The Shaming of Loneliness

Prior to leaving town for the Thanksgiving holiday, I felt profoundly lonely. Then I went away, visited with my brother, sister-in-law, and my nephews over the holiday, and didn’t feel lonely. When I got back home, the loneliness was waiting for me.

Science tells us that loneliness is toxic to our health and our sense of well-being. People who are lonely have more mental and physical health challenges. They get sick and die more often than people who are connected to each other. Lonely people are also more likely to feel suicidal and end their lives.

Loneliness kills.

Given how important connection is to our physical, emotional and psychological health, it seems odd that I should feel ashamed to acknowledge my loneliness to others, but I do. I feel this way because I’ve grown up in a culture that shames people for their loneliness.

I believe we need to change this, and it starts with sharing our stories.

Age, Shame, and Loneliness

It’s a tragic cultural phenomenon for the elderly to be lonely, but it is, at least in the US, culturally accepted. We expect older people to be lonely, and we regard their loneliness as reasonable under the circumstances (e.g., widowed, friends passed away, kids moved across the country and started their own lives). No one’s left to hang out with and it’s hard to get around: Of course they’re lonely.

But loneliness in young and middle adulthood is particularly difficult to accept and understand — and hard to talk about. It’s just so unnatural, both in broad evolutionary and specific cultural terms. When we are lonely long before we reach old age — while our peers partner off, start families, or otherwise seem happy in tight-knit social groups or dating relationships — loneliness can quickly become a source of shame.

Shame, the feeling that we are unworthy of connection and belonging because people think we are flawed, is toxic to our health and well-being. Loneliness and shame are highly correlated, and operate in vicious cycles of circular logic. When we are lonely, we may believe there is something wrong with us. When we feel something is wrong with us, we may believe that’s why we’re lonely.

Either way, when shame and loneliness combine, it’s especially hard to talk about our feelings and reach out for connection. When we feel lonely and deserving of our loneliness, we’re doubly doomed. Relational-cultural theorists call this “condemned isolation.”

At the university counseling center where I work as a psychotherapist, many of my students come to counseling for symptoms of depression and anxiety that, upon closer look, are in fact the natural outcroppings of unaddressed loneliness and shame. When I ask them, “If you had a group of good friends who accepted you, that you trusted and felt comfortable being around, would you still need counseling? Would you feel so bad about yourself? Would you feel so depressed or on edge? Would you still want to die?” Usually, the answer is, “Of course not.” And then, “But I don’t know how to find these people! Do these people even exist, and if so, how do I find them? I’m miserable. I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.”

My students are surprised and relieved when I tell them that despite the pervasive cultural myth that college is the “best of time of their lives,” human development studies have shown that the college/young adult years are among our loneliest— lonelier, even, than old age and widowhood (Berk, 2009). For this reason, I facilitate a lot of therapy groups and try to convince my students to join my groups. We are, after all, pack animals, and we need each other.

Loneliness Versus Being Alone

It’s important to distinguish loneliness from being alone. Being alone is willful or circumstantial solitude in which I am not around others but comfortable with myself and able to connect with myself in positive, life-affirming ways. Personally, I need a fair bit of alone time, and find great value in it. But being alone with myself in healthy ways is qualitatively different from being lonely. Loneliness picks up where the positive benefits of being alone leave off.

A simple way to think about loneliness is the gap between the amount or quality of our existing social bonds and the bonds we’d like to have.

Feeling lonely sometimes is probably unavoidable, particularly in the US in college and young adulthood. Most young adults haven’t met their long-term partners yet, or started families, and many haven’t even formed their close adult friendships. And even as we partner and grow a more relational life, there are probably times when the people around us just don’t “get” us. This is hard, and painful, and if it goes on too long, can create bigger problems. But just because loneliness is unavoidable at times doesn’t make it inherently good for us.

As for being alone, how much alone time is good depends on who we are as individuals. Some people need very little time alone, and that’s okay. It’s not their fault, they aren’t less developed than people who need more time alone, and it’s not pathological to need to be with other people.

Yet in the therapy world where loneliness is a major cause of human distress, some professionals still advise lonely clients to “learn to be alone” and work on liking themselves for who they are when they are alone, before they can expect to find a partner or sustain good friendships. However well-intentioned, this view is unsupported by mounting evidence that our ability to connect with and belong to others in close relationships and social groups is vital to our well-being and self-worth, perhaps even a precursor to liking and accepting ourselves when we are alone.

Time alone, on our couches in our houses at our cafe tables on our cell phones at our computers or easels or stoves or TVs may at times be enjoyable, but we didn’t evolve this way and we may not be physiologically wired for it. Working on enjoying our alone time may help ease loneliness a little, but it’s a bad collective prescription for the pain of loneliness, and we need to stop prescribing it to each other.

Just before I left town to join my family for Thanksgiving, I was in a yoga class talking to my yoga mat neighbors about holiday plans. I mentioned I was looking forward to being with my family because, lately, I’d been feeling really lonely. (I’d chosen in that moment to take the risk to speak about my loneliness, and it wasn’t easy.) The beautiful, smart, kind woman next to me, just a little older and also still single, said that she too was lonely, and that it’s hard for her to see people gathering with their partners and families over the holidays. For a moment, we connected, and I felt a little less lonely.

Then, someone nearby overheard us talking and chimed in, “Why are you girls complaining about being lonely? Loneliness can be good sometimes.”

I normally like the person who said this, but I left feeling sad, angry, and ashamed — and inspired to write this article.

At 35, I like myself and have a very rewarding life and career, but I am single, and I am lonely. I’ve had plenty of relationships and I’m currently meeting people and going on dates, but I haven’t found someone to settle in with for the long-haul. To the extent that I’m selective about finding a suitable partner and continue to be single, I am choosing between two kinds of loneliness — isolation versus being involved with the wrong guy. At this point in my life, I prefer being single and lonely to being poorly partnered and lonely. (Trust me, I’ve thoroughly explored the latter.)

But please don’t imply loneliness is good for me. It’s something to endure, to weather, to survive.

Cultural Views of Loneliness

Our US culture at once champions individuality and independence, yet pressures us to be happily married and mating by our mid-twenties. If we are lonely past our college years and prior to old age, we are led to believe that we’re either approaching relationships incorrectly or that something is wrong with who we are. No wonder we feel shame about being lonely.

Even some of my well-meaning friends, colleagues, and acquaintances (most of whom are snugly partnered off by now) have suggested that if I’m lonely, perhaps I should just work on myself more, despite that I’ve already done a lot of personal work and continue to. The message is, if I just develop myself enough, I can either develop myself into meeting a partner or master/evolve beyond my loneliness — alone.

A few months ago, I went to Cuba for the first time. Cuba has its problems, and most Cubans are very poor economically, but the people themselves were beautiful, loving, and generous, with me and with each other. Though I didn’t speak much Spanish, in Cuba I felt the strongest sense of belonging I’ve ever experienced. Cubans noticed me, smiled, looked me in the eye and said hello to me, every single time we passed each other. And they didn’t just do this with me, because I was a curvy red-headed American tourist. They did this with each other. It’s the culture there — a culture of acknowledgement.

The internet and smart phones are not widely available in Cuba, so people still know how to sit around in lounges, bars and cafes talking to each other, making music on real instruments, laughing and playing cards. I was, in fact, the only person at the hotel who routinely sat alone in the lobby, sketching, reading and journaling. When I did this, Cubans gave me concerned looks, came over, introduced themselves in broken English, and asked what I was doing and why I was alone. They pulled up a chair or told me to come sit with them. They asked me if I was married, and when I said I wasn’t, they asked why not. They seemed incredulous. They said I was friendly, warm, attractive, interesting — why on earth would I still be alone? Everyone needs people, they said, and a family. But in Cuba, they didn’t suggest there was something wrong with me for being lonely. Rather, they saw me and invited me in.

“Come back to Cuba and stay a little while,” the Cubans told me. “Don’t you worry. You’ll have a spouse in six months and a family in no time.”

From Loneliness & Shame to Connection

I gave it some real thought, but politics and realities as they are, I can’t move to Cuba. So I’m working through the shame of my loneliness.

This is an ongoing process that involves giving myself permission to feel lonely, and telling myself that loneliness is, in fact, a natural response to my situation.

It’s reminding myself that I’m not fundamentally deficient or unlovable because I’m lonely. I’m lovable, capable of loving, and as deserving as anyone else of close, enduring bonds.

It’s encouraging myself to get out and socialize, even though loneliness feeds feelings of depression and social anxiety, which can make it harder to be with people. It’s remembering that I’ve always been a little shy, but I still have great folks in my life who care about me, and about whom I care.

It’s continuing to do the things I love doing alone, like painting, writing, and reading, that enrich me creatively and spiritually, but it also means not expecting these solitary, personal activities to fill the loneliness gap.

It’s continuing to take risks to meet new people, and being open-minded about who I might really connect with, while also not acting on desperation and getting involved with someone who isn’t likely to be a suitable friend or companion.

And lastly, it’s inviting others into the conversation. Because by sharing, we become less lonely, and less ashamed of our loneliness.

Perhaps then, like this poem says, we might find each other, and — who knows — we might even embrace.

The Sleepless Ones

What if all the people
who could not sleep
at two or three or four
in the morning
left their houses
and went to the parks
what if hundreds, thousands,
went in their solitude
like a stream
and each told their story
what if there were
old women
fearful if they slept
they would die
and young women
unable to conceive
and husbands
having affairs
and children
fearful of failing
and fathers
worried about paying bills
and men
having business troubles
and women unlucky in love
and those that were in physical
and those who were guilty
what if they all left their houses
like a stream
and the moon
illuminated their way and
they came, each one
to tell their stories
would these be the more troubled
of humanity
or would these be
the more passionate of this world
or those who need to create to live
or would these be
the lonely
and I ask you
if they all came to the parks
at night
and told their stories
would the sun on rising
be more radiant and
again I ask you
would they embrace

~ Lawrence Tirnauer