This week CNN's Piers Morgan show tackled the topic of loneliness, inspired, in part, by his recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, who discussed her "Just Say Hello" campaign to counteract the ubiquitous scourge of loneliness in our high-tech culture. As a psychologist and psychotherapist, it is heartening to hear this taboo topic openly discussed on national and international television. In a time when we are more able than ever before to reach out to others via technology, it seems that many of us are either not doing so, or using electronic contact to substitute for the real thing. Despite the convenience and immediacy of smart phones, social media, e-mail, skype, texting etc., we are not finding our feelings of loneliness assuaged, but rather exacerbated by technology. By some estimates, at least 20% of Americans today would describe themselves as feeling lonely. We apparently still need and miss the human touch, the personal presence and warmth lacking in remote electronic communication. This postmodern dilemma demands dialogue: What is loneliness? How is it different than being alone? Does everyone sometimes feel lonely? Are we more susceptible to loneliness than our low-tech ancestors? And what are some of the destructive and constructive ways we try to cope with our loneliness today?
Loneliness is certainly not a new phenomenon. But it may have been somewhat less prominent and problematical for our forebears, who lived in close knit quarters and communities with extended families, saw their world as shared with gods, ghosts of dead relatives and other supernatural spirits, regularly attended religious services, and felt deeply connected to the earth, heavens and cosmos. Feelings of isolation, alienation, aloneness and loneliness are pervasive in the twenty-first century. Scientific studies suggest some possible linkage between feelings of chronic loneliness and heart disease, dementia, sleep problems, and even premature mortality. Perceiving oneself as isolated, excluded, marginalized, or rejected by society or one's "tribe" may continually trigger our primitive but natural "fight or flight" response and compromise our immune system, since, as with certain animals, separation from the herd represents an existential threat to life. Existential psychology and psychotherapy have long considered loneliness and aloneness one of life's "ultimate concerns." (See, for example, Yalom, 1980.) From the existential perspective, we are born alone and die alone, and live our lives as fundamentally separate beings ultimately isolated and alienated from our fellow creatures. Existential aloneness and loneliness can be ameliorated by interpersonal relationships, but it can never be completely eliminated. We are, more so than other creatures, condemned to our psychological aloneness and separateness from others.
Clearly, we human beings are social creatures, depending upon regular contact with parents, siblings, peers, sexual partners, spouses and others for comfort, support, and camaraderie. We all have an innate need for love, acceptance, recognition, and some sense of belonging. Infants deprived of physical contact can die from loneliness. Yet, some people crave social contact more than others, avoiding aloneness, while some enjoy or even prefer being alone. Some of this disparity can be attributed to different and opposite personality types: extraverted types despise solitude, feeling lonely when not in the company of others, while introverted types like and need solitude, seldom feeling lonely when alone. (See my prior posts on Jung's typology.) But the distinction between aloneness and loneliness transcends typology, since even introverted types can suffer terrribly from loneliness.
The second factor here regarding loneliness is related to sense of self: the less solid and stable sense of oneself there is, the less connection to our innermost true self or "soul" we have, the more likely we are to suffer from painful loneliness. In a way, we are unable to fully appreciate our own company, to amuse ourselves, to be good friends and companions to ourselves, and to accept and tolerate existential aloneness and the existential anxiety that can accompany it. When one feels empty inside, like a nobody or nonentity, totally disconnected from one's inner life or being, that person must constantly seek affirmation, interaction and attention from others in order to mirror and validate his or her value and very existence. This commonly occurs when someone is profoundly dissociated from his or her own feelings, thoughts or values, resulting in low self-esteem, bad boundaries, pathological anxiety, and an inability to tolerate aloneness because of the loneliness it engenders. In a sense, we are unconsciously missing and lonely for ourselves. For such fragile individuals, being alone is terrifying. They anxiously yet unconsciously fear annihilation in the absence of external validation or mirroring. On the other hand, the stronger the sense of self (not just the ego), the more aloneness one can not only tolerate but actually enjoy and use productively. Solitude is an integral and indispensable part of the human condition, absolutely essential to the creative process as well as self-exploration, growth, and individuation. It could be said that the capacity to accept and tolerate at least some aloneness and solitude is a barometer of good mental health.
Still, it is no coincidence that one of the worst tortures inflicted on human beings by other human beings involves solitary confinement, ostracization, exile or excommunication. Moreover, excessive solitude or introversion is dangerous, even when self-imposed. (See my prior post.) Such morbid self-isolation may come from shunning social contact due to anger toward the world, pathological anxiety, fear of intimacy, shame or self-loathing, which when severe, can take the forms of social phobia, panic disorder, depression, psychosis, schizoid personality disorder, and, in increasing numbers, anger disorders and extreme acts of violence. (See my prior post on anger disorders.) The truth is that even introverts need socialization, despite their congenital lack of innate skills or interests in this arena. Which is why, psychologically speaking, one of the fundamental tasks for introverted types is to work on developing and strengthening what Jung called their "inferior function," that of extraversion. Without some balance between introversion and extraversion, the introvert too will eventually suffer from too much loneliness. Yet, unlike the extravert, who, when feeling lonely knows how to ameliorate it by engaging in extraverted activiity with others, the introvert with his or her poorly developed social skills, is at a loss, and can become trapped in a chronic state of isolation and alienation. Conversely, when extraverts constantly quell feelings of loneliness by frantically avoiding being alone, such avoidance of aloneness becomes pathological, compulsive, defensive, further distancing them from their inner selves. Paradoxically, this renders extraverts even more prone to painful feelings of loneliness and emptiness when alone, which in turn drives them toward greater extraverted activity in an ultimately futile escalating cycle of avoidance. We cannot perpetually run away from ourselves and our existential aloneness or feelings of loneliness without paying a significant price somatically, spiritually or psychologically.
Existentially, aloneness, and, to some degree, loneliness, are an inherent part of the human condition. Some embrace their existential aloneness and loneliness; others seek to escape it through often less than satisfying or sometimes grossly unhealthy relationships, sexual promiscuity (see my prior post), pornography, workaholism, alcoholism, drug addiction (see my prior post) and many other self-destructive or self-defeating behaviors. Even our current epidemic of violence (see my prior posts) can be partially understood as a perverse attempt to transcend loneliness and alienation, as existential psychologist Rollo May explains: "Violence is the ultimate destructive substitute which surges in to fill the vacuum where there is no related-ness." Violence can sometimes be a desperate, last-ditch attempt to break out of one's excruciating yet sometimes self-imposed state of social isolation, as exemplified by the evil deeds of profoundly lonely, alienated individuals like John Hinckley Jr. (who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in order to impress actress Jodie Foster), Mark David Chapman (who murdered musician John Lennon in 1980), and so many of the mass shooters at schools, movie theaters and shopping malls since. (See my prior posts.) Such acts of seemingly random violence can be considered destructive and pathological expressions of a "wicked rage for recognition" in extremely lonely, isolated, alienated, frustrated and angry individuals starving for intimacy, love, human contact, a sense of belonging, and social validation.
There are both positive and negative ways of coping with existential aloneness and loneliness. For some, spirituality or religion still serve, as it has for millennia for millions, as an antidote to loneliness, though Freud and many existential therapists consider this an illusory solution. Others find solace in politics, sports or community service. Most turn to marriage and parenthood to partially mitigate their loneliness, though, as we know, one can feel lonely in a relationship or a crowd. While aloneness is an objective, existential fact of life, loneliness is largely a subjective experience, and one which can derive from the influence of early childhood feelings of abandonment, loss or neglect on how we interpret and experience aloneness in the present. Not everyone feels lonely when alone. Yet we all must contend with our existential aloneness. Whatever the chosen solution, loneliness and the existential aloneness from which it stems, one of life's ultimate concerns, is something each and every individual must come to terms with in order to attain and maintain some modicum of mental, spiritual and physical health. Indeed, it could be argued, and has been suggested by research on psychotherapy efficacy identifying the relationship or alliance between therapist and patient or client as a powerful factor in positive outcome in both individual and group treatment, that this healing power has to do in part with the amelioration of feelings of loneliness and social isolation therapy at least temporarily provides. Group therapy in particular allows patients or clients to learn that we all feel alone or lonely at times, which, paradoxically, helps them to feel less isolated and alone. But ultimately, the patient or client must learn how to deal constructively on his or her own with the existential reality of aloneness once individual or group therapy ends. (See my prior post on termination.) Indeed, from an existential perspective, this is one way of defining therapeutic success.