Loneliness – just try to pronounce this word. What does it sound like, what does it feel like? And why is the whole world talking about it now?
We can be surrounded by people and still feel this empty space inside. Perhaps the secret vibrations of our lives are affecting our emotional state and pushing us toward this state. Or perhaps it is something deeper and more mysterious – an undiscovered phenomenon that has yet to be revealed.
All over the world, in cities and villages, in luxurious homes and poor neighborhoods, in families large and small, more and more people are experiencing the heartache of loneliness. And these people are overwhelmingly young. Recent studies show that loneliness is most prevalent among 10-34-year-olds.
The internet, social networks, robot assistants, the coronavirus pandemic – all these powerful forces of social change have been accelerating the epidemic of loneliness for decades.
Historically, loneliness was a death sentence – banishment from the tribe meant condemnation to starvation and cold. We are evolutionarily adapted to form social bonds. And the better we are at it, the more successful the individual.
Today, biological survival is not as important to a solitary individual as it once was. Thanks to modern technology, it’s possible to go for years without interacting with living people. But evolution is hopelessly behind progress and left alone we still feel fear and pain.
The interesting thing is that feeling lonely is not always about physical loneliness. Sometimes we can feel lonely even when surrounded by loved ones, at family gatherings, in bed with a loved one, or in a crowd of football fans.
What are the dangers of loneliness?
Is loneliness always bad? After all, many geniuses (Newton, Picasso, Darwin) deliberately withdrew from communication with people for the sake of fruitful work. But this caused them a lot of mental anguish. And secondly, using their way of life as a standard is a classic cognitive distortion, a “survivor’s mistake”.
If you look at the objective data, loneliness is directly linked to the risk of depression. It is the leading cause of disability and a common cause of suicide worldwide.
Loneliness is also linked to early mortality. Lonely people are 26% more likely to die prematurely. The mechanism for this link is well known: the lonely person’s brain is more sensitive to negative information.
Loneliness makes us more vigilant and the body produces more cortisol, a stress hormone that damages the heart, brain, and immunity. In my work, I am used to relying on scientific data, but I always take religious sources into account. It is amazing how much the conclusions of scientists confirm the experience of our ancestors’ spiritual quest.
Loneliness is not permitted in Islam. It is only for the Almighty, and all of God’s creatures need each other.
“We have created all things in pairs, that you may reflect on them” (Sura Al- Zuriyat, Ayat 49).
In Judaism, solitude is almost always a trial, and a temporary one at that. The rabbis teach: Moshe was asked to come to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and then to bring it to the people. To remain alone at the top is to go only halfway.
The Christian religion does not approve of solitude either. “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone'” (Genesis 2:18).
So there is nothing good about loneliness and the suffering it brings? Not really. The pain of loneliness is a necessary natural mechanism. It is a kind of alarm bell. A child, once burned, will avoid the fire. So we avoid loneliness: nobody wants to suffer.
If we saw loneliness as a signal for change, if we could use this mechanism properly, the world would be a different place. Unfortunately, there are times when the fear of loneliness turns out to be even more painful.
There are cases, for example, where the trauma of loneliness is too strong. Many people get this trauma in childhood. If the parents leave the child alone, the child is punished by isolation. Or the family moves constantly, forcing the child to break social ties each time. Even in the fetal period, the fetus can be traumatized by loneliness, reading the mother’s emotional state. This is one of the most difficult situations.
Such events make our fear of loneliness unbearable. Such people are characterized by heightened anxiety. They feel this “black hole” in their soul and know only how to solve their problems.
There is another variant – an increased need for social approval. As an adult, a successful person needs constant support. I often meet such people in therapy. Their souls are childish, they have not yet gone through the tender period when they need the approval and patronage of adults.
Many people with high levels of sensitivity and empathy tend to “merge” with their partner, to adapt to him or her, and to pick up on the slightest change in mood. In this way, they lose their own identity and experience any estrangement from their partner as a sharp sting of loneliness.
How to escape loneliness?
Fighting loneliness is not about networking with a quantitative build-up of superficial connections. We don’t just want a relationship, we want a relationship that is intimate, heartfelt, and warm. Fear of loneliness drives us into virtual communication. But neither chatting on a telegram nor phoning is a substitute for real communication. We have more than five senses, and they are all needed to interact with the world. We need to speak and listen, see and read body signals and facial expressions. Tactile touch is very important and can give us a sense of warmth and intimacy.
Learning to recognize the feeling of loneliness as a signal for change can be very difficult. But paradoxical as it may sound, the surest way to get rid of loneliness is to reach out to yourself. And to create your own boundaries. Remember Schopenhauer’s famous “porcupine dilemma”. When porcupines are cold, they huddle together. But very soon the pain of the stings becomes unbearable and they scatter. To avoid being such “porcupines” we need to build a solid framework of our personality and mark our boundaries – so that we can get close enough but not hurt each other.
We need to understand and listen to our souls in order to find our place in the world. Our life path may be non-linear, and that’s OK. We can seek out new opportunities and adventures to help us grow and develop.
Living the experience of our soul is one of the keys to happiness and contentment.
What are you, what do you want to do in life, what are your needs? Those who can answer all these questions, those who live their soul experience to the full, are not in danger of loneliness. And temporary solitude will only bring joy.
Attention to oneself, the ability to find inner impulses, that’s what’s really important for interaction with the outside world.
Text by Dr. Esther Vavilonskaya, Psychologist