- In addition to losing relationships with others, people can also lose aspects of the self.
- People may lose their social self, their material self, or their spiritual self. This can prevent them from finding meaning and purpose.
- Losses may be triggered by addiction, trauma, and other mental health conditions.
There’s a deep, abiding loneliness that comes with addiction, other mental health conditions, and experiences of trauma. More accurately, there are different forms of loneliness that may be both cause and consequence of these forms of suffering.
One form is the loneliness of losing relationships with others that have been the warp and weft of our identities. Many people start to withdraw from relationships lest their struggles become known to others. They may fear losing the respect of important others or revealing themselves to be less than what they are taken to be. Those others may be the ones to end relationships, finding it too difficult or painful to remain connected. Some relationships fray over time while others seem to rupture suddenly and result in what can feel like a catastrophic loss. If those relationships have been axes around which a person’s life turned, their loss and subsequent loneliness can be profoundly alienating.
Addiction, trauma, and mental health challenges can also wreak havoc with a person’s relationship to his, her, or their own self. People can suffer great loneliness from losing themselves or losing the plans of their lives.
The loneliness of losing relationships with others is connected to losing one’s self. Our partners, parents, children, and friends are parts of our material, social, and spiritual selves, William James claims (1842-1910). These dimensions crisscross and overlap, weaving the fabric that we typically think of as a self or person. Being a self or being a person is a dynamic process; we are always works under construction, in a manner of speaking.
One’s material self most obviously includes the body but also one’s family, possessions, and even clothes. A person has as many social selves as people who recognize him, James asserts. Each of us identifies more closely with some of these social selves than with others. We also tend to rank them. The spiritual self is the house or center of intellectual, moral, religious, and political interest. It directs our attention and willingness to act.
The Consequences of Losing Aspects of the Self
When we lose any one of these material, social, and spiritual selves, we miss the people we used to be in those relationships or with those interests. When we break off relationships or when important others do that to us, we lose parts of our self. When we lose important material goods such as a house for which we worked and saved long and hard or pawn an heirloom because we need money, we lose parts of our selves. We become lonely for our own self when our spiritual selves—the seat of our intellectual and moral interests and commitments—shrink and shrivel with increased alcohol or drug use, for example.
The loneliness for what we once had or how we once understood our self to be or hoped it to be is agonizing, especially when we regard ourselves as being responsible for this loss. This is the loneliness of losing one’s self and knowing it. People may be able to identify certain points when they lost important parts of their material, social, and spiritual selves. They may be able to recall the exact moment when they made certain decisions that derailed the plans of their lives. The loneliness of losing one’s self and knowing it is often a source of significant regret.
There is another way in which people experience a loneliness from losing themselves. In this case, they do not recognize it. At best, some people may have a vague sense that something is deeply amiss but can’t identify it explicitly. The philosopher Kierkegaard (1811-1855) understood this well, claiming “the greatest hazard of all, losing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss — an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. — is sure to be noticed.” Kierkegaard, better than anyone, understood that each of us must come to understand what we’re up against in our own selves.
Humans are vulnerable to certain forms of self-deception, often believing that what should make us happy will do so. A great career, a loving supportive family, financial security are just some of those things. We might be capable of convincing ourselves that we are happy or fulfilled. Kierkegaard claimed that happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair. But what if that happiness doesn’t fit or fulfill a person?
If this happiness has come as a consequence of a person’s gradually, unintentionally, and consistently trading off or denying important parts of their material, social, and spiritual selves, it is no surprise that a person is lonely for selves they don’t even realize are missing. They become lost or wake up some morning not knowing who they are anymore. Addiction is one form this loss of self may take; a person may be no longer consciously aware of what she is losing. This is a cause of deep loneliness. The losses of these selves with their accompanying loneliness may not only be disorienting but debilitating.
Loneliness is not just an emotion or a feeling. It is a living attitude affecting every dimension of a person’s life. These forms of deep, abiding loneliness may cause an existential concussion , in which a person becomes far less able to make sense of herself and her place in the world. In its most serious form, a person becomes unable to see any meaning or value in the world. There’s nothing more lonely than this.
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James, William. 1890. Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness unto Death. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press.