memoir he wrote. Rumination spirals you down and down until you get to your low point, or in Elliot’s case, adopting misogynistic and racist viewpoints and the planning of mass murder and suicide. You can’t cure with chronic loneliness by thinking it through by yourself. You have got to engage the professional services of a competent therapist. You’ve got to talk to someone else, let them know how you feel. It is such an amazing relief to chronically lonely individuals when they learn they are not the only ones that feel the way they do. Normalization of lonely emotions has a dramatic impact on lessen the intensity of loneliness.

When I continued to explore Elliot’s story, these loneliness themes stood out to me. It was clear that he was chronically lonely, not just cause he said he was lonely, but by what he said and wrote. Unlike some previous shooters where there was a clearer case of mental illness, Elliot just seemed to be really isolated, lonely, and rejected by others. Unfortunately in our society, if all you are is just lonely, then you are simply labeled as a loser and rejected. Without a doubt, Elliot probably felt the brunt of that prejudice early on, and this rejection contributed to his devolution into hateful beliefs and violent actions. Chronic loneliness is not even a recognized mental illness according to the DSM-IV. If you went to see a therapist about feelings of loneliness, chances are your therapist may begin to treat you for depression, because in the mental health community, loneliness is often thought of, quite incorrectly, as a subset of depression.

The purpose of this blog post is neither to justify Elliot Rodger’s actions nor to elicit sympathy for him. He made a conscious decision to commit these terrible acts of violence, to commit mass murder. There is no excuse for it. It is my hope instead to raise awareness about the issue of loneliness. For those who are chronically lonely to realize that they are not alone in the way they feel, to raise awareness about the awful stigma society places on those individuals who are lonely (#lonersarentlosers), and to advocate for greater services for those individuals for experience loneliness. People are going to commit mass murder one way or the other, but if more people feel connected to others and less lonely, taking the life of another is going to be more difficult to do.

More on loneliness here: http://www.webofloneliness.com/

Sean Seepersad, Ph.D. is the President/CEO of the Web of Loneliness Institute, Inc., adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, and author of The Lonely Screams.

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