Are You Judgmental of Lonely People?

Social stigma about lonely people: A self-test.

Posted Jan 09, 2020

 Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Hollywood has entertained us (or creeped us out) with a wide variety of loner-types—ranging from quirky, charming misfits (Wes Anderson's characters) to brilliant but alienated heroes to deadly sociopaths. Unfortunately, loners are more frequently represented as maladjusted individuals with either tragic backgrounds, untreated mental illness, addictions, or personality disorders.

Because of this, when we think of lonely people, we often think of haunting images such as these:

  • The cat lady in a ramshackle house at the end of the road.
  • The weird guy staring at you in the library.
  • The bag lady sitting alone on a park bench.
  • The sad, skinny elderly man stirring his coffee at the lunch counter.

Or, perhaps you think of Jennifer Jason Leigh characters—the moody roommate in Single White Female; the strange girl with dandruff in the Breakfast Club; or the lonely, estranged daughter in Dolores Claiborne.

These common stereotypes of isolated and lonely people mercilessly play into our social stigma about loneliness. In short, we get this message: Lonely people are broken—losers, social rejects. No wonder so many of us fear that something might be wrong with us when we find ourselves lonely or stranded and alone with no one to call. We doubt ourselves when no one shows up: “Is it me?”

Although we might feel compassion for the lonely people we know—we see them at work, at church, at meetups, at restaurants—deep down, many of us hold back and don’t reach out too much for fear of the bottomless pit of neediness we might be getting into. We certainly come by our fears honestly about getting too involved. Perhaps we were previously sucked in by someone we tried to befriend but who needed more than we could give. If we were kind enough, we might have gently told that lonely person, “You should probably see a therapist or go to a support group.” But many of us (including myself) have pulled away and stopped returning their calls hoping they would “get the message.”

Sadly, the stereotypes and previous experiences with “needy” or lonely people in our lives may have affected our attitudes toward ourselves about being lonely or isolated. What is repelling to us about loneliness comes back to haunt us when we feel left out, shunned, ignored, or misunderstood. Because of this, it’s important and revealing to review how our own beliefs about loneliness and social isolation play havoc with our own sense of self-worth.

Social Stigma About Lonely People: A Self-Test

Following is a list of eight questions I’ve created that allow you to examine your true feelings and biases about loneliness and isolation. There are no right or wrong answers: You’re exploring your gut feelings about an awkward topic that we hardly discuss in our culture.

Which answer best reflects your first thought or reaction?

1. You see a well-dressed, middle-aged woman eating dinner alone at an upscale restaurant.

  • A. I feel sorry for her.
  • B. It makes me uncomfortable. I avoid eye contact with her.
  • C. It’s fine, but I’d rather not be in her shoes.
  • D. I wish I had the guts to go out by myself like that.
  • E. It’s good to pamper ourselves and go out for a wonderful meal.

2. A pleasant 65-year-old friend of a friend you’ve briefly met once at a book club emails you to ask if he could have a ride home from his colonoscopy in two weeks. He explains that he recently moved to your city and his only friend is working that day and not available. You have no firm plans that day.

  • A. No way. It’s just not appropriate to ask anyone other than family members or close friends for such a favor.
  • B. It’s a red flag of warning that he has hardly any friends; safer not to respond and delete his email.
  • C. His friend should have contacted me first to give me a heads up. This seems dicey. Don’t think so.
  • D. Maybe I can help, but this feels awkward. I will contact my friend who knows him well and ask more about him before I make a decision.
  • E. He’s in a tough situation. He’ll be too groggy to use Uber to get home. Sure, I’ll give him a lift.

3. Lonely people I’ve known have appeared needy sometimes. I’ve deliberately avoided conversations with them or else I might get sucked into more than I can handle.

  • A. Very true; I avoid them. They can be draining “energy vampires.”
  • B. I feel uncomfortable, but I try to be compassionate. I avoid them by finding a nice excuse to get away.
  • C. I feel sorry for them, but I chat a bit just to be polite.
  • D. I care because I know what it feels like to be alone. Still, I’m careful to keep the conversation light and noncommittal.
  • E.  I usually enjoy chatting with anybody, lonely or not. I can gently let them know when I need to leave.

4. I’m a little suspicious about becoming friends with someone who talks more about their pets than their human relationships.

  • A. Very true.
  • B. Somewhat true.
  • C. Occasionally.
  • D. It doesn’t bother me. I guess they’re just introverted.
  • E. Maybe I could ask a little more about them. They might be shy and only feel safe talking about their pets.

5. I believe most people are isolated because they have somehow alienated others with certain behaviors or personalities.

  • A. I strongly agree.
  • B. I generally agree.
  • C. I believe that about half the people out there are honest and good people who are isolated for reasons beyond their control. But the other half—probably there’s a reason they’ve ended up alone.
  • D. I mostly disagree.
  • E. I strongly disagree.

6. Most people who are isolated chose to be isolated.

  • A. I mostly agree.
  • B. I somewhat agree.
  • C. I would say that about half the people I know who are isolated have deliberately chosen to withdraw.
  • D. Most of us don’t choose to be isolated. Perhaps they are suffering from social anxiety or depression.
  • E. Both internal and external forces (socioeconomic or medical issues) can isolate us—and these forces play off each other.

7. Support groups are usually full of lonely, neurotic people complaining and venting.

  • A. I feel exactly the same way about most support groups.
  • B. I know support groups are helpful, but I’d rather not share my feelings with a group of vulnerable people.
  • C. I’m hesitant, but I’ll try one. I’ve had mixed experiences in the past with support groups. Some people at groups can be real downers.
  • D. I’m interested and willing to go to one, but I won’t go more than once if it doesn’t meet my needs.
  • E. I’m happy to find a group. I’ve had mostly positive experiences in the past with support groups.

8. At work one day, a young, friendly coworker in his early twenties approaches you to ask if he can borrow $5.00 to help him with the gas money to drive home. He is quite humble and shy about asking you to help and promises to pay you back when he gets his paycheck. He says he is afraid to ask his supervisor. He has been at this job for two weeks. You actually do have some cash in your wallet.

  • A. I would prefer not to lend him the money because I don’t know what I might be getting into. I tell him that I’m sorry, but I don’t have the money. I suggest he goes to speak to the payroll staff about a possible advance.
  • B. I’m wary. I might help him, but first I ask if he has any family members or friends he might call.
  • C. I’m not comfortable with helping him, but I still give him the $5.00 he needs.
  • D. It’s okay with me, but just this one time. I give him the $5.00.
  • E. I give him the $5.00. I reassure him that I know how it feels to start a new job and get back on your own feet.

Of the eight questions, if you answered D or E for five or more, you probably have a more open and accepting attitude toward being lonely or isolated. If you answered A or B for five or more questions, you could be a bit judgmental with yourself when you feel lonely or isolated. If you answered mostly C, you are in the middle.

Did you notice your biases about people who seem lonely or isolated? Did reflecting on these scenarios touch on any feelings of shame, fear, or anxiety about your own loneliness and isolation?

It’s important to remember that we are all affected by social stigma, and that we often turn it against ourselves. This is why it’s not so easy to “get out there” when we want to rebuild our support networks, search for new friends, or meet possible romantic partners. Before we set out to build new relationships, it helps to start with a compassionate relationship with our own loneliness. Indeed, befriending our loneliness is a big step toward accepting ourselves amid the stigma and judgment around us. When we honestly face our own internalized stigma and biases about loneliness, we can better understand the loneliness in others.

Note: The Self-Test was adapted from my upcoming book, 400 Friends and No One to Call.

Copyright © 2020 by Val Walker

Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock