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the meaning of loneliness: 1/ what is loneliness, really?

This is a series of essays on a subject that I’m interested in exploring in 2014: loneliness. Last year at Mindsprings we concentrated a lot on anxiety and how mindfulness can work to lessen the pain around this ubiquitous experience. This year I would like to concentrate on loneliness. Statistics show that one in ten Britons feel lonely and since the 1970s more than twice as many people live alone. It affects young people as well as old. It is painfully embarrassing or shameful to admit to others that we’re feeling lonely. There’s good evidence that social isolation is detrimental to our health and longevity. Yet, anyone who’s been lonely for long stretches knows that it’s a difficult state to navigate. The following blogs and the courses we’re running in the summer is an attempt to start thinking about what the real meaning of loneliness is for us as humans. And whether, like anxiety, the ‘problem’ lies not in the situation but the way we experience the situation. By mindfully experiencing the emotions behind loneliness; understanding how we generate them by labelling our situation in a certain way. And by exploring other ways of being solo in the world then we hope to change the debate about loneliness and change our fear of it. i/ what is loneliness really?

I have a T-shirt of a fish in a bowl that says “Every one gets lonely sometimes”. Anyone who says they’ve never been lonely is probably a) lying b) very unaware of themselves c) so petrified of feeling it that they’ll do anything to avoid it. And yet in our contemporary world, I have the feeling, that it’s more shameful to tell your friends you’re feeling lonely than to say you have a drug problem.

(Everything that I’m saying here is a surmise. I would like it to be an open invitation to comment and correction. I find that is the beauty of blogs – they pool many wise people’s thoughts on the same subject.)

There have been times in my life that the loneliness has been almost unbearable

I’ve been asking lots of my friend’s about this subject of loneliness and I am fascinated and heartened by their various and illuminating responses. I often feel lonely and there have been times in my (not so distant) life that the loneliness has been almost unbearable. Saturday night – alone at home. Not necessarily for want of options but in part from a pre-programming which leaves me alone on a Saturday night. Because I’m single. Because of this, because of that. But here in these essays, I’m not so interested in the why – I’m interested more in the what?

What is loneliness, really?

With my therapist hat on, I am aware that loneliness is really the name we give to a cluster of emotions that arise from noticing we’re on our own. My particularly cocktail is shame and sadness. For me, there’s a potent mix of feeling that “it shouldn’t be like this” and a gloom at the isolation I feel. Talking to others, the mixture is somewhat different: there are splashes of anger and resentment, some people feel cross with the situation or with their friends. Abandonment is also a strong streak. As is grief.

(Please do let me know what you might consider being the emotional contents of a really blue Saturday night on your own. Sharing is caring.)

Canvassing around, but trying to avoid sounding falsely authoritative, I might hazard a guess that loneliness is not a core emotion but is the name we retrospectively give to a potent mix of negative emotions that can arise when we are alone. I would say there is definitely sadness, resentment and most potentially shame involve. (Shame is a horrid emotion and no one likes to get near it. Which of course makes it even more horrid).

Sadness. Shame. Resentment.

The sadness of being abandoned and alone is very primal

These are all core emotional states – common across the mammalian world. Jaak Panksepp’s work on the affective brain shows that they key into our RAGE, GRIEF/PANIC modalities. And it’s interesting that PANIC is different in this model from FEAR. Fear is fear of an external danger attacking you – and panic is the anxiety aroused by being abandoned or about to be abandoned by your carers or your tribe.

So let’s look at the panicky side of loneliness first. When Panksepp talks about PANIC/GRIEF he is speaking about the very ancient parts of the brain that are primarily concerned with our survival. For little humans, being abandoned is a death sentence since we are effectively born a couple of years early. To be abandoned is to be doomed. This is why the sadness of being abandoned and alone is very primal.

However, there is a second component of the PANIC/GRIEF system. This is about being judged and found wanting, ostracised by our tribe, and this brings me on to a very important part of the scaffolding that holds up our loneliness: social shame.

When I was feeling particularly lonely in my life, the sharpest pang was the idea that I had failed socially. And when you look dispassionately at the society that we live in, it’s no wonder.

It is actually essential to the continued success of consumer-driven economies that we do not ever feel content with our own being

Every portion of contemporary consumer society is aimed at making us feel a little inspired and a lot inadequate. Every advert showing happy young hipsters swigging rum on a Caribbean island or jolly families having jolly arguments over Sunday lunch. Or stylish couples in love: every one of these is designed to make you feel lonely. Even if you have a family, a lover or friends. The adverts and messages on TV or film are designed to make you want better friends, family or lovers.

It is actually essential to the continued success of consumer-driven economies that we do not ever feel content with our own being. If we were happy in our own skin, no one would buy very much. Thoreau didn’t need a new iPad on Walden Pond.

Even our wild over-connectivity via the Internet seems to link us up to more and more people. But in fact to fewer and fewer people that we really know. And those people we do know are continually sending us pictures of how happy/ married/ sociable they are. Which do for free what the movies and adverts do at great cost. In fact, we get locked into updating our statuses compulsively so we can prove to the world that we’re not lonely. Even if we are. Particularly if we are. Even, perhaps, because all this phoney reassuring is making us lonely.

It is the continually generated fear of loneliness that drives us into a frenzy of activity

So, in one way, it’s not surprising 10 % of well-to-do Britain feels lonely. It’s not a fault in our genes. Rather a direct consequence of living in the sort of world we live in. The feeling of loneliness, I would venture, is built into our current social setup. Rather than being an aberration, there’s a good case that it’s essential for the set-up to work. It is the continually generated fear of loneliness that drives us into a frenzy of activity (sometimes shopping) and makes us fear and stigmatise the thing we’ve been told we’re running away from.

This also might explain the element of resentment in our loneliness. Perhaps on one level, there is a part of us that realises that it’s not our fault that we’re feeling lonely – that maybe, it’s not us but the world.

This, of course, really inflames the “World” that we imagine is sitting in judgement. When an angry old man or angry young woman (for that matter) rails against people for abandoning them. It really riles all the people who have been more successful in out-running the phantom Loneliness. They tut and wrinkle their noses and mutter: if you weren’t so damn angry then perhaps you’d have some friends. But maybe the angry isolated person is right: it isn’t me, it’s built into the system…

Loneliness is actually a social construct

In summary, I might float the idea that loneliness is actually a social construct to use that blowsy phrase. We feel it because we’re social animals and somehow our social setting is making us feel unwelcome. Or so we think.

In the next blog, I’d like to open the discussion about whether loneliness is a given when we find ourselves alone or if it is created by our habitual labelling of that experience.

Please do comment and contact me with your thoughts and experience of loneliness and whether you feel I’m barking up the wrong lonely tree here.

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