- Being accepted even though we make mistakes. We all make mistakes at some point. How people we care about react to these mistakes either helps us learn to accept who we are or learn to hate who we are. When Elsa made a mistake and hit Anna with her frozen "ray", her parents reacted by trying to make her deny part of who she was. You often see in lonely folks the belief that they feel not lovable or worthy. Who could ever love someone so damaged and broken, who has made so many mistakes in the past? Learn to love ourselves and others despite our faults is a step out of loneliness.
- Overcoming childhood abuse. Usually there is a story of abuse with individuals who feel chronically lonely. Taking Elsa and locking her up for a significant portion of her childhood, I would consider child abuse. It reminds me of the old days when families would lock up their children who had mental disabilities in the attic or basement. That's not how you treat children who are different. Being isolated all those years, being told to suppress who you are, having you live in fear, eventually that takes a toll on your psyche and you are taught not to trust anyone, because the ones you love hurt you and you hurt the ones you love.
- Discovering our inner, magical power. There is a magical power in all of us. Deep inside all of us is a magical power that is ours and ours alone. It is an inherent part of who we are, and to deny it, is to deny our very existence. Despite Elsa's attempts to suppress her magical powers, it came out anyways. If you try to fight it, it comes out in ways that are often dangerous to others. But if you embrace it, you can make things that are truly beautiful. Lonely individuals are often taught self-loathing and try to suppress the powerfully, magical, creative sides of themselves, instead of letting it come to the surface for everyone to see.
- Finding our inner child. There remains in all of us, our inner child. Everybody loves Olaf, maybe perhaps because of his childhood innocence and his caring. There is a little Olaf in all of us that likes warm hugs. When we are lonely, there is a little Olaf in us begging to get warm hugs and not getting any. When we can't satisfy our Olaf, we may often try to bury Olaf and forget about him, but he's always there, looking for a way to make things right.
- Controlling our Marshmallows. Similarly all of us have a Marshmallow. Marshmallow comes out when there are those around us who are hurting us and we want them to go away. We become mean, monstrous, and wild. And we don't stop until the threat is completely removed, even if it sometimes means we can potentially hurt the people we love. In chronically lonely individuals, there is usually a Marshmallow guarding our fortress, and whoever comes to visit has to get past a Marshmallow first. More times than not, people just give up and go away instead.
- Giving love instead of taking it. Often we think that to help thaw our cold heart, we need the love of someone else. When Anna's heart got frozen, the immediate assumption was that she needed to receive the love (aka a kiss) from the person she loved. Lonely people often think similarly that the way out of loneliness is to receive the love of another. But the real secret to breaking the curse, to melting a frozen heart, is to give love, selfless acts of love.
- Someone does care about you. There is at least one person who is one your side and trying to help you. Lonely people often think that there is no one that cares for them or loves them. Like Elsa, the goal is to isolate themselves from everyone else. And like Elsa, she fails to realize that some of the same people you push away is the people that can help you, really help you overcome your feelings of loneliness. But it means letting your guard down means opening the possibility of being hurt or hurting others. You have to take the risk in order to gain the reward.
- You cannot run away from your problems. Sometimes lonely people think that if I isolate myself, if I surround myself with an ice fortress, then no one will be able to harm me, the problems I created outside my ice fortress will not affect me any longer. But you cannot run away from your problems, if you do not stand up and deal with them, they will come looking for you. You cannot run away from loneliness, it will come looking for you wherever you are.
- Just cause they like you, doesn't mean it is a good idea. When you have been isolated for a long time, any prospect of a romantic relationship looks really good. Anna wanted to marry the first guy that showed any interest in her. She was desperate to love and to be loved and she opened herself up to be taken advantaged of. She ignored any tell-tale signs that the person she was interested in was dangerous and not good for her. Very often when we fall in love, we often ignore the signs that that person may not be right, we pin all of our hopes and dreams on this one person. Famous loneliness researcher Robert Weiss called romantic relationships the "anti-loneliness pill" because at even the mere prospect of getting involved in a romantic relationship seemed to make loneliness magically disappear.
- Animals are great company and can help us feel less lonely. (See here for example). In that spirit, Kristoff had wonderful companionship in the form of Sven. Even though he talked for Sven sometimes, it seemed like his animal companion kept him company on a many lonely night.
If you have not already had enough of Frozen here is a list of ways the movie, Frozen is the story of loneliness:
I have to say that I was initially very happy to see the new campaign by Oprah to highlight this issue that is very near and dear to my heart. Certainly, any media exposure at all to get people to pay more attention to loneliness is worth something. Dr. Sanjay Gupta's article highlighting the devastating effects of loneliness and the very painful reality of being lonely is also to be commended. However, as I continue to think about the campaign and the article two critiques come to mind. Firstly, Dr. Gupta's article is mostly a reguritation of information that has been around for quite a number of years now. Secondly, the campaign's strategy is really an insult to anyone who experiences chronic loneliness. I will take these in turn.
One of the most disturbing statements that individuals make about loneliness is the estimate of the number of lonely Americans (about 25% or 60 million Americans). It is, for all intents and purposes, an estimate and not based off of a nationally representative survey of Americans. And who are these 60 million American's anyway? Do they tend to be more male or female, one ethnicity more than another, younger or older, living in one state vs another? Do they have access to mental health services? Are they more likely to be single or married? We do not know cause the research has not been done. Everyone has been content to take this estimate as if it were fact without understanding exactly how rampant or how impactful loneliness truly is on American society. In fact, America is already behind the curve, national studies have already been done in France, Norway, and Australia. The results have been informative! I have been trying to lead an effort to get a nationally representative survey done to understand with greater certainty how widespread loneliness is and how it affects the lives of Americans, but so far no one has thought it important enough to fund.
Most of the research that Dr. Gupta references in his article has been said over and over again by a variety of press. The most vocal of these, is of course, the impact of loneliness on one's physical health. Just for the heck of it here is a list of similar articles:
Certainly, this is important and readers need to know and understand this. But this information has been around since at least 2005, and further research has merely explored this topic further instead of asking other questions, such as what other aspects of a person's life does loneliness affect? How does feeling lonely play into affecting a person's overall quality of life: their ability to get and keep a job, their ability to have a stable marriage and family life, and their ability to get the kind of help they need to overcome their feelings of loneliness? Understanding the impact of loneliness on physical health is great but is very one-dimensional on an issue that seems to dominate the lives of individuals who are chronically lonely.
The other over-referenced information is the relationship between loneliness and social media. In all honesty, it would have been better if he had just referenced this video instead. It made a much more compelling and informative argument about the relationship between social media and loneliness.
Secondly is the #JustSayHello campaign. As one commenter noted, what happens after you say hello? I think this campaign insults the very people it is proclaiming to help. Dr. Gupta very clearly acknowledges that being lonely is often stigmatized with being a loser, but why is that? Because the underlying thought is that any one who is not a loser can very easily make friends, they can just go out and join a club, or alternatively perhaps, just say hello, and then the friends will start showing up. So, if you cannot do such simple things to get friendships, then clearly you must be a loser. That is the kind of prejudiced thinking that chronically lonely folks have had to deal with all their lives. It's like, "hey lonely people, have you thought about just saying hello?" Why no, that never occurred to them, why didn't they think of that before! Lonely people have been so rejected in the past, so abused that they have reached a point where they will not even bother risking reaching out anymore. Why should they? Everyone they reached out to in the past just hurt them. The campaign is like telling hungry children in poverty - #JustEatFood. At least the campaign did not suggest #JustSmile which also seems to reduce loneliness and ostracism as well.
If you really want to "Fight Loneliness," you are going to have to do something more comprehensive, you are going to have to really understand who the lonely people are in American society, and then you are going to have to develop some deliberate programs around helping them. #JustSayHello appears to be a nice gimmick at face value, but really, does nothing except insult the people they are trying to help.
Renowned actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman died, quite tragically, from an apparent drug overdose. News outlets report that he had 70 envelopes of heroin and prescription medication in his apartment. He had also just recently opened up about his life of addiction and his attempts to overcome it. What makes this story so compelling is the fact that this was a really successful, relatively young actor, being an Academy Award winner, and receiving several Academy and Tony Award nominations. Why would he continue a life of drugs, even after reaching such critically acclaimed success, to the point where it ruined his relationship with the mother of his children and eventually cost him his life.
Could it be that Mr. Hoffman was, in fact, driven by an underlying sense of loneliness?
In a study that I did back in 2001, I looked at poems and narratives from 180 people that were on the topic of loneliness. I wanted to determine what were some of the common themes that were mentioned across the different poems and narratives. One of the themes was Nothingness. Some words that individuals used to describe this theme included “void” “emptiness” “black hole” and “abyss” “hollow.” It was also the third most popular theme among the poems and narratives studied, coming in behind the theme Pain, and then No Direction. In my own experience talking with lonely individuals, you do hear this theme of void mentioned very frequently with lonely individuals often describing this complete sense of emptiness they feel and their inability to fill it no matter what they try.
The void in people’s lives, I would argue, stems from feelings of inadequacy, isolation, and loneliness. The void makes it impossible to ever be truly satisfied in a relationship because the void is never satisfied, it is always hungry, and it is forever looking to be satiated. It is, in another sense, the driving force behind addiction. Addiction is, by definition, trying to fill a need with a destructive, pleasurable activity or substance. It provides temporary relief from the gnawing pangs of the void, which later returns often with increasing voracity and requiring even destructiveness. This kind of destructiveness creates a chaotic environment for the addicted, evidenced quite painfully in the case of Mr. Hoffman, who had a large quantity of heroin and prescription drugs in his apartment.
The question then becomes, what is the relationship between loneliness, the void, and addiction? Why do lonely people often feel empty and how come they are unable to readily full it on a permanent basis? Why would someone turn to temporary solutions, like drugs, instead of finding a more permanent solution? In some instances I believe that individuals are uncertain about how exactly to more permanently fill the void. Most people understand that the void is a void of intimacy and love. However, most people often falsely assume that the intimacy and love that they are missing is from someone else. Mr. Hoffman was in a relationship for 15 years, had 3 kids, and yet the relationship eventually collapsed because of his relapse to drug addiction.
The fact of the matter is that no one else, like no other activity or substance, can ever truly fill the void. The love that is needed to fill that void is self-love. It is learning to love oneself, to accept oneself with his/her faults and failings, to realize one’s strengths and weakness, and to acknowledge that he/she is a person worthy of being loved and admired. That is no small task to accomplish, because a person may have spent his/her whole life indoctrinated with the belief that he/she is not good enough, is not lovable enough, is not worthy enough and therefore has that thinking ingrained in their thinking. Without addressing this core, fundamental problem, the void will forever remain, unsatisfied, and demanding. It can lead to a life of loneliness, alienating those around you because what you need from others you cannot get or just ignoring others altogether and turning to other addictive behaviors to try to fill the void. Learning to love oneself, to acknowledge that one is worthy of being loved regardless of what one has done, whether one is "good" or "bad," is the key to the cure for loneliness, filling the void, and conquering addiction.
By Ben Mijuskovic
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said,
I’ll make me a world.”
Then God walked around,
And God looked around,
On all that he had made,
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at His little stars;
He looked at His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”
And God thought and thought,
Till he thought, “I’ll make me a man.”
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust,
Toiling over a lump of clay,
Till he shaped it in his own image:
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
The Creation, A Negro Spiritual (J.W. Johnston)
Man emerges in the realm of Being in God’s image as the being which is essentially lonely. The essence of Man is loneliness. Ever since the Old Testament; the Greek myths of Prometheus, Sisyphus, and Deucalion and Pyrhha; the dialogues of Plato; the treatises of Aristotle; the novels of the eighteenth-century; and on to the Existentialist writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre, Man has expressed his intrinsic and universal situation of unfathomable loneliness. “We are lonely from the cradle to the grave and perhaps beyond,” declares Joseph Conrad. We find the mirror of our loneliness everywhere, in the arts, in the social sciences, and in philosophy.
Where we were to inquire what is the most serious, the most intense, the most dangerous medical condition facing human beings, we would probably generate some disagreement surrounding a number of viable candidates: heart failures; cancer; diabetes; etc. But if we were to ask what is the most intense and terrifying mental condition facing each of us, alone, we would, I believe, invariably all reply that it is loneliness.
I have argued in books, articles, and lectures that the soul and mind of Man is permeated by loneliness; the greatest estrangement is to be separated from God (Kierkegaard); the greatest alienation is to be separated from our fellows (Marx); and the greatest anguish is to be separated from the mutual intimacy of the other self.
Why this is so has been a special concern of mine for four decades. Our natural narcissism from the beginning craves and depends on the physical nourishment and the emotional nurturance provided by our first caretaker and we subsequently seek the latter in a lifelong struggle to find it, retrieve it, and secure it.
The cure for loneliness has two prongs: Insight and human connection. The first is strongly intellectual. For example, it stresses that like death, loneliness is universal and inevitable. We fight against it with varying degrees of success just as we battle with disease and illness with different outcomes. The second efforts for success lie in forging mutual bonds of trust and developing a strong sense of empathy with the other self.
The opposite, the conquest of loneliness is intimacy. The Web of Loneliness offers the two most powerful strategies available in our intellectual and emotional arsenals for transcending and vanquishing loneliness: Insight and Social Support.
Do you have a Martyr Complex (MC)? Someone who has a MC tends to "willfully suffer in the name of love or duty". People with MC tend to go out of their way to help others, see themselves as helpers, consider it their moral obligation to put others in front of themselves, and view self-sacrifice as a duty. Normally it is okay to be helpful to others, the problem is that those with MC, tend to do it at the detriment of themselves, and in the process may even harm themselves to the point where they are not even being helpful to others anymore. The problem though is that if you have MC, you are a compulsive helper, you get anxious if you see someone in need and do not do something about it. You can see yourself helping others to the point where you are really harming yourself, but find yourself unable to stop or feel incredibly guilty if you do.
There's another problem with folks with MC - they tend to also experience loneliness as well. But why is that? I think one of the beliefs underlying someone with MC is that the best way to establish friendships is to become a helper to others. Who does not like someone who is willing to help them? It is usually an easy way to win people's initial trust and open communication. If you like to be a good listener and help people with their problems, it gives those people a great opportunity to talk about themselves. The initial set of interactions feel great to both parties, the person being help feels like they are supported, get help, are listened to, and has someone that care about them. Our helper with MC, also feels great as well, they are doing what they feel compelled to do, to help others. It brings them a sense of joy that they have made a meaningful connection by providing help.
As the relationship develops between the helper and the person being helped, it also continues to develop in one direction. For those of us with MC, we continue to provide help all the time, and for those who are getting help, there is never the opportunity to provide help. The helper may learn a lot about the person being helped, but the reverse is not true. Eventually two things happen. The helper, the person with MC, eventually gets tired of providing help all the time and the relationship no longer becomes as rewarding as it used to be. And for the person being helped, they may feel disconnected from the helper and only contact the helper when they need help. Otherwise there is little motivation for contacting them otherwise.
You often hear lonely folk comment that they often feel used, that people only reach out to them when they need something, otherwise you never hear from them. Part of the reason for that could be because the relationship was set up that way. Initially the helper may have provided help in the hopes that the other person would reciprocate at some point. However, there is one dirty, little secret about helpers. Being a helper allows you to to hide behind your help, it allows you to connect with someone else, without you having to become vulnerable, and truly emotionally invest into the relationship. If, all you are doing is focusing on the other person and never on yourself, then you never have to reveal your own secrets, your own wants and desires, your own pain and hurt. You get to hide behind your help, and the result is that the person being helped can never truly establish a close connection to the helper. So, the end result is a one way relationship, where the person there is always a helper and a person being helped.
To break the cycle, and to make the relationship more equitable, requires letting go of some of the dysfunctional beliefs associated with the Martyr Complex. You can successfully establish a great, meaningful relationship with other person by both providing help and asking for help. If you try to establish the relationship where both people get to play both roles and the other person is not interested, then perhaps that other person is not worth having a relationship with. Truly meaningful relationships require that you ask for help in addition to providing it, it requires learning about other's vulnerabilities as well as sharing about your own. Without a two-way street, the relationship will eventually hit a wall and slowly die.
Moving forward with the Web of Loneliness Institute, Inc.
Anyone who has known me for any length of time can easily associate me with the word "loneliness." It is apparently the only thing I have been consistently interested in since graduating with my undergraduate degree in Sociology eons ago back in 1997 (it seems like eons anyways). My interest in loneliness has shaped my general direction forward since that time, and can be attested from my very early days back at the University of the West Indies where I did a guest lecture in Social Psychology, discussing loneliness and my own theories on it, to my graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to the publication of my first book, The Lonely Screams, and now to the incorporation of an institute known as the Web of Loneliness Institute, Inc.
So yes, I have been a bit single minded about my interest in loneliness. I guess because in part I believe that while we all may be good at many different things, there is probably only one thing in which we are exceptional in, one thing which no one else on this planet can do as well as you can. For me, that "thing" is loneliness and doing something about it. There have been times in my life when I have done something which I feel would have a larger impact on my life later on, an impact that is connected to my own personal destiny. One of those things has been the Web of Loneliness website. I created this website back in 2001 as part of my Master's thesis project to collect data from Internet users about how they coped with loneliness both online and offline. At the time, the Internet was now bursting onto the scene, there were still questions about the validity of collecting data online, and there was lots of debates about the effects of the Internet on loneliness. But also, unlike today, creating a website meant having some knowledge of HTML, and collecting survey data online also meant understanding how to use a web creation software like MS FrontPage or Dreamweaver to create an online survey and collect data. Unlike today where you can go to SurveyMonkey or other such tool, there was no tool back then and everything had to be built from the ground up. Over the summer of 2001, I bought a book on programming in HTML, taught myself the language, and set about creating a website and survey in MS Frontpage to collect some data about Internet users.
What shocked me most after creating the website was the response from the Internet. My strategy at the time was to provide some information about loneliness in order to entice visitors to fill out the survey. I knew creating the website was important, but I did not realize just how much of an impact it would have on the Internet. It shot up the ranks on search engines and constantly received considerable traffic. In addition, I had visitors reaching out to me, sharing their stories of loneliness, asking me questions, looking for help, and wanting support. Even after I had finished collecting my data for the survey, I continued on with the site because it became clear to me that the Web of Loneliness was indeed just that, a collection of individuals connecting around the issue of loneliness. It expanded into having an online support group, originally hosted on Yahoo! Groups, and a collection of numerous artwork and poems from visitors about their loneliness experiences.
My intention has always been to make an impact on individuals who feel lonely, to expand the work of the Web of Loneliness (which was affectionately reduced to WOL by a group member) , and take things to the next level. Life got in the way and slowed down my progress tremendously, almost to the point where I was considering shutting down the website. But I decided a change in my life was necessary, I needed to refocus and claim this dream I created for myself. So I pushed forward. Over the past few years, I've spent my energies redesigning the website (abandoning a very old MS Frontpage template design!), shifting the support group to a more interactive platform, transitioning over 200 poems on loneliness into a blog so that they are more searchable, and launching a social media campaign. The results are notable, including now being ranked as the #1 resource on loneliness in Google. After many years, the Web of Loneliness currently claims that #1 spot. Being in that spot also means a great influx of new visitors and new members joining the support group, over 2,200 members and counting.
All that growth made one thing increasingly clear, what I was doing online on the WOL was not enough. It isn't even a drop in the bucket, it is minuscule. I needed to do more and, in part that was where my idea for the Web of Loneliness Institute was born. The Institute was not going to be something that just existed in cyberspace, it is going to have a very real offline existence (even a building at some point!), and reach many, many more folks. Envisioned right now, the Institute has one big objecive: To Reduce Loneliness Globally. It will accomplish this objective through four main goals:
We have already begun the preliminary steps for getting the Institute together, officially creating a company recognized by the State of Connecticut, setting up a Board of Directors, and working on filing with the IRS to obtain a non-profit status - 501(c)(3).
What has been truly great recently though is a planning session that was just completed with a number of very seasoned business executives, psychotherapists and others who work with lonely individuals, and members of the WOL to think about how to take the Institute to the next level. Inevitably part of that discussion involves raising funds for activities that can garner attention on the national stage. I have no doubt that this will happen and the Institute will in the near future take-off to amazing heights. I can see it much more clearly now that I have completed this very monumental planning session. It is very much like the initial birth of the WOL website, a feeling that something great has happened that will have a larger impact on my life later on.
I wrote this blog post to share with others my hope and my successes thus far and to thank those who believe in me. But I also wrote it as an appeal for help, if you are interested, I am always looking for others to journey with me along the way.
Web of Loneliness Institute, Inc.
I teach a college level class and one of the rules I follow is: if a few students in the class are doing badly, then the issue lies with the students, if everyone in the class is doing badly, then the issue lies with me. It is similar to the idea that the point at which say that everyone is wrong and you are right, then it probably means that you are wrong. Translated into the experience of loneliness, a similar thought would be that everyone else in the world cannot be trust or would not be good in a relationship. Certainly, some people are incompatible with us and some people really cannot be trust. But when you are at a point where EVERYONE or most everyone is that way, then it maybe time to stop and ask the question if there is something wrong with the way you perceive others and the kinds of expectations you have from relationships. Clearly if you think that most everyone would make terrible close friends then that is a recipe for loneliness and isolation.
Early loneliness researchers often talked about the difference between state and trait loneliness. I talk about it here as well. State loneliness is a temporary, easily changed, externally-caused loneliness. This means that something external to the person causes the loneliness (such as a rainy day and being isolated from others), is temporary (I don't usually feel lonely), and is easily changed (call a friend up on the phone). Individuals who experience state loneliness do not view loneliness as a problem, as they are usually easily able to overcome these feelings. Individuals with trait loneliness, on the other hand, are the opposite. Trait loneliness is long-term, difficult to change, and internally-caused. This means that a person can move from place to place, change situations, "join a cooking class", and yet, still inevitably feel lonely. This is because what is driving the loneliness is internal, so it doesn't matter where the person goes, loneliness will always follow them there. Often times it is a result of faulty thinking and behavior, either we think we aren't good enough for others, or we think that others aren't good enough for us, etc. It is like no one ever stands a chance being your friend because you've already written them off. The problem is that these thoughts are so ingrained in our way of thinking, we do not even realize sometimes exactly what we are doing. And because these thoughts become so automatic, we attribute our loneliness to external factors without fully understanding the role we may play into contributing to our own loneliness.
One way this becomes particularly manifested is when a lonely person moves from one place to another. When I was doing a loneliness intervention program with college students, I could see this process played out. Often times, a lonely person would report that before the move from their local town to college, they may have experienced loneliness, but it was not extreme, it was just an awareness that it existed. However, once they moved off to college, they had difficult making new friends, establishing social networks, and in general, experiencing strong feelings of loneliness. This is in contradistinction to the student that moves to college, experiences some initial loneliness, but then quickly establishes a new set of friends and builds a new social network. Lonely individuals internal characteristics is probably building most of the barriers that prevent successful relationships being formed in this example.
So, if you've been experiencing loneliness for a long time there are two major questions you need to ask yourself:
1. What are you doing that contributes to your feelings of loneliness? Yes, I agree, not everything about your loneliness comes from you, some of it comes from external influences. Assuming for a minute you couldn't change the external influences, the only thing you have control over is yourself and changing yourself. It would be prudent to start there to see how far along you can get with some positive changes. What changes do you need to make? It really depends on you. Remember a lot of what is internal to you that contribute to your loneliness is probably outside of your own awareness. Maybe you have some automatic thoughts that cause you to push people way, or maybe you behave in certain ways that push people away. To really help figure out what these things might be requires an objective, qualified, third party (probably a seasoned, insightful therapist) that can see what you do and then give you some ideas.
2. The real kicker is, once you have accepted your own contributions to your loneliness, found out what they are, are you really interested and motivated to change? It is not just enough to know, it also requires action as well. I have seen folks understand the leap that was required from where they are, to where they need to be in order to become less lonely and faltered. Because change is scary, it requires a certain amount of emotional energy and persistence, and if the motivation is not strong enough, you may be unwilling to commit.
To me overcoming trait loneliness is a bit like trying to lose weight. First, you need to understand how you gain weight in the first place. Sure, there are a number of external factors that contribute to being overweight, like the multitude of unhealthy foods available (a McDonalds on every corner), the ridiculous portion sizes in American restaurants, excessive advertising, etc. These things we have no control over and blaming them does not help the overweight problem. But we can focus on the internal factors, watch what we eat, exercise, eat healthier foods, use correct portion sizes, etc. If we focus on these, we can make a difference. The other question is, are we willing to give up what we currently do, move from our comfort zone to a place that is not comfortable (dieting) to get to our goal? For some they answer may be yes, but for others, it may be no. I think the important thing is acknowledge that we are, partly making a conscious decision to either change or remain the same. You are not powerless, there is a choice.
My ending thought is this, to have a good friend, you need to be a good friend. It is not just about finding someone to satisfy your needs, expectations, and desires, it is also about changing yourself so that you satisfy others needs, expectations, and desires.
I have had a few conversations with some folks recently who mentioned that generally speaking they are okay, but there is this underlying feeling of loneliness. Generally these feelings of loneliness become more prominent when they are under stress or have been hurt, or other such similar situations. Outside of those times, loneliness in effect became background noise, it is always playing in the background, but they do not always pay attention to it. When they do pay attention to it, it is because a situation has triggered an even greater degree of loneliness that forced them to pay attention to it. They have what I call functional loneliness - it is functional because most of the time they can carry on with their day without feeling crippled by feelings of loneliness. However, there are those occasions where loneliness gets the better of them and shuts them down. So how does functional loneliness come about, why do certain situations trigger it, and is it okay to just continue living life with functional loneliness?
Functional Loneliness - What is it?
I believe that functional loneliness occurs for individuals who have found somewhat effective ways to cope with their loneliness. Unlike individuals that may have overwhelming feelings of loneliness, people with functional loneliness are able to successfully suppress their feelings without having to deal with it directly. Usually it is because they are so busy doing other things that there is little time to have these feelings bubble to the surface. They are almost forced to suppress these feelings in order to do their job, take care of their families, or other such things. It is like a drowning person desperately trying to keep her head above water, it is a sink or swim situation. Functional loneliness folks have learned to do some amount of swimming and keep their heads above water whereas other folks just get drowned by their feelings of loneliness. The fact of the matter is that in both situations, the underlying root causing feelings of loneliness is still not being addressed. The cause is that they are not getting the kind of intimacy that they need in their life. The social interaction, the friendships, the disclosure, the feeling of connection and belonging is simply not enough. While they can ignore it with distractions, they cannot get rid of it that way. It will always be there waiting to remind them that their lives are not complete.
When functional loneliness becomes dysfunctional
It is no surprise then that certain situations would trigger these overwhelming feelings of loneliness that would shut them down. These situations demand the support, intimacy, and connection of others, something that was never fully satisfied in the first place. For example, when we experience an embarrassing moment, or someone hurt our feelings, or we feel overwhelmed with the work that we have to do, it helps to have someone to talk to. Even better, it really helps to talk with someone we are close to. However, when that person is not around or does not exist, then feelings of loneliness crop up, and for those with functional loneliness, it becomes very difficult to continue to ignore that background noise of loneliness. That noise has become a lot louder and a lot more distracting. Even ironically, it may be affecting their behavior and they don't even realize it. Someones we feel too stressed, or tired or just have no energy or simply feel lost. Underlying these feelings may really be feelings of loneliness, hiding in the shadows behind these other feelings. We become so good at ignoring the noise of loneliness that even when it distracts us to the point we become dysfunctional, we still do not recognize the noise. So our life may become a series of functional and dysfunctional periods marred by our ever constant loneliness.
Living with functional loneliness?
The other question to ask ourselves is, is it okay to continue living life with functional loneliness, with our ups and downs. The answer really depends on the person. Change usually happens when one has enough motivation to make it happen. That whole cycle may not be enough to motivate us to do something about it. However, living with functional loneliness is living a life incomplete. It involves being able to start trusting others and open up our lives to them. Others cannot be sources of comfort, support, and connection if we do not let them into our lives, let them know what is going on, and ask for help. It involves taking a risk and moving outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes we get so used to a bad habit that we forget it is a bad habit and how much of a detrimental effect it has on our lives. And habits are hard to change, but if you are willing to make the effort, you can make that background loneliness noise go away, or at least become a very quiet whisper that you can deal with, even in the tough times.
One of the interesting characteristics of some members on the Web of Loneliness (WOL) online support group is the fact that they are online gamers. I've often mused over the question about whether online gaming helps alleviate loneliness or increases it. To me, it seems like if you are in an online game where you need to connect and collaborate with others, it would naturally lend itself to creating relationships and reducing loneliness. In fact, the online world could become so powerful that people neglect their lives in the real world. For example, there have been multiple stories of parents neglecting their children to play online games (see examples here, here, and here). That leads to the question, if online gaming is so immersive and capable of connecting people together, why were there members popping up in the support group who were lonely.
A study recently published by Visser, Antheunis, and Schouten sort to look at how playing the online game, The World of Warcraft (WoW) affected players social competence and loneliness. Some of the major findings included that there were no direct effects between playing the game and a person's level of social competence or loneliness. That means that just because you play the online game, WoW, it doesn't automatically mean you tend to be more lonely or less socially competent (or vice-versa). The study also showed that the amount of time a person spends playing the game is also not related to loneliness or social competence. What they did find however, is that if you had a variety of communication partners in the game, a person is less likely to be lonely. In addition, if you tended to experiment with your identity more, you tended to be lonelier as well. The question becomes, why do less lonely players having more communication partners and experiment with their online identity less.
Some insight into this question comes from one of the members on the WOL support group. He thought that online games in which you get to shape your environment, so-called sandbox games, had a better chance of reducing loneliness than your basic run-of-the-mill action packed, violent games, such as WoW.
To me, there seems to be two distinct threads running through the findings of the study and the comments by the WOL member. One thread is the idea of authenticity. Online games give you the opportunity to pretend to be someone else, someone who is not you, to wear a mask, and hide your true self. Very much in real life, we do wear masks and hide our true selves from others for a variety of different reasons. One of the biggest ones is probably because we are afraid we will be rejected if we show our true selves to others. The problem with mask-wearing is that you can never truly connect with others, whether it be face-to-face, or online. You cannot share the deeper, more intimate aspects of your life with others and without that connection, the relationship will remain shallow and meaningless. This thread of authenticity is connected to the finding of identity experimentation, where the real self may be hidden behind a variety of experimental identities. Similarly sandbox games allows for a much more complex, rich, and revealing manifestation of one's self. It allows a person to really express who they are in a variety of ways beyond just the typical avatar in online gaming. Imagine creating a world that is a reflection of you and then having others interact with it. That is certainly a powerful tool of communication.
The second thread is the idea that online gaming does not magically make things different. If a person is lonely offline, when he/she goes online, the difficulty of connecting with others still remains. It's no surprise that less lonely folks have an easier time having a wider variety of communication partners online, because they already have the skill set to do so. They already know how to initiate conversations, how to build collaborations, how to resolve conflict, how to ask probing questions, etc. But for lonely folk lacking that skill set, getting immersed in an online world won't make a difference. I think this fact is reflective in other areas online as well. I've heard many lonely folk say that online dating sites simply do not work. Perhaps that is true, but if you had difficulty dating offline, you are going to have difficulty dating online as well. Nothing changes except the means of communication. If you are, for example, a jealous person, it will become manifest in either medium.
Online gaming can certainly be a powerful tool for helping people connect with one another. However, if you are a lonely person, being able to use that tool to connect with others may still prove to be difficult.