By: Curtis Peterson ©
The Case Study of Alice
A reader (who we will call Alice) messaged me and asked “Dear Curtis, I have many friends and family that are around all the time, but why despite all this, do I feel so lonely?”. I like to say that this is a rare question but over the past years since I have started studying loneliness it is, unfortunately, the most common question I am asked. The first person to write about the form of loneliness Alice was experiencing was Robert Weiss in 1975 and he coined the term “emotional isolation” more popularly known as “emotional loneliness.” Since this time, we have found that emotional loneliness is the most common and most profound type of loneliness affecting our health and well-being, even more than obesity, not exercising, and not eating right. In fact, chronic emotional loneliness predicts when one is going to die 3x better and more accurately than one’s physical health. To understand emotional loneliness, we must start with a common premise: human beings are social creatures and need other people. Indeed, research has shown that when we deny ourselves social interaction, the body starts to shut down as if it is dying of thirst or hunger. With this premise let us begin to explore what emotional loneliness is and what you can do about it.
What is emotional loneliness?
Emotional loneliness is defined as a deep feeling of loss of emotional connection with others, despite one’s level of current social connection. It is the person who “feels lonely in the crowd,” or feels like they don’t fit in, and no one is close to them or understands them. Before moving on, I should state, that emotional loneliness is something that most everyone will experience at least once in their lifetime, it is not a dysfunctional emotion nor is it maladaptive one. In fact, it is very adaptive, because it motivates us to reduce it, which helps individuals to seek out emotional connections with others. However, there is a subset of the population, where emotional loneliness can cause a bout of severe depression. Additionally, one of the symptoms of depression is the feeling of emotional loneliness. The difference between loneliness when someone is depressed and normative loneliness, is individuals with normative loneliness, although they may feel down, seek out emotional emotional connection. For people who are depressed, the feelings of loneliness become a reinforcing cycle of one’s self-defeating beliefs and ideas of who they are which aid in the continued cycle of depression. If you are reading this article and experiencing loneliness, I ask that you pay close attention to this difference, and if you feel that you have depression and not normative loneliness, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help.
In Alice’s case, after visiting with a mental health professional decided she was not depressed but just felt lonely. She concluded this with her mental health professional because she lacked any of the other symptoms associated with depression. So, what was making Alice feel so lonely if it was not an emotional crisis or depressive state? After chatting with Alice for a while I asked her “Tell me who you are as a person?” and well of course she gave the standard “mom, employee, wife, blah, blah” for which I asked again “no who are you as a person, who is ‘Alice’?”. To which she replied, “I am not sure what you’re asking, and if I did, I am not sure what the answer would be.” At that moment, I knew we had discovered the source of Alice’s emotional loneliness!
Why do people experience emotional loneliness: attachment, industry, and identity?
When I started studing loneliness, I developed a basic theory that one’s identity, specifically, a weak or damaged identity, drives a person’s experience of loneliness. Since that time, I have shown that loneliness is negatively associated with one’s sense of identity, that the positive outcomes of a strong identity are the opposite of adverse outcomes of loneliness, and that when you make a person’s identity salient and meaningful within a situation this reduces their evaluation of being lonely. So, it is worth exploring what an identity is and how it develops.
To understand identity, we must start with a discussion of a term William James (father of American Psychology) coined in 1896 called the “self-concept.” James defined the self-concept as “the totality of everything a person can call theirs.” James argued – and research since James has confirmed – there are two elements of the self-concept:
- The social self (later termed social identity) which is how someone defines them self in their social world and,
- the personal self which is everything that makes an individual who they are separate from other people. His term for the personal-self was the ‘spiritual self,’ which he wanted to use to emphasize everything that makes an individual unique.
To understand why emotional loneliness is caused by lack of identity we must see how it develops through the lifespan. For this, we will use some different theories of development starting with a very popular theory know as “attachment theory.”
Attachment theory originally attempted to explain how an infant becomes attached to their caregiver, and based on the responsiveness of the caregiver to the infant’s needs determined how the infant would socially interact with others. The purest of attachment theory would state that this infancy attachment process determines how an individual will relate with others throughout their lifespan. A more probable explanation is that early attachment determines a pattern of relatedness that if not broken through life experiences can determine how one will relate with others. In other words, if you had a bad, uncaring parent, this does not necessarily mean you bound only to have poor quality relationships!! What we do know is that individual’s who currently have an insecure attachment style (i.e. avoiding social relationships or self-destructive or avoidant when in a relationship) is negatively associated with the development of a healthy identity and positively related to experiences of chronic emotional loneliness.
What does this mean? Sadly, this means that individuals who are unable to develop social and intimate relationship are already at a disadvantage when it comes to loneliness. However, in Alice’s case, she had very loving parents and relatives and was raised in an emotionally close family. But, in recent years she has had a series of weak and unsupportive relationships, and she measured high on the subscale of “fearful-avoidant” on a measure of attachment style. But what does this have to do with identity?
The problem with having poor attachment style is that we often lack or do not trust feedback about who we are as an individual. Individuals with a poor attachment style are less likely to believe people when they say “you are a good parent” or “I am so happy you work for our organization.” By not being able to trust the feedback from others the individual’s identity becomes more and more diluted and less meaningful, and the individual start to feel more and more unimportant despite what others say about them. This weakening of a self-concept makes us feel less connected with others, and as a social being, we must know – and believe – that we have value to others. This loss of emotional value creates a sense of loneliness even when we are around others. There are two other developmental concepts originally presented by Erik Erickson, called industry and identity that we should discuss to finish the developmental story towards emotional loneliness. Erickson theorized that during different ages, we go through what he called a social-emotional crisis. If we successfully make it through a given crisis, it helps us develop into healthy and able individual. The crisis that Erickson believed we faced in late childhood was the crisis of industry versus inferiority. To understand this crisis read the two descriptions of Ed and Billy.
Ed: Ed recently started playing guitar, despite being new at it, his parents see his potential and encourages him to continue playing. A few times, Ed played his guitar for his class, his classmates cheered, and his friends thought he was cool.
Billy: Like Ed, Billy wanted to play guitar, however, when he signed up for lessons, his parents told him it would probably be a waste and that they better get their monies worth. His parents would only allow Billy to practice when they were at work, so they didn’t have to listen to “that noise.” When he told his friends what he was doing, they laughed at him and said he should just give that up before he embarrasses himself.
Now, the examples of Ed and Billy I will admit are extreme examples, but I would be willing to guess that most of us have experienced life somewhere between Ed and Billy. Second I would like to say that this is also not a plug to continue diluting children’s potential by giving everyone a trophy. But rather I would like to discuss – if both Ed and Billy had the same potential – what is each boy learning based on their social experiences ? In Ed’s case, Erickson would argue that he is developing industry. Industry is where one learns that what he or she does has meaning to others and has some social value. In Billy’s case, Erickson would argue what Billy is learning is sense of inferiority in that he has no social value, and that this lack of social value must be something about Billy and not about those individuals who are discouraging him. Now Erickson’s model is a socioemotional model, in that what the person is experiencing, is not necessarily a rationale experience, Billy may be very naturally talented, but because of his experience with others he feels has no talent and therefore no worth – at least when it comes to guitar playing. This disconnect between what we do and feedback from others is the starting recipe for the development of emotional loneliness through reduced sense of a meaningful identity.
Not only does Billy feel inferior, but he also is not getting enough feedback from those who are important to him to develop a well defined identity. As Billy enters adolescences, this is going to inform him about his developing identity. Erickson argued that during the ‘teenage years’ individuals experience the crisis of identity versus role confusion. Let us follow this developmental trajectory. An individual has good healthy attachments with others, and experience industry during middle childhood. This experience provides him or her with the confidence to explore and solidify his or her identity through the adolescent years leading to a clear identity which provides future direction as the individual enters adulthood. However, if a young adolescent, has weak attachments with others – and has received feedback that what he or she does have little value – this makes the individual more likely to be a crowd follower or a ‘loner’ during adolescence. These experiences may lead to an undefined identity, and probably taking on the identity of others leading to confusion between how one thinks he or she ought to be and the behaviors they take on from following others. This experience is not a good start to the beginning of adulthood and those young crowds the individual followed start to dissolve. You may be asking, ‘well what about Alice, you said that she had a healthy and supportive family?’. To that, I would say yes I agree, she had the optimal developmental experiences that should have resulted in a strong identity and little experiences of emotional loneliness. However, this is why I like telling the story of Alice because she emphasizes something that we often underestimate and that is our current situation and recent social experiences have a big impact on us. That is to say that our current situation matters and has an immense impact on what we experience. Indeed, research on counseling techniques indicates that working with a person’s current experiences of their symptoms is far more successful than trying to find and understand the deep rooted developmental experiences that promote current symptoms.
For Alice, the last few years she has had small but continues insults to her identity. These hits include a failed marriage which damaged her identity as a wife, and her grown children do not call very often, insulting her identity as a mother. On top of this after 15 years as an administrative assistant, her employer cut her position, eliminating an important social identity. Though she has been experiencing these insults for several months now, she started to notice that when she visited her family or went out with friends, she felt like an outsider, and thought that no one understood who she was. This experience eventually evolved in developing a complete emotional disconnect between her and those around her. Then came the wrong kind of advice, you know the advice I am talking about I am sure “that company didn’t deserve you anyways”, “you were meant to do better things”, “it is your kids not you”, “he wasn’t right for you anyways” – you know that advice that sounds right when we give it, but we feel awful when receiving it. The following provides how these messages are interpreted by the lonely person to understand why this is a bad way to support someone.
Now we, I believe, are well-intending when we provide support to our friends and family, but it is important to note that we should be tuned into the other people in a way we can tell if they are emotionally withdrawing before giving said advice. Unfortunately, in an attempt to resolve our own emotional distress and dissonance, we often give advice with no intent on relieving the receiver distress, but making our self feel more emotionally secure and worthy. This creates even more emotional distance between the emotionally lonely person and the well intending person, creating the possibility of chronic loneliness and which at it’s worst can lead to severe depression and poor physical health. So what should we do if someone we know is experiencing emotional loneliness, or if we are experiencing emotional loneliness?
Reducing emotional loneliness.
The emotionally lonely individual. In Alice’s case, I encouraged her to focus more on strengthening her important identities. This included reaching out to her children and visiting them, expressing what her intimate relationship needs are to potential future partners, and share her knowledge of administrative processes by volunteering in administrative capacities for local non-profit charities. Before moving on with Alice’s outcome I want the reader to note the qualities of these activities:
- Active involvement. Note that each of the things Alice and I agreed on doing required her to engage her world actively. I bit of warning if an individual is very resistant to actively engage their world this is a warning sign that they may be suffering from depression.
- Skill utilization. Each of the active requires Alice to engage in activities that are associated with a given identity.
- Socially meaningful. Each activity must not only provide Alice with a sense of meaning, but it must also contain a value for those around Alice.
- Personally meaningful. Each activity is something significant and meaningful to the individual and is not a task for a task’s sake. You may also notice it not a canned set of instructions on what to do when someone is experiencing emotional loneliness; they are all tasks directly related to who Alice sees herself as.
So, what was the outcome of Alice? Last time I talked with Alice, about three months after she initially contacted me, she is doing much better. She enjoys being with her friends and family again and feels like she has a place when she does visit them. Although she still does not have a steady intimate relationship, she said that being able to express her needs and wants allows the person to make decisions to continue seeing her not because she is a “bad girlfriend” but because they were not willing to accept her. She also is now a regular feature at a local non-profit providing office administrative classes, for a job development program. Alice said while her kids still do not call her as much, she enjoys how they light up and get excited when she visits. Probably more important Alice stated that when she does visit her kids they started asking her for ‘motherly advice.’
What do I do when I know someone who is emotionally lonely? First I would like to say, that the emotionally lonely person is a very good manipulator of a social situation to hide their emotions of loneliness and disconnection. So if your friend or family does express their loneliness, more than likely, they have been experiencing loneliness for a very long time. This means starting with “it will be okay” is a bad starter – or – as one person told me, they felt it was something about them that made the person lonely and immediately started asking what they had to do wrong to make them feel that way. I hope by this point the reader understands that emotional loneliness develops over time as the person experiences various insults to a meaningful identity(s) they hold about them self. Here is a list of potential to-dos:
- The best first liner is “when did you start feeling this way?” and in their answer try to find the insults they experienced that impact their identity.
- Encourage them to engage in activities they once found enjoyable.
- Try to provide opportunities for them to experience a positive view of their identity and who they are as a person.
- Encourage them to help with social activities utilizing skills you know they have.
- Encourage them to engage in helping behaviors like volunteering their time to meaningful charitable activities.
Again, before I make some concluding remarks, it is imperative to state, that if your friend or family member is resistant or avoidant of doing these things, they may be suffering from depression and at that point, it would be worth encouraging them to seek professional help. In conclusion, I hope that you have read some useful information, and that in the world where who one is becoming more and more diluted – and that making meaningful social connections is becoming increasingly hard, -that we remember that what makes us human is our need to have a significant social role in this world of ours. I encourage all my readers to make sure you engage in something socially meaningful every day, beyond likes on Facebook.
If you need more information about loneliness or are experiencing loneliness and need help please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org