On Loneliness

There’s an emptiness that many of us feel every day. Sometimes we feel it when we’re away from someone. Sometimes we feel it when we’re surrounded by people.  It isn’t depression, per se. We have all experienced it. Unless you’re schizoid, of course.

Loneliness is a want. When we want, we create a gap between what we have, and what we don’t. That gap hurts. Commonly we try to distract ourselves so we don’t have to pay attention to that pain. We don’t want to feel it. We have this deep fear it will consume us. It is almost as if we feel a need to find another person to verify that we’re really here.

As I sit and contemplate this state, there’s even guilt over feeling this way. Why should there be guilt over feelings? You feel what you feel. Unless you start thinking about expectations (from society, on yourself), about what you’re “supposed” to feel. We’re supposed to be happy and buoyant and “perfect.” Wouldn’t that be nice.

Of course we can examine if there are things we do that perpetuate these feelings, which keep us stuck. That’s the process of psychotherapy, and becomes especially important when we start to take ownership over our own participation in our feelings. While I understand the explanation of the brain as a “chemical state,” and bad feelings as “brain chemistry,” it’s an explanatory model that lessens the idea of free will. Brain chemistry exists. When I eat something, or think something, or close my eyes, I’m changing my brain chemistry. So maybe there is a way that we perpetuate loneliness as well.

When we idealize the individual and celebrate “I,” we are celebrating the disconnect of that person, what makes them unique, what distinguishes them from everyone else. When we cherish our own uniqueness, we are isolating ourselves. Thus our American culture of rugged individuality and championing the loner, who is dependent on no one, leaves the next generation very alone when they try to embody such an ideal. The more we want to be unique and important, the more alone we feel. We want to be important, which requires other people recognizing us as unique. Paradoxically trying to be independent and important makes our self-esteem dependent on the attention of others. In our culture where narcissism is on the rise (google Narcissism america), perhaps the consequence of cultivating some amazing individuals is the emptiness of some achievements, and an epidemic of loneliness.

The alternatives to the individual have their own stigma and problems. There’s the group identity, whether that’s as part of a team or an organization. There can become camaraderie amongst members, which is a definite antidote to loneliness. Fear can set in though, fear of dependence. Really this is true for any relationship. We play with the romanticization of love as something that absorbs a whole person, ultimately. As beautiful of an image as that can be, it also leads to the risk of betrayal, co-dependence and loss of any ultimate purpose. I’m sure members of any group that went down a dark path (think of cults, nazis, etc.) at first felt a true sense of purpose when they joined. It gave them an identity, a sense of belonging, and thus lessened loneliness. Social psychologists discuss that this group mentality leads to loss of humanity and performing acts that go against the morals of the individuals (see the work of Phil Zimbardo). But that person doesn’t think about them because at that time they aren’t themselves — they’re just a member of the group.

Co-dependence isn’t any more healthy, though it has the temptation of escape, and the romanticization by our culture. As much of a fan as I am, Shakespeare didn’t help this idealization of collectively losing ourselves in love. It’s beautiful to lose ourselves in another, to need and be needed completely and wholly. Depending on your belief in the idea of a soul mate, you may have convinced yourself that this is meant to be one person. And maybe it is. But if that dynamic of needing and being needed by the world could be diffused, spread out to the world, maybe we’d realize that loneliness could be an illusion.

J Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher, believed that we’re all inherently connected. He believed that we’re all made up of the same substance. He was probably referring to a spiritual belief within Eastern philosophies that we all come from a God, and made of God. Within that framework, we’re all connected, since we’re all part of the same network. In the belief system, loneliness is an illusion, based on the false idea that we are all separate. If you could let go of the idea of having to be separate, without losing a sense of self, and feel that we are all connected, then loneliness could fade away.

Or maybe not.

I’m online right now, looking over facebook and twitter. I feel the impulse to reach out and find connection to other people. The more I feel alone, the more I feel I have to reach out to find someone and get any validation I’m real or alive. It’s hard to be alone. There’s an emptiness to it, as if I might collapse. These “social media” sites feed an illusion of connection through technology, which can make us feel more alone.

But let’s just pretend I don’t have any internet. Let’s pretend I don’t have a phone. Let’s pretend there’s no way to distract myself. I’m stuck with just me. I could fight to find another way to distract myself. Or I could stay with the feeling. I might even feel like I’m collapsing. In the strangest way, staying with that feeling of collapsing (in Gestalt therapy called the implosive layer), can lead to a breakthrough. All the energy invested in holding back the fear [of being alone, etc] can be freed up.

Then we can see the world with new eyes. That’s a whole process (going through the Gestalt layers) that we’ll touch on in another post.

Until then, consider the possibility that you’ve never been alone.

On Loneliness
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Paul Puri

Dr. Puri is a board certified psychiatrist, in private practice in Los Angeles. He practices multiple forms of psychotherapy, including hypnosis, in addition to managing medications. He attended medical school at University of Rochester, and specialty training at University of California, San Diego. He is currently on the Vol Clinical Faculty at UCLA. In his non-clinical time he writes TV pilots, and designs iPhone apps.