Personal Growth - Reach out and Touch Someone
by Anita Anand
Poets, philosophers, gurus, saints, healers and therapists write, sing and talk about it. You and I feel it. It’s there, and it’s not there. It’s hard to pinpoint, and difficult to admit to. It’s loneliness.
Thirty five-year-old Meenakshi is single, and lives at home with her parents. I asked her what she did for fun with friends and colleagues. “Actually not much. I am a bit of an introvert,” she said. I smiled, and with my therapist hat, thought ‘She’s lonely’.
We give it names, we justify the way we feel. We fool ourselves. Deep down, we are often lonely. What exactly is loneliness?
The clinical definition of loneliness is an emotional state in which a person experiences a powerful feeling of emptiness and isolation. The lonely person may find it difficult or even impossible to have any form of meaningful human contact, and often experiences a subjective sense of inner emptiness or hollowness, with feelings of separation or isolation from the world.
Causes of Loneliness
Loneliness can be the result of a lifetime of influences that shape our personality. It can evolve after a major transition or trauma. We are often unaware of the subtle forces that can slowly lead us into self-imposed isolation.
Some are lonely because of ‘factors of circumstance’. For example, in childhood, growing up with unaffectionate or overly critical parents can make one shy away from intimacy with others, often resulting in an inability to communicate with or get along with peers; others can develop aggressive or demanding personalities that make people withdraw out of intimidation. People with low self-esteem often withdraw from social situations they believe will lead to rejection. Loneliness can become a lifestyle for the person who struggles with poorly developed interpersonal skills. Loss of a significant person in one’s life will typically initiate a grief response, where one might feel lonely, even in the company of others.
Loneliness can also result from ‘situational factors’ or circumstances in life that increase the possibility of isolation. People who are single – unmarried, divorced, or widowed – may encounter loneliness more, simply because they are more likely to be alone. Students separated from homes, leaders aloof from their subordinates, and those with a disability or disease – all face a greater chance of loneliness. Loneliness can occur within marriages or similar close relationships where there is anger, resentment, where love cannot be given or received, or when expectations are not being met. It could be a dysfunction of communication.
Apart from these, ‘social factors’ can contribute to loneliness. Modern technology has made it easier to do things by ourselves, and within our homes. Telephones, the Internet, television, are examples of technology competing with time we could spend with family and friends. Also, we are more mobile, and relocate several times for career advancement or other reasons, which tends to discourage the development of deep friendships. Living in nuclear families could also lead to isolation.
Rosemary Singh came to India from the US 30 years ago as a daughter-in-law in a large Sikh joint family. How did she adapt to the Indian situation, coming from a culture and time (a young adult in the ‘60s and ‘70s) where individuality and free will were precious? Singh says she was looking forward to life in a large family, as her parents were separated. Now in her late 50s, as a mother of three children (and two grandchildren), she says that having young children mitigated her loneliness. They had needs she had to attend to, interact with others, and in this, she was fortunate to be part of a joint family. But, she says with a smile, the over crowdedness often made her wish she had more time alone.
Was Singh ever lonely? “Oh yes,” she says. In those days, there was no email. A letter took two weeks to reach. She missed her family and friends. Connectivity was difficult. She felt empathy towards the ‘out married daughter’ of Indian families. Singh says her loneliness comes with the package of life here. One manifestation of this is her lack of self-confidence to push through what she cares about, and not accepting the status quo. She often feels overwhelmed by joint and immediate family members. For her, different relationships – family, husband, work, and friends – are important. Singh says her struggle (as part of her loneliness) has been to engage with the meaningful.
Loneliness, Aloneness and Solitude
Loneliness is poverty of self. Solitude is richness of self.
– May Sarton, writer
Yet, for Singh and all of us, loneliness is not the same as being alone. Everyone has times when they are alone through circumstance or choice. Being alone can be positive, pleasurable, and emotionally refreshing – if it is under the individual’s control. Solitude is the state of being alone and secluded from other people, and is a conscious choice. Most religious traditions and spiritual movements point to the need for silence, solitude and meditation to get in touch with ourselves. They also stress the need for reaching out to others.
In our growth as individuals, we start a separation process at birth, which continues with growing independence towards adulthood. As such, feeling alone can be a healthy emotion and, indeed, choosing to be alone for a period of solitude can be enriching. To experience loneliness, however, can be to feel overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of separateness at a profound level.
This can manifest in feelings of abandonment, rejection, depression, insecurity, anxiety, hopelessness, unworthiness, meaninglessness, and resentment. If these feelings are prolonged, they may become debilitating and prevent the development of healthy relationships and lifestyles. If people are convinced they are unlovable, this will increase the experience of suffering, and the likelihood of avoiding social contact. Low self-esteem will often trigger the social disconnection which can lead to loneliness.
Chronic loneliness (as opposed to the normal loneliness everyone feels from time to time), is a serious, life-threatening condition. Studies have correlated it with an increased risk of cancer, especially for those who hide their loneliness from the outside world. It is associated with increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. People who are socially isolated also report poor sleep quality, and thus have diminished restorative processes. Loneliness is also linked with depression, a risk factor for suicide.
How to know if you or others are lonely:
• Believing that “everyone else” has friends
• Feeling embarrassed and self-conscious
• Being in a crowd, but not feeling part of the crowd
• Feeling shy and scared of others
• Experiencing low self-esteem
• Feeling angry, defensive and critical
• Feeling socially inadequate and socially unskilled
• Being convinced there is something wrong with you
• Feeling disconnected and alienated from your surroundings
• Feeling anxious and sad because you believe that no one knows how miserable and isolated you feel
• Losing your capacity to be assertive; feeling “invisible”
• Feeling reluctant to attempt to change, or try new things
• Feeling “empty”, depressed, or even contemplating suicide
Reena Nath is a child and family therapist practising in South Delhi. Her clientele consists of upper middle class men and women, between the ages of 5-80 years; most are between 30-45 years and married; about half are non-Indians. Many of Nath’s clients experience loneliness. She sees it as a mixture of things – a factor of growth; missing certain things in their lives; growing expectations; and a spiritual search. She finds that single and divorced people in urban areas are more prone to loneliness; they may be married, but not getting along, can’t speak to each other; there is a ‘weariness’ in relationships. Others more prone are older people; people with mental illnesses and their families – who are ashamed and diffident about discussing this situation with others. They experience loneliness, which, if not corrected, spirals into depression.
Nath and other therapists recommend the following steps for overcoming loneliness:
• Admit the problem: First, acknowledge you are lonely.
• Consider the causes: Evaluate your life honestly in light of the factors mentioned above. Do any of these apply to you?
• Accept what cannot be changed: The death of a spouse and other unalterable circumstances must be faced squarely. Transitions in our lives open doors to new experiences, but we must be willing to let go of the past, and move on.
• Alter what can be changed: Many causes of loneliness can be overcome. Regardless of the reason for your loneliness, you owe it to yourself to take measures that will solve the problem.
• Develop self-esteem: Stop destructive self-talks, such as telling yourself that you are unlikable.
• Be social: Go out of the house at least once a week. Take part in community and group activities and functions.
• Be involved: There are many groups looking for volunteers who want to make a difference. Join up.
Meditation, relaxation, yoga, exercise, walks: These can help you ease the effects of stress on your life, and enable you to get in touch with yourself. Exercising regularly and taking walks around your neighborhood, a local park or a market will help you feel better physically and emotionally.
• Draw up schedules: Loneliness seems more intense when we have nothing to do. Organise your time on a daily and weekly basis, and be sure to include some outdoor activities.
• Build friendships: Locate someone with whom you share a common interest. Take the initiative, and give the person a call. Chances are that person may be looking for a friend as well. Build a friendship slowly. With time, the openness to express feelings will develop. Give compliments, and be thoughtful. Refrain from giving unsolicited advice. Be a good listener.
• Keep a pet: Animals have a great way of bringing love and companionship in our lives.
Loneliness can also be helped by psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy (anti-depressant medications), and other alternative therapies.
The most important thing about loneliness is that staying in it can be a conscious and destructive choice. Reaching out is a proactive choice to move on to fuller and rewarding life. It can be done.
Smile, my heart, smile You will see loneliness nowhere – Sri Chinmoy
Anita Anand is a practising hypnotherapist.
We welcome your suggestions and comments on this article. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: my thoughts - 7 February 2009
I dont know. I personally think that you shouldnt classify people simply because of one statement. Because they are introverts that automatically makes them lonely? Perhaps you really did have a conversation with her that led to making this assumption. Or...as you would probably professionally More...
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