Taylor explaining our current understanding of Pherme Bubble.
Students at Tohono O’odham Community College planting trees. Many of the students are Early Childhood Education students.
I have written many articles on here about loneliness and rejection, mainly because as a social psychologist I believe that these two variables are a root cause of many of our social and psychological problems in the world. One type of loneliness that I have sort of understood intellectually and partly definition wise is emotional loneliness. Emotional loneliness is defined as not have a significant emotional connection with at least one other person. I say at least because we all have different needs and a number of emotional connections. But what has perplexed me as a social psychologist is cases in which a person has several emotionally meaningful and connected relationship, but still feels a deep sense of emotional loneliness. This has perplexed me until I realized that emotionally close relationship is connected with parts of our self-definition and identity – that it is not about how many emotional connections we have, but whether or not given emotional connections bring about a better understanding of who we are and reinforce core aspects of our identity as individuals. Let me provide an example from my own life.
For the last two years, I have been plagued by bouts of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I have tried all the individual psychology techniques to deal with these issues that included: therapy, medication, self-help books, and yes even negative coping mechanisms such as drinking. But none of these were able to dull or alleviate my sense of extreme emotional loneliness and corresponding depression and anxiety. What bothered me was I had plenty of emotionally supportive and meaningful relationships: my kids and my family, but also some very close friends who would message me right back anytime I felt down or needed help – this was my mental block when it came to the loneliness that I was experiencing: I had very close and emotionally supportive relationships that I knew I could tell and experience anything with.
But recently, I started to look at core aspects of myself and identity, and asked a simple question: what part of who I am is missing and is suffering? I looked at being a dad. The answer was no, my kids love me, and we would do anything for each other. Is it my career and being a psychologist? I looked at my current research, and my current teaching position and the answer was no, my co-workers, even though I only been at my current college for six weeks, already tell me how much they valued my work and excited that I am here. Is it being a son or a brother? Well I know me, and my brothers do not talk a lot but recent events over the summer I know without a doubt we are always here there each other. And my relationship with my mom is very emotionally connected. What about being a friend? Here again, I can say recent events in my life have shown me that I am a good friend, with deep emotional connections, and my friends are amazing in return. Then I turned my attention to the importance of being an intimate partner and the value that has in my life. I know from past intimate partnerships that I placed a high value on being a good intimate partner. I came to realize that this area of my life was an issue. I realized that for the last two years I had failed miserably at keeping and maintaining a close significant intimate relationship with someone else. Indeed, at the time I made this realization, I was trying to maintain a non-existent intimate relationship with someone, and in my desire to maintain that I am a good intimate partner, a lot of dysfunction and yes emotional disconnect arose from that situation.
As a psychologist, I started to understand, my experience started to highlight that other aspect of emotional loneliness, that despite having so many emotionally connected relationship I was: (1) lacking one in a core area of who I was, and (2) I was willing to stay in a dysfunctional situation thinking that if I could make it work it would make everything okay. In addition to this, the relationship had become a self-defeating cycle, where in my mind I had to try harder, I had to impress more – which after rejection – lead to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Loneliness, worthlessness, and feelings of hopelessness are key ingredients in both depression and anxiety.
So, what did I do? I ended the dysfunctional relationship, engaged myself in other emotional close relationships, and for the first time in two years, I have lived with no depression, no anxiety, no emotional loneliness. Not only have I seen the relief of these I feel closer to my other emotionally close relationships – I see my kids, my family, and my friendship in a vibrant and fulfilling new light. I also learned something through this process, I learned that my identity as an intimate partner is not damaged, I only allowed myself to see it as damaged and that there was something wrong with me. I think all too often, especially in intimate relationships, we blame ourselves and feel there must be something wrong with me if the other person does not respond the way an intimate partner should respond.
My journey, I hope this helps others understand what is meant by emotional loneliness, and how it is connected to a part of our core identities. We can have many emotional close relationships, but when a relationship is lacking is a core aspect of who we are it can drive many of our negative emotions and even drive disordered behavior. Letting go of toxic relationships that are not emotionally fulfilling and do not support part of our own core identity can lead to better health and well-being.
To start this article, I want to begin with a simple premise: Physical pain and the pain from being rejected are the same. The human brain and the brain of other social animals reacts the same whether someone is dying from a chronic illness, being shocked, or being dumped by an intimate partner or being denied entry into a group. However, we for some reason like to separate the two, and place rejection within the realm of emotions (which as humans we falsely think are controllable) and physical injury in the domain of the uncontrollable (after all it was not their fault the sidewalk was there when they fell off their bike while trying to do a hand stand). What I mean by these statements is we tend to empathize with physical injury and forgive the reasons, but we tend to consider the suffering from reject as a sign of weakness and not being of hardy stalk. However, our world view of rejection is wrong, and by correcting this view, we can heal from the pain of rejection better, heal faster, and regain a sense of stability. To do this I think it is useful to use a common form of rejection and that is intimate partner rejection and I want to compare that to a more long-term physical disease such as cancer. I like this analogy because both rejection of an intimate partner and the development of cancer can occur very quickly or they both can sit dormant for years until an escalating moment. The second, is once cancer and the possibility of the loss of an intimate partner is made apparent both disease states tend to accelerate in their progression. Third, once the cancer is removed or the person leaves there is no guarantee of recovery or that one will not experience the disease ever again. Finally, I think this is a good analogy because we need to be honest both cancer and rejection from a close intimate partner can both lead to death. Indeed, the number one cause of homicide in the United States is intimate partner homicide, and over the past three decades cheating – the ultimate form of rejection – has become the number one reason for intimate partner homicide. Additionally, suicidal behavior is often followed by rejection, especially of a close intimate partner. With these four similarities in mind let us move on and explore how we can heal successfully.
I want to start our comparison by first stating a simple disease step model, I think by using this simple model it will be easier to come to understand how rejection occurs and the pain process:
There are a few qualities of this comparison that I like to make. First is that it is a progression, while it may seem like it at times, when two people are truly intimately connected they do not just wake up one morning and say “I am leaving”. There is always a progression that continually erodes the relationship much like a cancer erodes and destroys a healthy body. A good example of this is research that interviewed divorced individuals and indicated that when the individual really starts to analyze their relationship, the relationship started to erode about two years before the individuals start to realize there is a problem.
The second thing that I hope the reader recognizes is that while this is a very general model, the processes are almost identical – BUT – the major difference is how the individual tends to respond, especially as both diseases progress. This is largely due to our belief systems that (1) a person should have control over their relationship, and (2) if there is a problem one should be able to fix it, if the couple ‘really’ loves each other. I think it is worth taking some time exploring these two faulty belief systems. The first is the illusion of control, the fact is, you and your partner, can do everything perfect. You can follow all the relationship advise, treat each other with complete respect, cherish one another completely, and guess what? – You can still end up being a divorce statistic. Please do not take this as a criticism of humans and our ability to have long lasting relationships. Remember the analogy between physical disease and rejection. A person can eat right, exercise, refrain from toxins and they can still end up having cancer or dying young of heart disease. This same principle applies to human relationships. With that being said, we should not end up be complete skeptics of our health or our relationships. The person who eats right and exercises will have a much better quality of life even if they still end up with a disease. The same goes with relationships, while all relationships may end, the more we invest healthily into them the higher the quality of experiences we have. The second illusion that if two people really love each other they should be able to fix it, I think comes from our overall illusion that we can also control our own fate.
Especially in highly individualistic societies, like the one here in the United States, individuals tend to believe that everything good and bad that a person does OR that a person experiences is solely due to the actions and beliefs of that individual. In other words, we maintain bad beliefs such as “she broke up with you because you are a bad person”, or “If he can’t love you because of who you are, no one else is going to either”. Now we should qualify this, because for much of western society’s history we did this with physical diseases, so once we believed that people got cancer because the gods were punishing them for being a sinner, or a person has a mental illness because they had a weak mind that allowed them to be possessed by some demon. It was not until western medicine and science started to debunk these myths that we started to see physical diseases as we do today – Although there are still some people who believe that diseases are a punishment from god, but that a whole other article. It is in this same tradition of science that I write this article, in that we know enough scientifically about human relationships, that placing the entire fault for rejection on a single person or a single occurrence or process is ridiculous. So, if it is not because one person changes, that ruins a relationship, then what is it? As you think about this question you probably thinking that it is an unsolvable question, but it is actually fairly simple, change is the culprit to eventual rejection. But before I explain this there is one more faulty belief system that we must first address. That faulty belief is that we as individuals do not change greatly over time, and that our personality, beliefs, and who we are at the core does not change. The fact is you will be a different person five years from now than you are today. Indeed, you probably been a different person several times today already. Let me provide a simple example, what if someone secretly recorded you alone in your bedroom, out with friends at night, playing with your kids, and let us say giving a big work presentation. I am willing to bet if I blurred your face and changed your voice in each scenario and played it back to you, you would report seeing and hearing four (amazing) but different individuals. The truth is we are who we are based on (a) the demands of the situation, (b) our skills and ability to respond to the situation, and (c) our ability to comprehend the situation. Additionally, each situation demands something different from us, and therefore we must respond to a situation differently. However, because it would make us crazy to think we have so many different selves, which would lead us to feeling very unstable, our mind and brain have developed the illusion that we are consistent and stable overtime. In fact, we have gotten so good at this that we can change memories going clear back into childhood to make them congruent with who we are today without even realizing it is happening. The problem is, if I am stable and that is core to who I am, then my relationships remain stable and the same, because they are also core to my own identity. Therefore, any time a person has relationship difficulties, they sadly try to reset the relationship to “how we use to be when we first fell in love”. As you can guess, this almost always ends up failing. Indeed, most successful couples when they reach a point of recognizing their relationship has eroded, recognize first how much they and their partner has changed, and instead of rekindling the old flame, they go through process of courting and falling in love with this new person and leave that old relationship behind. It is as Mignon McLaughlin stated, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person” – but should add with the same person as they are today.
So the question that remains is given that any relationship no matter of the healthy behaviors the couple engages in, how does one have a long lasting relationship and decrease the chances of eventual rejection and loss.
#1 – Engage in healthy relationship behaviors, say “I love you” daily, touch, communicate, be honest with feelings for each other, doing things together, etc. For this there are plenty of relationship books that can help couples learn exercises of a health relationship.
#2 – Self-awareness. The ability to recognize one’s own physical and mental state as it relates to one’s situation is what we call self-awareness. We often go through our day with a narrow window of self-awareness because that all we really need to get through the common roles we have in life. However, it is advised to at least once a week for at least 30 minutes a person becomes completely self-aware of their physical, social, and psychological world. After which, engaging in self-reflection about how one is doing, how one is changing, and how one is feeling about their current situation is an important and provides a person with a guide. This can be done through several mediums such as journaling, yoga, meditation, prayer (if your religious), or any form activity that allows you to be aware of where you are completely as a person.
#3 – Recognize and embrace change. Accept that change is going to happen and that means you will need to continually work at your relationship. Never assume that your relationship is like a rock and is unbendable or unbreakable.
#4 – Continually try new things. Stagnation is like stopping exercise or eating right when it comes to relationship health. Yes there are times in all our lives when we do the day-to-day grind. However, actively seeking ways to engage one’s interest, discover new things, and engage one’s world differently can provide great learning opportunities and relationship bonding moments.
#5 – This probably should be number 1 – but remember if you decide to live in a radioactive bucket – do not be surprised if you get cancer. In same vein, if you live your life with toxic people, do not be surprised if you always are experiencing rejection and loss. Sometimes the people we desire – are reason for our disease – just like I know if I continue eating chocolate cake I will gain weight and run risk of heart disease.
#6 – Be human! Often, we think that the perfect relationship is a relationship without conflict and problems. We forget that relationships are made by imperfect people, and therefore are inherently not perfect. Be honest with feelings, do not hide your faults, and encourage your partner to do the same.
#7 – Do not ignore other social relationships. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the excitement of an intimate relationship we let other important relationships in our lives weaken or even completely abandoned. Remember that we are a social creators, and we all have a differing needs for both social connections and emotional connections. When we do not maintain the needed level for both, we can find ourselves in deep despair, loneliness, and possibly depression. While it is wonderful to fall in love, remember that you both need to fall in love with each other’s complete world.
#8 – Maintain connection through common beliefs. Interestingly the idea of opposite attracts is not true when it comes to long successful relationships. Indeed, individuals who are in long-term relationships – and are still in love – have the same or similar belief systems and attitudes. Identify these early on in a relationship and nurture them together.
#9 – Intimate relationship that include sexuality, should be a vibrant sexuality. I often gross out my younger students when lecturing on long-term relationships, because I ask “how many have grandparents who were married for most of their lives and still really love each other?”. I then explain to these students that when it comes to sexuality, your grandparents were – and still probably are – freaks in the bedroom. Indeed, we find that individuals in long-term loving relationships tend to try new things, get adventurous with each other, and never let their sexually intimate life become stagnate. Now there are always those exceptions where one or both partners, usually due to health problems, lose interest in sex and we know that sex interests vary across the life span. We still find that individual who are going through a period of low sexuality or loss of their sexual life, tend to compensate in different ways such as increasing and diversifying other pleasurable couple activities.
#10 – Understand your own ‘life space’ and the life space of your partner. A famous social psychologist, Kirt Lewin, introduced the idea of life space, as a way to try and visually represent human behavior. If you can imagine a large bubble, that contains all of a person possibilities, then you understand visually what one’s life space is. But first what is meant by all of a person’s possibilities? Lewin recognized that every situation that we find our self in there is a range of possible reactions to that situation. All of one’s possible reactions is one’s life space. So, let me give an example, a school teacher who is making 40,000 a year, is at a car show where she is presented with the opportunity to purchase a $200,000 luxury car. Is this part of the teacher’s life space or range of possibilities? Given her income, cost of insurance, other financial obligations, the probability of buying the luxury car given the teacher’s current life space is very very small. Now the teacher recognizing that the car is not within her current life space can do things to add to it, life get a higher paying job, pay off lots of bills etc etc. But unfortunately, we do not live in a world of what we could do, we often live in the here and now, and understanding our current life space helps us understand our limits and abilities when it comes to actually engaging in a intimate relationship. Once we are aware of it, then and only then can we recognize how it will impact our current relationship, but also what we need to work at, so that the range of possibilities within a relationship can increase through the expansion of our own life space. The other reason for bring up the concept of life space is we often need to recognize the boundaries of our partner’s life space. If you are approaching a relationship with the intent on changing someone, you might as well start saving for the divorce now. For a person to change they must recognize the limitations of their own life space and have the tools and ability to expand their space. Now this does not mean if someone does not meet all your standards that you should not consider being in a relationship with them, but it does mean that you will need to sacrifice something to have that relationship – and sometimes sacrifice is okay.
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Philip Zimbardo’s research on time orientation teaches us that individuals live within three-time orientations: past, present, and future. A past oriented person is someone who makes current decisions based on past experiences only. These individuals tend not to be able to get over past experiences, and they are always inhibiting the person from becoming successful in the present and the future. An example of a past oriented person is someone who has experienced a severe trauma in their past, but that past experience comes to define everything about the individual and how they deal with the world in the present and when considering the future. Present-oriented individuals are persons who are only at the moment, not thinking about the past or concerns of future consequences of behaviors. Often present oriented individuals are experiencing an extreme amount of stress or trauma, where the individual can only focus on current survival. A future-oriented person, is someone who has all the current resources they need for survival that they can focus on future goals and aspirations. They are not defined by their past. Instead, they place their focus on their future.
It is important to state from the outset, that to some degree individuals will fluctuate between these time orientations. For example, if someone has a car accident, the mind’s natural response is to make sure that trauma occurs again, especially when there are continued reminders of the accident such as a physical injury. In this case, it is natural for a person to keep a past time orientation. Likewise, a person who becomes unemployed and starts to struggle financially, can in a very natural way become present oriented where all their decisions focus on the here and now, and not future consequences of behaviors. This is a common reason that a person in this situation is at more risk for engaging in the unethical or unlawful behavior. Because they are so focused on current survival, future consequences are not something these individuals can comprehend. When we have, our basic needs met (steady employment, shelter, food, etc.) a person can become future oriented where they can focus on future aspiration and head towards goals.
The problem with these time orientations is when we engage in helping behaviors. For example, a person who is present oriented often looks for a person who is stable and therefore future oriented. In this relationship, communication can be frustrated, because the future-oriented person often gets frustrated with their friend for lacking foresight and not being able to see their current situation as temporary. Whereas the present-oriented person can be frustrated by their friend not understanding that they need answers now and solutions today.
So, what is the solution to this problem of communication? It starts with us, and our understanding where we are and where other people are in their thinking process. Recently I had struggles, which placed my thought process in a current orientation. All that mattered to me was what was going on in the here and now, and what I had in the here and now. I did not want to hear “be patient,” or “let’s see what happens,” or “I need time.” On reflection on this and thinking about how frustrating these statements were, it all had to do with my time orientation. And the fact that the people in my life had a different orientation, many had a future orientation and were looking towards the future, and had a clear vision of how they wanted the future to be. In their conceptualization of my situation, in their need to help me, tried to give me a future goal. Additionally, some became so frustrated with me because I was so focused on needing answers NOW. Unfortunately, having this current time orientation did nothing for improving my situation in that it made me appear volatile, unstable, and unpredictable, which for some of my friends scared them. Indeed, friends who had met me when I was successful, started to abandon me, because these behaviors of current orientation were just too much for them to handle. The question reflecting on this situation is how could have been better at handling my life and relationship during a time of crisis? While it can be very difficult when one’s time orientation changes, having a level of self-awareness that allowed insight into my changing time orientation could have gone a long ways to mitigating this situation. Second is communicating with people in my life where I am in my orientation and letting them know I have the inability to focus on future because I am unable cognitively to get over the moment right now. Finally, would be to focus on those things that placed my mind in a current time orientation, and not worry about other concerns such as the future of relationships and the like. There is a reason we have three-time orientations to deal with life events. By being in the current time orientation, it should be signaling to us that there are issues that need to be taken care of in the here and now – usually survival needs – that for the moment supersede other life concerns. So, to summarize there are three things we should do based on our time orientation:
2. Communicate one’s needs by having an honest evaluation of your time orientation.
3. Respond to that time orientation, there is a reason why one experiences different time orientations, and it is important to take care of one’s needs.
Before making a closing remark, I would like to make a comment about individuals who are in a past orientation. Individuals who tend to be past-oriented have experienced some form of trauma that then start to determine most if not all their behaviors. This time orientation can be seen in individuals who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), victims of violence, survivors of cancer or other dangerous diseases, and individuals who experience chronic stressors. When a person experiences these, they often run the risk of having that event define who they are as a person. This can be seen when individuals can only identify with others with similar problems, or when that becomes part of their defining identity. I have seen this pronounced in some of the veterans I have worked with who suffer from PTSD. It is not uncommon when asking these individuals to introduce themselves to first and foremost define that they have PTSD. Before we move on, however, I would like to point out that this is a positive thing, because many individuals both veterans and non-veterans who suffer from PTSD have a hard time admitting to the problems associated with PTSD. However, what always interested me is this defining feature of PTSD, was more defining than other identities of the individual such as being a father or mother, being an employee, being a student, and otherwise being healthy. I have also seen this with victims of abuse, where being a victim becomes the most pronounce feature of their identity and who they are as an individual. From a time, perspective, I would like to explore this issue more.
Based on our discussion of time orientation, individuals who have experienced severe trauma tend to have a past time orientation to where any current stresses become framed in how that was handled in the past – usually always associated with that trauma that occurred. For example, I often worked with individuals where if they had a flat tire in the morning, they would just give up on the rest of the day. While this can be very frustrating for employers and others in the person’s life who would have used, problem-solving skills to meet their obligation despite starting their day with a flat tire, individuals who are in a past time orientation simply currently do not have that cognitive ability. Problem-solving requires having a future orientation where an individual can see themselves as actors in the future getting through their day. Individuals with a past time orientation simply do not have that capacity to see themselves as actors in the future, making it through their day despite a flat tire. For those who have love ones or work with individuals who are in a past orientation – usually identified by only being able to define one’s self-based on experience – we should work on being more empathetic. Instead of getting frustrated we should slow down and walk the person through the problem-solving process. This should not be done in a condescending way and should help the individual learn skills that are not based on past experiences.
I decided to write this article on time orientation, based on personal experiences I have had lately where I realize that so many communication mistakes I have made could have been reduced through my self-awareness. I also decided to write this because I think it is a good reminder that we should not fall victim to one of our most human fallacy of assuming other people see the world and problems from the same perspective that “I” do. And those who do not think the same that there must be something wrong with them. I hope the next time you have a friend or family member who is having difficulty, that you can step back and ask yourself: where are they time wise?, based on their time orientation, what do they need now to help overcome their difficulties?, and honestly ask yourself, do I have the patience and ability to be truly helpful?
© Curtis Peterson