“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” ― Mother Teresa
I’ve wanted to cover the topic of “loneliness” for a long time, particularly because it is a struggle very close to me. But whenever I write about a subject, I want to provide some kind of solution or new way of understanding it, and I didn’t think I could provide any help with this subject. I wrote a post a little over a year ago, “I Don’t Want to be Alone,” in which I tackled singleness, and basically the whole point was to focus on yourself and not use someone else to bring you happiness. You need to bring your own happiness, and I still believe that, but my views have altered, or rather grown.
I have read that loneliness is part of the human condition. Every person at some point in their life will feel alone for some reason. For me, it’s happened in various ways throughout my life. I don’t believe I’ve been any more or less lonely than other people, but I just want to share my struggle. Though sharing it is uncomfortable and vulnerable, I hope it will be somewhat helpful to others, at least in knowing that you aren't the only one who feels lonely. Afterward, I'll provide some more insight on this topic from a biological and psychological level.
A little over a year ago, when I was 21 and in the last year of college, I was very happy and fulfilled with my life. I was going to school full time and doing very well. I was volunteering as a color guard coach for middle schoolers who I adored. I was working on campus. I was living with the greatest roommates ever. I had close friends, and saw my family often enough. I was happy with my relationship with God. I lacked almost nothing, and yet starting in Winter Break when I stayed on campus and all of my roommates had gone home, I started to crumble. It was during this time that I first started making mistakes with boys and dating. When I first started doing things that were very out of character for me.
When I confided to a close friend to better understand why I was not acting like myself, he very simply told me I was lonely, and that was the first time I think anyone had told me that in a long time. When I confided to my mom, she told me I had been lonely for a few years. I didn’t even realize it. I was happy, and I wondered how I could be lonely if I was happy?
It’s taken a year of mistakes, regrets, and growth to get me to an emotionally and mentally healthy place again, because when I started to break, it was just the beginning of a downward spiral, during which I did not like myself. I still feel broken, but I feel stronger and better, and more capable to be happy again. For me, the loneliness I’ve been experiencing these past few years has been because I don’t want to be single anymore. I feel very stupid for that being the reason, because I’ve always thought that I didn’t need someone else to be happy.
When I talk to people about this struggle and feeling of loneliness, they tell me, “Focus on yourself,” “Pray more,” “You have God,” “Volunteer,” “hangout more with your family and friends.” Whenever someone tells me to focus on myself, it irritates me, because I’m tired of focusing on myself. I want someone else to appreciate me and I want someone else to focus on. Whenever people tell me that God should be enough, I just feel like he isn’t, and then I feel bad for feeling that way. I would like to volunteer, but I have other priorities. I spend plenty of time with my friends and family. Despite all this, I still feel lonely, and it’s been a feeling that hasn’t left me for a very long time. I want to share my life with someone else, who's not a friend or relative.
Though these past few years I’ve been lonely because I’m single, I’ve been lonely for other reasons too. I grew up as an only child until I was thirteen, when I got a stepbrother, and then two years later I got my sister. I grew up learning how to be alone, and for the most part, I enjoyed it. I’ve always had a very active imagination. But it’s still painful to grow up not always having someone there, either to play with or talk to.
One of the lowest points in my life happened when I was sixteen. I wasn’t very affectionate as a teenager, and I was also really good at being emotionally closed off in order to seem strong. But there were three people who were really close to me, emotionally and affectionately – my parents and my boyfriend at the time. I loved all three of them and all three loved me. And though it sounds dumb, I also had a cat I really loved, and I know cats don’t actually love you back most of the time, but she loved me.
Over the course of my junior year of high school, I lost them all. First, at the beginning of the school year, the cat that I had for eight years died. I called her my guardian angel. A couple months later, I was only allowed to see my mom once a week for two hours (I was not legally hers for six months). Then me and my boyfriend broke up about a month later. And about two months after that, my dad lost his house, so I moved back in with my uncles (where my dad lived before he got married). I only saw my dad for about an hour a day because I had school stuff and my little sister needed him more than I did. Though I loved the two uncles I lived with, they are not affectionate and never say “I love you.” They are not comforting either.
In other words, I felt very alone and very unloved. When I needed someone the most, there wasn’t anyone who would hug me, or let me cry on them, or just tell me that everything would get better, that I would be okay. Even my guardian angel, the cat who had been with me through every hardship I had so far, was gone. And because I didn't know how to deal with my pain, I wouldn’t talk to my friends about what I was going through. I became depressed without realizing it. And the stresses of school and being a leader for my team were overwhelming because there was no one I could talk to about my struggles. My parents tried to be there for me, but their time with me was very limited.
I was in color guard, and we had night practices every Thursday. I had to get a ride home every time because there was no one who could pick me up. At one practice, it was just one of those times when stress levels were high and everything went wrong. When I got dropped off at my uncle’s, I remember walking to my front door and stopping before I opened it, because I thought to myself, when I walk inside, my mom is not going to have food ready for me, she’s not going to listen to the horrible practice I just had, no one’s going to make me feel better, no one is even going to care to ask about my day. When I walked in, one of my uncle’s was at his computer and the other was outside smoking. I was barely acknowledged.
After I ate, I went to my room and I cried and I prayed. I prayed to God crying and telling him that I know I am loved by so many people. I know my parents and friends love me, and even that my uncles love me, but I didn’t feel loved. I felt completely alone. In my life, I’m only sure that God has spoken to me twice, and that night was one of those times. As I cried and prayed, I heard him tell me, “I have loved you since before your parents knew you existed, I love you now, and I will always love you.” After that, I felt a peace I had never known before, and I didn’t feel alone anymore. I felt loved and happy. I believed for years that I could never be truly alone as long as I was loved. That belief and happiness lasted me until a year ago when my close friend told me that I was lonely. Then God’s love just didn’t seem enough anymore, nor did anyone else's.
There’s a particular thing I’ve been craving and lacking, that I haven’t been able to put into words until I read an amazing article written by Judith Shulevitz called, “The Lethality of Loneliness.” She references Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who set the foundation for the study of loneliness, and explains that real loneliness is not being in solitude either for work, pleasure, illness, or even from mourning. Most of those things are passing, and there are plenty of people who enjoy their alone time. She defined “real loneliness” as “the want of intimacy.”
Those words struck a deep chord within me. This definition allowed me to reexamine my life from a different scope. Why does it hurt so much when someone close to you leaves, whether it’s their choice or not? Why does it hurt so much to feel isolated and misunderstood? Because intimacy and closeness is something we crave and need. Connectedness is vital to our well-being.
The need for love and belongingness is third in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, above biological, physical, and safety needs. But within this need, I think there are five categories: friends/family, work, religion, volunteer, significant other. I think that in order to be completely fulfilled and satisfied, we have to complete all five areas of our life. But what this need basically comes down to is the need for other people in order to be safe, comfortable, and happy. I also think that deeply spiritual people who develop intimate relationships with the higher power they believe in can also fulfill part of this need in that way.
It’s important to focus on yourself, but we need intimate relationships with other people to not feel alone. We need connectedness, sharing, and interaction. In The American Spectator, Janice Shaw Crouse explains, “Sharing flourishes when [we] trust each other and have the capacity for affection and empathy. But trust requires mutual respect and caring, insight and understanding…. [Trust] involves the indispensable ingredient of vulnerability.” She uses the word “share” to mean the way we talk to and confide in one another. To share with someone, and to be intimate with someone, physically, emotionally, or mentally, you have to trust them. You have to believe that the other person cares enough about you to listen and respond. You can’t achieve intimacy without vulnerability, but Crouse adds that is it is difficult to be vulnerable when pride, and excessive self-reliance and self-sufficiency get in the way.
It seems as though our loneliness can be self-inflicted, but there are a lot of factors at play. Shulevitz writes that loneliness is 48% inheritable from genetics, but 52% an outcome of the world. The most crucial years of development happen a very early age, and when we are deprived of the attention of a loving and reliable parent, “we'll tend toward loneliness for the rest of our lives,” if nothing makes up for that lack. On a biological level, our brain does not make the connections needed to develop if we grow up deprived of attention. But, it will make those connections later if we get the love and attention we need. We are fragile and resilient in that way.
Shulevitz writes, “Pyschobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Our emotional state directly affects our physical state, and the most damaging part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected. Feeling excluded can be the same as feeling rejected. In a study conducted on gay men who had tested HIV-positive, Steven Cole found that men who were in the closet died two to three years earlier than men who weren’t. He believed this was because they were more sensitive to the pain of rejection. When he dosed AIDS infected white blood cells with a stress hormone, “the virus replicated itself three to ten times faster than it did in non-dosed cells.”
John Cacioppo, a leading psychologist on the subject of loneliness, “thinks we're hardwired to find life unpleasant outside the safety of trusted friends and family,” because we need each other to survive. I think a lot can be said about Genesis 2:18 when God sees Adam alone, and says, “It is not good that man should be alone” (NKJV). Though it’s important to learn how to be alone, we were not meant to stay that way.
Published in the American Sociological Review, a study that featured 1,500 interviewees found that one in four “said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences.” I think they were on target when they say there are people who don’t have anyone to share “their personal troubles or triumphs.” I guess that’s part of the intimacy we so crave. We want someone to care. We want someone to love us, just as much as we want to love others.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have no solution to give to you. I can’t tell you how to stop being lonely. I can only hope that I’ve helped you better identify the problem. If you’re going to venture out to seek the intimacy that we as people so need, then I suggest starting with yourself, and with being vulnerable. I suggest listening and focusing on someone else’s cares and concerns. I suggest opening up your perception to see that you aren’t the only one alone – many people are. You can open up interaction and communication just by talking, sharing, and listening.