I recently listened to an interesting podcast from one of my favorite radio shows, "All In The Mind," which is out of Australia. The topic was loneliness, and the guest was Emily White, who has written a book called Lonely: A Memoir.
The show starts with some discussion of the stigma of loneliness. We tend to blame the lonely for their loneliness, attributing it to some sort of personal failing. We assume the person isn’t trying hard enough or has unlikable qualities.
White suggests that this is not the case. “…there's all sorts of scientific research that's really fascinating, saying that you can be born with a predisposition towards loneliness, that it can be largely circumstantial, that there's large scale social changes going on that will trigger loneliness in vulnerable people, but we don't recognize any of that," she said. "If you say 'I'm lonely' or 'I'm having trouble with loneliness'\ or, heaven forbid, if you say you're having trouble with chronic loneliness, you're really setting yourself up as an object of dismissal and scorn and shame.”
When researchers asked college students to describe a lonely person, they said things like unsuccessful, unintelligent, passive, unattractive. But White had friends in college and a successful career as an attorney (until she quit that job in order to write). And she was chronically lonely.
There is some evidence, though, that feelings of loneliness are genetic. When researchers administered the UCLA Loneliness Scale to the same people over 25-30 years, what they found was that, “…the UCLA scale scores for mothers and daughters tended to repeat themselves," said White. "...originally that was thought to be an issue of nurture, that mothers who were lonely were raising their daughters to be lonely.
But increasingly what scientists believe is that it's genetic, that you can be born with this trait towards loneliness. And I saw that in my mother's life when I was growing up—that she was very much alone and that she felt alone...even though she had friends, the feeling of loneliness persisted. And that's what I was sensing taking shape in my own life...I was going to follow in my mother's footsteps in that way. And ultimately, I did.”
We know loneliness may or may not be related to being alone. Introverts can be perfectly happy alone, or terribly lonely in a crowd. But if introverts are at any particular risk for loneliness, it could be because we set a high bar for friendship. We desire and require deep connections and would rather be lonely alone than in a crowd. But realistically, those deep connections are not easy to find, and if we get caught short and our only choice is superficial socializing or nothing, we can get lonely.
White also points out, and research reveals, that it’s possible to get caught up in a loneliness loop.
“…I've noticed this when I went back and looked at my diaries...I was struck during my lonely years at how often I retreated from social interaction,” she said. “People would ask me out for dinner and I would say no, people would ask me out for drinks after work and I would say no. Social interactions began to make me anxious, and that was the case even though I desperately needed more sociability in my life. And I couldn't make sense of this paradox and I started blaming myself for it. And when you're lonely you can start to feel as though you don't have what you need to bring to social situations, you don't feel safe in those situations. So you start to retreat and the more you do that, the lonelier you become, and it becomes this vicious circle that you can't get out of.”
Does that sound familiar to anyone else?
For introverts, home alone is an easy default. Especially if we’re feeling the least bit insecure, staying home alone almost always seems easier and more appealing than getting out there among superficial connections, where we may or may not have fun. But too much staying home can start eroding our self-image, which causes more staying home, which may lead to loneliness. (On the subject, perhaps you would enjoy my earlier post, “First Leave the House: Strategies for Making New Friends.”)
It might seem a no-brainer to speculate whether introverts are more prone to loneliness than extroverts, except when you separate loneliness from solitude. But is it possible that our comfort in solitude brings about an increased risk of loneliness because we get caught in the loop?
Worth thinking about.