My friend, let's call him Jeffrey, told me the other day that he thinks that the reason people are lonely is simply because they are selfish. Naturally I was a little taken aback when he first made that statement but I asked him to explain further. He said that if you really think about it, lonely people seemed to be wrapped up in themselves a lot. They are, for example, ever wrapped up with the thought about why people don't like them. I have heard lonely people say that they think they have special interests that other people don't, or that other people are very judgmental. Jeffrey continued his thought: have lonely people ever thought that perhaps to have a friend, or partner, or spouse, you first have to be a friend/partner/spouse first? If you're constantly focused on your needs all the time then clearly people are going to get tired of you and leave.
Sometimes I believe that it is difficult for lonely folks to establish friendships. Sometimes there are social anxiety issues and it is really difficult to meet someone because of the fear of rejection, the fear of putting yourself out there and being turned down. Sometimes people have trust issues, having been betrayed in the past, they are more careful about trusting others and being open. To some degree, painful past experiences limit lonely people's ability to form new friendships.
"Fair enough," said Jeffrey, "but social anxiety or trust issues still revolve around the issue of selfishness. Because they are so focused on their own emotional stability and avoiding rejection and betrayal, they inevitably lock themselves into their own loneliness. Their selfish self-focus leads to their own imposed isolation."
Wow, that's pretty hash I thought, but certainly there is some truth to it. If we get too wrapped up in ourselves, it could inevitably lead to loneliness. It reminded me of this article based on a study that found those who over-value happiness put too much focus on themselves and in the end damage their relationships and their sense of well-being. Maybe by focusing on others and by trying to be a good friend first, we might have a better chance of forming a relationship.
But there are cases when some lonely folks try to be too good of a friend, they sacrifice their own needs and wants in order to try to build the relationship. I have also seen lonely folks who have a martyr complex, and they will do anything and everything for others at the expense of themselves. In the end, these relationships turn out to be one-sided and drain the lifeforce of the poor folks trying to be a good friend.
"Doesn't that poke a hole in your theory?" I asked Jeffrey, "here are folks being selfless and still ending up lonely."
Jeffrey thought about it a bit and incredulously he said, no, those folks as just as selfish. I was flabbergasted.
"How could they be just as lonely?" I asked.
"Well," Jeffrey said, "those folks are only nice to others because they think that if they are nice then the other person will be friends with them." But you just said that up above, I thought, to have a friend you have a be a friend. Jeffrey explained further that it was about being a friend, not about being likable. Everybody likes someone who is focused on them. But that's not necessarily being a friend. Being a friend means that you create a reciprocal relationship, you support your friend as much as your friend supports you, it's a two way street. The minute you make it a one-way street, you either become too demanding or don't also seek support, it becomes less about the other person and becomes all about you. Lonely folks with a martyr complex, deciding to provide all the support and not ask for any, are simply selfish individuals trying to force others into a friendship.
These are harsh words from Jeffrey. What do you think, are lonely folks really selfish?
Disclaimer Notice: This blog goes into some detail about the movie, Ruby Sparks. If you haven't seen the movie yet and would like to, I suggest watching the movie first and then reading the blog.
Ruby Sparks is about a young author named Calvin Weir-Fields. In his teenage years, he published a very successful novel and since that time has apparently made his living from the royalties and speaking engagements associated with the book. Calvin though, is very lonely. In the movie it doesn't seem as if he has any friends, except for his brother, Harry. As with any successful author, Calvin is being pressured to publish a new novel and unfortunately finds himself stuck with knowing exactly what to write.
One day he had a dream about a girl named Ruby. The dream became so vivid that he decided to write his new book about it. In Calvin's mind it was more like documenting something that happened rather than creatively writing about something. Ruby was the perfect girl for him, there was an instant and deep connection that broke his loneliness and brought fulfillment into his life.
One day, Ruby comes to life. She is in his house, making breakfast, and behaves like a continuation of Calvin's story. At first, Calvin thinks he is crazy, but when he realizes that everyone else can see Ruby too, he realizes that something magical has happened. He is also aware that Ruby is a creation of his writing. In fact, he could change who Ruby is, simply by continuing his manuscript with whatever he desired. So for example, he could make Ruby talk French by simply typing in the manuscript that Ruby talks French. He decides though to hide the truth about who Ruby is from her.
The premise of the movie is great. How many lonely folks would not like the same magical event to happen to them? Simply conjure up what you think your perfect mate is and bam, there the person is. There is no effort required to go find this person, and this person is specifically designed to be what we think is perfect. In fact, for a while in the movie, Calvin locks the manuscript away, believing Ruby is perfect and nothing else needs to be written. The trouble is though, what we think is perfect for us, may not necessarily be so. Eventually Ruby decides she wants to leave Calvin. The perfect woman, constructed through Calvin's mind, somehow decides she wants to leave him. The reason she wants to leave Calvin though, is because of the way Calvin is. While Ruby was ready and willing to engage in a relationship, after a while it was clear that Calvin was not.
The movie very beautifully demonstrates the simple principle that no one can rescue you. A person cannot come along and magically pull you out of your depression or loneliness forever. No one can cure you. If a relationship is going to happen, it is going to happen because you made yourself ready for it - because you made yourself lovable. Not even the most perfect person you can conjure up can rescue you. Eventually they will give up like Ruby did.
Everything that happened after that in the movie was a painful demonstration of that simple truth. Calvin decided to take the manuscript back out and to make some changes to Ruby. At first, he made her need him a lot. Ruby changed and became excessively clingy. And while that worked for a while, eventually Ruby was not happy again and Calvin could not deal with her excessive neediness. No matter how he changed Ruby, the relationship still didn't work. Calvin was under the false impression that the reason the relationship kept failing was that he did not make Ruby perfect enough. It was the other person that needed to change, not himself. How many times have we cycled through relationships because we always blamed the other person for the relationship failing and never accepted any responsibility ourselves?
Towards the end of the movie, Calvin decides to reveal to Ruby that she is in fact, just a creation of his mind. There is a heated argument and a powerful demonstration that Ruby was simply a mirror of Calvin. Ruby thought, said, and behaved in whatever way Calvin specified as he typed in the manuscript. In the end, Ruby was a mirror of Calvin, his hopes, fears, and desires, all the things he refused to face. And when he was forced to face it, he realized that it was he that needed to change, not Ruby. It is easy for us to demand from others, to try to change people, to try to get people to like us. But it is harder to look inside ourselves, demand from ourselves, change ourselves, and to get us to love ourselves.
The Rubys of the world are not going to fix us, to magically cure us. The Rubys of the world can only stand like a mirror and show us our own inadequacies, needs, and desires.
Many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around why anyone would walk into a theater and start shooting people, including children. So far the authorities have not given or found any motive behind the actions of the Colorado shooter who killed 12 people and injured another 50+ people in a movie theater. His actions echo similar similar actions by other persons, most notably the Columbine shootings and the Virginia Tech shootings. At least one article
has already suggested that the common thread behind all of these killers is loneliness.
Nothing can excuse these killers for the actions they took against innocent people. But how could feeling lonely generate such vicious actions? No one can understand the pain of loneliness unless you have been there yourself, feeling it like a constant shadow against your back, day in and day out. Being a lone mass killer is an extreme, atypical reaction to loneliness, but loneliness has driven people to do many a strange thing. Another story that was recently in the news
talks about a woman that keep a dead body for two years because she did not want to be alone. But what about ordinary folks? Would ordinary folks to outlandish things to fit in and feel accepted? Social psychologists have done a number of experiments to show just how far people will go to fit in and obey authority. One of these experiments was done by Stanley Milgram, who showed that individuals would be willing to deliver painful shocks to other people when instructed to do so:
In another popular experiment, it showed that individuals in a public place would display apathy and often refused to help someone who was in distress, rather than helping. Here is a video showing an example of people just passing by when someone was in need of help:
It is not just simply the fact that loneliness and the need to fit in, the need to belong, can drive us to behave in very destructive ways, but also the fact that loneliness can have drastic effects on our health. For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said that loneliness is as bad for health as obesity or smoking
. In the UK, there have been calls for loneliness to be treated as a major health issue
in the elderly, with 5 out of 14 million elderly saying that television is their only source of company.
The fact of the matter is that loneliness can have a profound effect upon us and sadly many of us do not realize or acknowledge this fact. Loneliness is often not treated as a serious issue that can have serious consequences on our behaviors and our health. There are not very many organizations focused exclusively on loneliness, compared to other organizations dedicated towards addressing social issues such as hunger, obesity, or smoking. I am sure the average person does not think of loneliness in the same drastic context as hunger. And yet, if you take the time to look, you will see that loneliness is making as much of an impact as hunger or any other major, popular issue right now.
The fact of the matter is that loneliness is a response to a basic need of every human being, arguably in much the same way as our need to eat, sleep, or breathe. Baumeister and Leary
have argued that the need to belong is a basic, fundamental human need, in much the same way as any other basic, human need we have. And what happens when we cannot fulfill our need to belong? The same thing that happens when we have a need to eat but no food is available. We feel hungry, but in this case, we call this hunger, loneliness. Loneliness is response to our social need, it is our bodies telling us that we are not getting the social interaction, the sense of belongingness that we require. And just like hunger, if it continually goes unfulfilled, it has negative consequences on our health. To some degree, hunger is easier to fulfill than loneliness, all we need to do is provide food. But for many of us, being able to build a sense of connection is difficult, very difficult. It is almost as if we have not developed the ability to feed ourselves and thus have trouble getting that sense of connection. We can also very easily see someone who is starving and in need of food, but it is a lot harder to spot someone who is lonely.
Until society acknowledges that loneliness is as much of a social issue as other basic needs such as food and shelter, we will have problems stemming from loneliness continuing to persist in our society. And it is a growing problem, not just in the elderly, but across all age groups as well. A recent study in Norway
suggest that 40% youth ages 18-29 feel lonely "often" or "quite often." And another study in Australia
show that at least 30% of Australians feel lonely, up from 10% ten years ago.
I, for one, will not stand by and wait for another tragedy to happen, wait for someone else to come to the rescue for those who feel lonely and isolated, for those who are longing for connection and cannot find one. I have hosted the Web of Loneliness for over 10 years. I am now moving onwards and upwards to establishing the Web of Loneliness Institute to find ways to raise awareness, and help the lonely. If you are willing to follow me on this journey, contact me
, I'd be happy to have you along!
It is undeniable that during the past five years or so, there has been uncharacteristically high levels of unemployment across the globe. Unemployment has certainly had a wide variety of consequences on those unwilling victims. One of those consequences seems to be increased levels of loneliness. There might be a number of reasons why unemployment increases loneliness. One reason is that it reduces the number of social contacts a person has. Employment usually requires much more interaction with others: coworkers, clients, customers, supervisors, etc. When one becomes unemployed that entire social world goes away. A person is less likely to interact with ex-coworkers and others associated with the job. Another reason unemployment might increase feelings of loneliness has to do with income. Without a regular source of income that was there with employment, it is harder to participate in activities with others (such as go to dinner, see a movie, etc.) since a lot of those activities require having money to spend.
Unemployment though, represents one of many transitions that a person might go through in their lives. It is a difficult transition because, not only does it reduce our social circle and our ability to socialize, but it carries with it a certain negative stigma, and also a lot of worry and concern about living and the future. There can be other difficult transitions as well, such as losing a spouse, moving to a new place, or becoming disabled that may have similar effects as well. Each transition requires that one learns to cope with a new set of circumstances that was not there before. For some people, it is a matter of tackling the problem head-on and being able to solve the problem positively. So with unemployment, some people are able to pick up the pieces and reconstruct their social world so that they can effectively reduce their feelings of loneliness. But for other people, the transition proves difficult to overcome, and despite their best efforts, the loneliness that came with the transition lingers and never goes away.
It is my thinking that some people have always been lonely, but perhaps were not acutely aware of it because circumstances in their lives made it tolerable. There was sufficient "noise" in the background, so that feelings of loneliness could be packed away and ignored. Work, I believe, is one of those powerful background noises that can almost drown out feelings of loneliness. Sure there maybe moments of quiet despair, but they are quickly forgotten with the insanity of work. However, once you remove the background noise through a transition, all that is left is the throbbing, painful cries of loneliness. Unemployment is one of those transitions that makes it incredibly difficult to fill up our lives again with background noise to drown out that loneliness.
As some of the recently unemployed have found out, it is difficult to make the loneliness go away once it has reared it ugly head. The shrinking social circle and lack of money does not help either. Perhaps unemployment can be a time to dig deeper into the loneliness and where it comes from, perhaps it is a time to reinvent yourself. To some degree, persistent loneliness has some origins within a person. Circumstances and transitions can bring out or amplify the feelings of persistent loneliness, but it was present all the time and probably due to personal characteristics. Transitions give us the unique opportunity to ask the question, "what is it about me that causes these feelings of loneliness to appear and persist over time?" Certainly circumstances add to the feelings, but we all make contributions to the circumstances that we live in and the effects of those circumstances. A greater, and deeper understanding of ourselves and the courage to embrace change can not only help reduce our feelings of loneliness but perhaps also change our circumstances as well.
One of the big surprises that happened when I conducted a loneliness intervention program was that lonely people weren’t just your shy, withdrawn, wallflower type, but that lonely people can also be quite outgoing, extroverted, and friendly. Usually the shy, introverted ones feel like the outgoing, extroverted ones would never had felt lonely, when in fact they do experience a great deal of loneliness. What I hear most often is that while your extroverted lonely folks are really good at establishing relationships (“I have no problem meeting new people” for example), they have problems keeping relationships going. At some point they feel like they are the ones doing all of the heavy-lifting in the relationships – they are the ones that have to make all of the phone calls, initiate contact, send that first email, text message, etc. The underlying thought is that if they do not make the effort the relationship will eventually collapse. This thought probably reflects the belief (probably erroneous) that people are not as interested in them as they think they are.
So, what’s going on here?
Sometimes we do things in our relationships that we aren’t even aware that we are doing that are affecting the relationship. One of the those things is TRYING TOO HARD to make a relationship work. So, while you may feel like you’re the one that is initiating all of the contact, the fact of the matter may be that you’re not giving the other person enough time to initiate contact as well cause you keep doing it first. I often tell these lonely folks, you need to step back and not try so hard. One of the first reactions is, if I step back and not try as hard, the relationship will fall down. My response is, if it falls down then it was not really a relationship to begin with, it was a one-sided interaction. But if you really have a relationship with the other person, they will eventually reach out to you or initiate contact. Giving someone breathing room to decide when the next interaction should be fosters growth of the relationship and the other person does not end up feeling stifled.
The next time you in a relationship and feel like you're the one doing all of the heavy-lifting, take a break, step back, and allow the other person to interact with you. It's a great test to see just how interested the other person is and also a way of giving them the space they need to contribute to the relationship.
To provide some background to this blog post before beginning my response. In May 2011, I self-published my first ever book on loneliness entitled, The Lonely Screams: Understanding the Complex World of the Lonely. The book contains a compilation of 18 autobiographical stories of loneliness collected from visitors to the Web of Loneliness. In addition, it contained some of my thoughts concerning each of those stories. Later that year I had submitted a review copy to PsychCentral, in the hopes of getting both some more publicity about the book and some constructive feedback about how to improve the book or for future books. PsychCentral and the Web of Loneliness have a long, collaborative history, as PsychCentral lists the Web of Loneliness as a top-rated website (http://psychcentral.com/resources/Relationships/
) and even ran a blog post about me and my activities with the website in 2010 (http://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2010/12/loneliness-support-with-sean-seepersad/
). Much to my dismay, I did not hear back from PsychCentral and just assumed that they were either too busy or not interested in reviewing the book. However, just recently I discovered that PsychCentral had done a review and it was a very negative review. This blog post is a response to that review in the hopes of correcting what are some apparent misconceptions about me and about the book.
First off, let me start by saying that I am under no illusion that I had written a New York Times bestseller or a masterful literary piece. As I said, I fully expected PsychCentral to provide some constructive feedback about the book and suggestions about how it can be improved. What really disappointed me was PsychCentral’s Recommendation that the book is “Not Worth Your Time.” I find that recommendation to be, quite frankly, insulting. And it is not that it is insulting to me personally, but more than half of the book consists of contributions by visitors to the Web of Loneliness, visitors who took the time, the emotional energy, and the courage to write down their life stories in the hopes that it can serve as a source of strength and support to others who suffer from loneliness. To say that the book is “Not Worth Your Time” essentially sends a very loud and clear message that those 18 individuals stories are not worth anyone’s time. That is one of my huge disappointments about PsychCentral’s recommendation – the belittling of the stories of these courageous people.
Second, I wanted to say quite emphatically that I am not a clinical psychologist. The reviewer of the book wrongly labeled me as a clinical psychologist although nowhere in the book or anywhere else for that matter where I have contributed, have I said that I am a clinical psychologist or even therapist. Anyone who has asked me for advice or guidance would usually hear me say that one of the best things you could do is to go and see a therapist and that I am not one. I correct people who mistakenly think I am one because I do not want to give the wrong impression of myself or my training. That fact in the review is plain wrong and PsychCentral should, for the very least, correct that error in the review.
One of the things that struck me about this review is what appears to be the underlying assumption that the reviewer is apparently basing her analysis. Although it was not said explicitly, the assumption appears to be that this book is a self-help book designed to help lonely individuals, through a series of revelations or practical steps reduce their feelings of loneliness. For example, the reviewer uses the word, “solutions” and that I am giving “advice.” Anyone who has interviewed me will have heard me say that I think that self-help books are a waste of time trying to help chronically lonely people feel less lonely. If chronically lonely people could read a book and feel less lonely, they would have done it a long time ago. The fact of the matter is that real, meaningful change is going to require a much more deliberate, therapeutic effort. So while my “solutions” and “advice” may seem superficial because in the self-help framework they would be, these were much more my musings and thoughts about loneliness. They are meant to be a starting point for discussion, hence the format of the book offering links to continue the conversations online. They are not meant as a step-by-step guide for effectively reducing your loneliness because I know that is a futile effort to try to do through a book.
Another critique in the review was that the book was not focused enough on loneliness. The reviewer stated that contributors of some of the stories seemed to be exhibiting “profound clinical depression” and “suicidality”. I think the reviewer is even suggesting that I had chosen the wrong stories because apparently some of them were about things than other than loneliness. All of these stories were from people who self-identified as lonely, and might I infer, for whom loneliness is a core, central problem in their life. It is not just that loneliness and depression are “sorrowful bedfellows” but rather that loneliness is a core problem out from which flows these other clinical issues. Often the mental health field has not paid enough attention to the impact of loneliness as a causal, central problem, which if addressed can has a cascading effect on these others issues as well. Check out Emily White’s book, Lonely – A Memoir for a detailed discussion, or just check out my dissertation and see the effect reducing loneliness can have on other clinical issues.
Even if loneliness is a central issue, why not just focus on that in the stories and cut out the other “stuff?” The reason is that there have been ample books in the past that have done exactly that, dissected the issue of loneliness, cutting up people’s stories of loneliness, and distilling the problem of loneliness in an isolated vacuum. For me, something is lost in this process, a holistic picture of who that person is, where they come from, what they had to endure, what they are thinking and feeling, the whole messy picture that is that person’s life. I deliberately chose to include almost word-for-word autobiographical stories because I wanted readers to really enter into a lonely person’s world. That, to me, is the complexity of the lonely, and addressing it through a variety of different lenses is important to get a whole picture. If you want to call that a lack of focus, so be it, but to me, I call it seeing the whole picture.
Coming back to the issue of the reviewer’s comments that my commentary was “shallow” and that my advice “glib.” The reviewer thought I could have spent more time analyzing each person’s story and commenting on the exact origins of each contributor’s loneliness. In my preface, I discussed that my commentary is nothing more than an educated guess. I have no way of knowing for certain if I am necessarily interpreting these stories correctly. My analyses were based off of one story from each person. I am sure that any clinical psychologist or therapist will tell you that one story is hardly enough to make any sound basis of diagnosis or to do any more than speculate about what is going on with that person. It would have been futile for me to start constructing elaborate cause-and-effect models about what is going on in a person’s life based off of a story. Again, that was not the point. The point was to inspire introspection and discussion. At some point people want the story to be relatable to them, and that is where I was trying to take it in my commentary, not necessarily to answer the contributor’s questions. I’m not even sure some of the contributors will ever read the book because they gave me their story years ago, and the emails I have for them are no longer valid. So I am speaking to the current readers and trying to connect with them through the story of someone else. Getting down to the nitty-gritty of someone’s life and making elaborate assumptions about them seemed like a waste of time to me.
The reviewer also suggested that some of my thoughts about the origins were “often” contradictory. The word “often” was qualified with one, very shaky example given between two chapters. I cannot be sure exactly which two stories the reviewer was talking about, since she failed to mention the chapter names or numbers but I am assuming they were about Louise (Chapter 5) and Justin (Chapter 12). She said I “wondered” why Louise sought relationships even though she was afraid of intimacy and then I talked about the basic human need to belong with Justin. First off, the “wondering” was asking a question the reader might have been asking himself/herself. I went on to answer the “wondering” with a discussion about trust issues and how having a sense of mistrust can be a barrier to forming relationships a person may be longing for (because, you might say, of their basic need to belong). How these two thoughts are contradictory, is beyond me.
The reviewer concludes that in the end, it felt little more than reading a public website. Well, in the preface I said this book is an extension to the Web of Loneliness, a chance to voice some stories of loneliness and to put some thoughts down I usually cannot do on the website. And it is also a chance to do a bit of fundraising. See, every single penny of royalty I have received from the sale of this book has been reinvested back into the Web of Loneliness. I have been running the website (for a decade) mostly through my own financial resources. I thought this might be a good idea to raise some money for the Web of Loneliness and bring the issue of loneliness to a larger audience.
While I can accept critical feedback as an author, I think the "not worth your time" comment only reinforces the notion that lonely people are somehow victims of their own actions and could simply choose to engage if they so wished. Nothing can be farther from the truth and all the people I wrote about are bright and intelligent people, often with excellent social skills, who, none the less, have difficulty forming and maintaining intimate connections. While my writing skills may, indeed, be less than stellar, this topic deserves a deeper understanding and examination and PsychCentral's review does nothing to move this problem forward.
When you hear the stories of the lonely, especially those that have been experiencing loneliness for a long period of time, one thing stands out quite clearly: There is usually no readily available one shot answer to helping them get out of loneliness. Of course, if you ask lonely folks what's the way out of loneliness, I'm sure at least 80% of them would say, finding a romantic partner. That is what most people seem to need, one person who will love and care for them the way no one is currently doing and arguably has done in their past. And sure enough, if a romantic partner came along, loneliness certainly does seem to vanish like a bad dream one is waking out of. Loneliness researcher, Robert Weiss, said that romantic relationships seems to be like an "anti-loneliness pill" providing immediate relief from the painful condition of loneliness. If we are lucky, the romantic relationship serves its purpose and we are forever cured of our loneliness, but I suspect for most of us, loneliness creeps back up into our existence once the euphoria of falling in love dies down.
I believe that the real, initial cure for loneliness, lies not in romantic relationships or friendships, but in our ability to be vulnerable. When we are born into the world, we are taught through a series of interactions whether the world is a safe place or not and whether others can be trusted. So, when we are babies and we cry because we are hungry , or hurt, or sad, does someone come and help alleviate our need? Or, are we left to fend for ourselves, at least until the parent or other caregiver has no choice but to come to our aid. Over time we learn the degree to which we can rely on and trust others. Some of us are lucky enough to have very nurturing and loving parents in our lives that give us a feeling of trust in others - we can expect in our hour of need someone we love will be there to comfort us. If we are not so lucky, we develop a sense of mistrust in others - in our hour of need, we have to do what we can for ourselves, no one else can be trusted or relied upon for help. Mistrust in others usually manifests itself in two ways, either we completely reject others and totally fend for ourselves or we demand help from others in a very possessive, jealous, dominating manner.
So what does this have to do with vulnerability? Well, essentially our life experiences teach us how much we have to guard the vulnerable parts of us. The vulnerable parts of us, psychologically speaking, is the emotional parts of us. Emotions reveal our weaknesses by showing others what is important to us. Sometimes our life experiences teach us that others cannot be trusted, in the sense that one day others will eventually hurt us. Sometimes our life experiences teach us that others are trustworthy and while they might hurt us, they genuinely have our best interest at heart. When we do not trust others, we form a defense barrier around ourselves, a way to protect us from outsiders, and to keep our vulnerable emotions hidden and locked away. The barrier eventually becomes so strong that even if we tried to remove it, it becomes difficult to do so. Someone who is very distrusting of others would become extremely anxious and fearful at the thought of removing their barriers. It is not a simple thing to remove.
The problem with our defense barrier is that it is the antithesis of forming a true and meaningful relationship. When you hide your vulnerable emotions on the inside, people cannot connect with you, and you cannot connect with others. You could have tons and tons of friendships or romantic relationships but at the end of the day they all feel superficial because you have still locked away the most vulnerable parts of you. So, you could certainly fall in love, and display a ton of emotions, but still have hidden away, your deepest secrets, desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. Eventually these relationships collapse because they cannot move forward.
The solution is not, of course, to be vulnerable to everyone, everywhere. We have to be discerning about who we choose to be vulnerable to. But we have to grow the ability to become vulnerable, and to become vulnerable despite experiencing numerous rejections. Those individuals with successful, deep, meaningful friendships have not avoided hurt altogether. No, rather they have learned to pick themselves up after getting hurt and being strong enough to be open and vulnerable to hurt again. That's an amazing thing to do, something I argue not many people can do. But if you learn to do it, you will have found your cure for loneliness.
I have been over the past year bookmarking a long list of links that are in some way related to loneliness. You can find the exhaustive list here: http://www.diigo.com/list/sseepersad/loneliness-news-and-resources
. Since it is the end of the year and everyone is looking back at the year and seeing what has happened, I thought it would be great to do a blog on some of the interesting trends that I noticed over the past year. This selection is by no means exhaustive, but reflect some things that struck out to me as interesting:1. The Evils of Facebook:
Not surprisingly, a lot of articles, blogs, and discussions revolved around relationships and the Internet. The biggest of these is about Facebook. One of them that gained a lot of traction early in the year was an article put out by Slate magazine: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/01/the_antisocial_network.html
. The article highlighted the fact that Facebook may be making some people depressed and sad. It even spawned a whole trend on twitter with the hashtag #sadbook. Basically tweets highlighted some of the pathetic things that people do on Facebook. Check out this article for a couple of examples: http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2011/01/does_facebook_make_you_sad_joi.html
Beside the whole #sadbook twitter trend, there have been numerous other studies looking at the negative effects of Facebook, including, for example this study published by Mashable (http://mashable.com/2011/03/30/women-facebook-survey/
) which found that 84% of respondents who were mostly women, were annoyed at one time or another by the posts from their Facebook connections. Or another study here: http://www.newser.com/story/109676/20-of-your-facebook-friends-are-strangers.html
which reports that only 20% of your "friends" are actually
your friends. There are many other examples, but they all illustrative the growing destructive/isolating nature of Facebook.
Plus there have a ton of infographics all around Facebook, who uses it, and how it is used. Here is one by Mashable, which looks at Facebook and its effect on relationships: http://mashable.com/2011/05/31/facebook-relationships/
. Here is another one that is a compilation of a variety of infographics: http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/21610/14-Fantastic-New-Facebook-Infographics-in-2011.aspx 2. Online dating:
There were many, many articles that talked about how to do online dating, how successful online dating is, and the effect of online dating. I won't bother to list those as I'm sure a simple Google search will easily spit out hundreds of articles for you. This year, The New Yorker did a good job tracing the historical development of dating websites: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/07/04/110704fa_fact_paumgarten?currentPage=all
I did want to highlight a couple ones that aren't your typical, run-of-the-mill online dating advice articles. The first one was done by OkCupid, which used data from their dating website to generate some interesting pieces of information, which they called OkTrends. This one, for example, highlights 4 big myths about profile pictures: http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/the-4-big-myths-of-profile-pictures/
. I like their blogs because it uses a lot of data to actually show what works and doesn't work on their dating site, and as they found out, some of what we assume to be true is often not. The other one was an article that interviewed AshleyMadison's website CEO, Noel Biderman - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jill-brooke/ashleymadisons-ceo-thinks_b_828012.html
. The Ashley Madison website is a site where married people can hook up and have an affair with other married people. They have had some steamy ads on the TV in the past. What's interesting about this article is that he suggests that his website actually saves marriages. Read it and see if you agree with his logic.
Then there are a lot of new dating websites that try to approach online dating from new and interesting angles. For example here is one that matches you with people who look just like you: http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/03/08/want-to-date-your-doppelganger-theres-a-site-for-that/
. Here is another dating website for people who can't or don't want to have sexual intercourse: http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/18/dating-site-for-people-who-cant-have-sex-takes-off/ 3. Growing non-marriage trend:
There were a number of articles talking about the growing trend of unmarried, live-in couples. Here's a good synopsis provided by the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/23/number-of-unmarried-livei_n_736828.html
. There is the statistical side of the story, which looks at the demographic numbers and how they are changing in modern times. But there are also a number of articles that are talking about people's frustration with the whole dating and relationship scene. Here are a couple examples: The biggest one recently is an article that came out recently in The Atlantic that talks about choosing to remain single: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/8654/?single_page=true
. She talks about the gradual progress, through a series of life events that have led to her the conclusion that it might make sense to remain single instead of blindly pursuing a relationship because it is expected by society. Here is another article that talks about the troubles with dating and proposes that we "undate" instead: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kira-sabin/over-dating-join-the-unda_b_810436.html
. Alternatively, an article focusing on the perspective from men, look at how young men have the upper hand in the sexual economy, because of the increased availability of casual sex partners and pornography - http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/18/men-have-upper-hand-in-sexual-economy/?npt=NP1&on.cnn=1
. For women, the article argues, the available pool of high-quality, marriageable men is decreasing.4. Changing gender roles:
I also came across a number of articles that tried to dispel long held myths of what we think men and women want in relationships. This article by USA Today (http://yourlife.usatoday.com/sex-relationships/dating/story/2011/02/Men-women-flip-the-script-in-gender-expectation/43219110/1?csp=34news&utm_source=twitterfeed
) shows research findings that demonstrate that men are more interested in love, marriage, and children earlier, and women want more independence in their relationships than their mothers. The article discusses how men are quicker to fall in love and more likely than women to want children. Other articles express similar ideas, such as this one in MSNBC (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/43517490/ns/today-relationships#.TvKyuNRSSOI
) which says that men are quicker to say "I love you" than women and this one in CNN ( http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/04/28/men.give.love.advice/index.html
) which talks about a support website for men who are "ready and willing" to talk about love. It would be interesting to see in 2012, what are some reasons driving these changes in gender roles.5. The effect of pornography:
There have also been a large number of articles talking about the effects of pornography on relationships and men, in particular. This article for example ( http://healthland.time.com/2011/02/09/do-men-really-bond-with-porn-spoiling-them-for-real-life-sex/
) talks about how the use of porn can spoil real life sex with their partners, in part because the sex depictions in porn are usually unrealistic. Ordinary real sex becomes disappointing compared to the fireworks and whiz-bangs of porn. This other article (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201103/dating-heavy-porn-user
) makes basically the same point, discussing how how people in coupling relationships prefer to watch porn instead of having sex with their partner and reasons why that might be the case.
This other article (http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2011/04/compulsive-masturbation-and-porn/?utm_source=PsychCentral&utm_medium=twitter
) talks about the difference between regular and compulsive masturbation and the problems this can play out in people's lives.6. The effects of hormones on feelings of love and relationships:
As there is growing research looking at the brain and its association to feelings of love and relationships, there have been more articles published highlighting these results. The most popular one of these is an article I saw in 2011, came out showing that expressing romantic rejection is the same as feeling that being punched in the gut: http://healthland.time.com/2011/03/28/the-pain-of-romantic-rejection-like-being-punched-in-the-gut/?xid=huffpo-direct
Another interesting article highlighted how serotonin, a chemical in the brain, can not only alter our perception of relationships, but with our partners and with other couples (http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/03/14/serotonin-seems-to-skew-view-of-others-intimacy/24381.html
). According to the article, the less serotonin you have, the more likely you are to rate other couples as less intimate and romantic. It begs the question, if we pumped ourselves up with serotonin, would we view others' and our relationships more positively and thus more likely to try to make it work?
Lastly, there have also been a number of articles published this year talking about the "love" brain chemical oxytocin. Oxytocin has been shown to promote feelings of love and belonging, seen most strongly with mothers and their children. However, as this study (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-love-hate-relationship
) points out, it may also promote feelings of discrimination and stereotypes. 7. Loneliness in 2011
Two of the biggest news stories I've seen with regards to loneliness deal with loneliness among the elderly and also the effect of loneliness on sleep. I've bookmarked a good deal of articles looking at loneliness among the elderly and attempts to highlight this growing epidemic. Here are a couple examples: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2009324/Elderly-hit-epidemic-poverty-loneliness.html
. It also spans different countries and cultures, as this article highlights a couple in India who committed suicide because of loneliness: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-05-15/ahmedabad/29545463_1_elderly-couple-vejalpur-police-suicide-note
. I also blogged
about Esther Rantzen who admitted publicly she was lonely and received a lot of negative feedback because of it: http://www.express.co.uk/features/view/285689/Esther-Rantzen-Admit-I-am-lonely-Friends-say-I-should-have-more-pride
The other big series of articles looked at loneliness and how it affects our sleep: http://healthland.time.com/2011/01/27/cant-sleep-it-may-help-to-get-out-of-bed/
. I thought this was interesting because I often saw a lot of loneliness tweets that talked about suffering insomnia. It seems like the two are very much related to one another and there have been quite a few articles published this year suggesting this. 8. Lonely animal stories:
On the occasion I came across a heart-breaking story of loneliness in animals. Two touching ones were of a whale and a polar bear. This article about a whale (http://gizmodo.com/5772406/the-story-of-the-lonely-whale-will-break-your-heart
) who is alone and has not bonded with other whales. Her problem is that she sings at the wrong frequency so that other whales do not hear her song. So, she spends her life alone in the open waters.
The other story is of a polar bear, Gus, at the Central Park Zoo: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/opinion/sunday/03gus.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1
. The story comes to a sad end when Gus loses his companion, Ida. He appeared trouble even before Ida died, but with the help of an animal psychologist was able to come around, only to have Ida die soon after. Both heart-breaking stories of animal loneliness.
A recent article just came out by The Express (http://bit.ly/ucA8M5
) discussing Esther Rantzen's new mission to raise awareness about loneliness. Esther Rantzen
is a TV-star and wife of the late film-maker Desmond Wilcox. What's interesting about Mrs. Rantzen's new focus is the push back she has received from family, friends, and professionals. The push back she received was because she has herself admitted publicly that she is lonely, especially after her husband died and more recently because she is now an empty nester with her last child just recently moving out of the house. It seems almost antithetical that someone as successful, popular, and outgoing as Mrs. Rantzen would experience any kind of loneliness at all. The push back she has received included reminders of just how lucky she is, and an invitation to have more pride. As Emily White, author of the book, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude
, commented in a recent radio interview
, lonely people are often assumed to be unsuccessful, unintelligent, passive, and unattractive. So, as you can imagine, when someone as successful as Esther Rantzen says she is lonely, it certainly challenges most people's stereotype of what a lonely person should be.
Why does admitting one is lonely such a deadly sin? Statistically, this population is increasing around the globe, especially with greater and greater trends towards individualism. There are more people lonely now than probably ever before. In the U.S. it is at least 25% of the population that feel lonely. That's 1 in 4 people who are currently experiencing loneliness. With so many people feeling lonely, one would think that people would be more accepting when someone says they are lonely and perhaps try to find way to help that person out.
Perhaps part of the problem has to do with the stereotypical characteristics associated with those individuals who feel lonely. If one says, "I am lonely," it is not just loneliness in itself that person is admitting to, but rather, he/she has also admitted that they are a failure: they are unsuccessful, unintelligent, passive, and unattractive. The responses Mrs. Rantzen received then certainly makes sense. You would get similar responses if you suggested you were ugly or stupid. People who care about you would say things to alter your perception about yourself. For example, if a person said, "I'm stupid" a friend might say, "but look at all the really smart contributions you have made" or even "you should have more pride in yourself." But what if we thought of loneliness the same way we think about diabetes or alcoholism (I'm not suggesting these are the same, just a hypothetical thought exercise)? Close family and friends would have a hard time saying, "no, you don't have diabetes," or "no, you are not an alcoholic." No one who really cares about the person is going to say, "well, you just have few drinks every day and you seem fine so you're not an alcoholic." There would be an acceptance of the problem and the focus would be on what can we do to help you get better. Why don't more people treat the problem of loneliness like this?
I think part of the problem has to do with how much can we blame a person for their own loneliness. Very often the assumption is that if you are lonely then it is your own fault and if you were successful, intelligent, active, and attractive enough then you would be able to overcome your loneliness on your own. Things like diabetes (I'm thinking Type 2 diabetes caused by obesity) and alcoholism, to some degree, become things outside of a person's control. There's an acknowledgement that they just can't turn it off like a light switch. Loneliness though according to the stereotype, should be as easy to cure as joining a Pilates class. The fact that anyone is lonely suggests laziness or a lack of effort on the part of the lonely person. It's very much similar to the idea of those that are unemployed. If you are unemployed for a long period of time, the assumption usually is you haven't tried hard enough. It is 100% the fault of the person. Sadly, especially with chronic loneliness, this is not the case. Chronically lonely people have experienced loneliness for a long time, and experience it because they possess certain hard to change characteristics that make them prone to experiencing loneliness. Some of it may be genetic: certain people have a susceptibility to experiencing loneliness more than others. Some of it may be due to very traumatic early life experiences, such as abuse, bullying, abandonment. Alternatively, some chronically lonely people experience loneliness for a long time because of the isolating, difficult-to-change situation that they are in, such as people with a crippling disability or living in an isolated area. One just cannot flip a switch, join a class, or change their way of thinking to make it go away. It requires much more of a deliberate effort, very much like people who have diabetes or alcoholism.
At the end of the day, it is a lack of knowledge that feeds into the negative stereotype of loneliness that often non-lonely AND lonely people hold. People often carry most of the blame for feeling lonely, thinking of themselves as a failure, as an outcast, and as part of a small minority of "weird people." Nothing is further from the truth. You see it so often on the Web of Loneliness, people feeling an instant sense of relief knowing that there are so many others who are experiencing exactly what they are experiencing, reading the words of someone else which sounds exactly like what that person would say. Like Esther Rantzen, we have to hold our ground, admit we are lonely, and change the stereotype: We are not losers, we are not failures, and we have been trying very, very hard to to rid ourselves of loneliness. We do not want your platitudes, we want your support.
If you have taken The Lonely Quiz, there is one question on there that asks if having a romantic partner is one of the most effective ways of permanently curing loneliness. Not surprisingly, 67% of those answering said that it is true, a romantic partner is an effective way of permanently curing loneliness. And, as you will see after you have answered the question, I said that it is not, in fact, true.
As a teenager I have been guilty of constructing in my mind, the image of the perfect woman. I am sure I am not the only person who is guilty of doing this. I would venture to say, most of us have some kind of list of what we think a potential partner should have. For some of us, our expectations are realistic, have a decent income, perhaps a non-smoker, etc. For some of us though, our expectations are a bit too detailed. In our minds we construct a caricature of a real person, like a Barbie doll, something that could never exist in real life but in fantasy is appealing.
If you ask the average lonely person, what do you need to cure your loneliness, most would agree with the 67% of respondents and say, having a romantic partner. The thought is, if I just had that one special person in my life, someone who would understand and love me, then my loneliness would disappear into thin air. In fact, back in 1976, when one of the founding loneliness researchers, Robert Weiss started his work, he found a similar phenomenon in a single parents group he was working in. He said that having that romantic attachment almost seemed like an "anti-loneliness" pill. By magic, falling in love made loneliness vaporize into thin air. The problem with falling in love though is that it doesn't last. In fact the brain is playing lots of tricks on you for you to fall in love. One of those tricks is that you tend to ignore all of the bad/incompatible traits in your partner when you are in that "cloud 9" stage. Once things cool down, you begin to notice all of those traits you had previously ignored. Another trick is that what appears to be love at the beginning of a relationship is in fact something else entirely. If you think about people in abusive relationships who grow up in a household with abusive relationships, you sometimes wonder, why is it, someone would choose to date/marry someone as abusive as their parent was. The reason is that familiarity is often mistaken for love.
I think when 67% or more of you say, a romantic relationship would cure your loneliness, you're not talking about a romantic relationship with someone with lots of emotional baggage or who needs things you are unwilling to provide. When you imagine a romantic relationship, you are imagining the Cinderella fantasy, a Prince Charming (or Princess Beauty) coming to rescue you from the abyss of loneliness you currently reside in. The trouble is the expectations can be unrealistic, people are going to fail you, and you will not have all of your needs met. In fact, even if you did get someone to "rescue" you, you're still not going to be happy. The illusion of perfection only exists in your head. Try putting those expectations on someone and watch that relationship crumble.
So, if you're lucky enough to find a partner, as my blog title asks, now what? Yes, your loneliness is going to disappear probably for three months, maybe longer. And then it's going to come back. If you had trust issues before, you're still going to have trust issues in your relationship. If you had communication issues before, it isn't going to magically disappear. If you really want to get rid of your loneliness permanently, you have to work on your own issues without expecting your romantic partner to do it for you. Romantic partners are exactly that, partners, they aren't your therapist or your parent that never loved you and quite frankly they can never be. You need to love yourself, to be content in your own skin, to be brave enough to be vulnerable before you can partner up with anyone. Otherwise, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.