Loneliness is an experience that people coming into psychotherapy often talk about struggling with. It is an uncomfortable and often painful state and usually linked with feelings of sadness, loss and emptiness.
But maybe loneliness isn’t necessarily just a bad experience. Below, I will explore possible causes and suggest there are some positive and helpful aspects to feeling lonely.
Loneliness through circumstances
Loneliness could be characterised as feeling disconnected from others and profoundly alone. This might well be circumstantial – for e.g. someone who has just moved to a new city and doesn’t know many people could reasonably be expected to feel lonely. Their loneliness might indeed help push and motivate them into making some social connections and friendships.
Feelings of loneliness can also be triggered by losing a significant other through separation or death. In these circumstances loneliness will feel bound up with the loss of this person and part of the experience of grieving.
In both these examples we would think a loneliness as a normal response to circumstances of being suddenly alone or losing someone close.
Loneliness and disconnection
Chronic loneliness is often caused by an intense and ongoing sense of disconnection from others. This may not necessarily bear any relation to the presence of other people. In fact, it is often reported that this kind of loneliness is most painfully felt in the company of others.
Becoming so disconnected and lonely is usually linked to a history of emotional withdrawal. Often this comes about originally as a form of self-protection. Self-isolation can be a way of avoiding the painful and difficult feelings that interactions with others can bring. This defensive strategy might start early in life and create its own momentum. It may be deployed all the time – leading to extreme isolation – or at certain times or in more nuanced ways.
In some people, this emotional withdrawal might be obvious, e.g. a literal keeping away from others. In many cases though the withdrawal is more of an internal distancing which may not be obvious at all, even to the person themselves. So, although the individual may have relationships, the quality of all or most of these relationships – i.e. the level of intimacy and genuine closeness – may not be enough to create or sustain feelings of real connection.
While this describes more entrenched or extreme experiences of chronic emotional disconnection and loneliness, it’s important to say that of course we can all find ourselves at times emotionally withdrawing from others and becoming lonely as a result.
Can loneliness be healthy?
Loneliness can be a horrible even desolating experience, but it can also be helpful to pay attention to it.
Earlier, I suggested it might motivate someone to seek out social connections in a new situation. On a socio-political level, a general state of loneliness can be generated by living in an, arguably, increasingly alienated and alienating world. Recognising our own experiences of social disconnection may move us to reach out to others in local and wider communities.
In my view, loneliness most importantly reveals a longing for greater intimacy and closeness and at the same time the absence or loss of this. Loneliness reminds us of our innate connectivity as human beings and its importance to our wellbeing. Where people have a pattern of disconnecting or withdrawing internally to deal with emotional pain, an awareness of lonely feelings can be a positive sign. It can mean the beginnings of a realisation that defensive distancing is no longer working.
Loneliness can indicate something needs to change, or is already starting to.
Claire Barnes is an experienced UKCP registered psychotherapist and group analyst offering psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and groups at our Hove practice.
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