So I read recently that loneliness can reduce your life expectancy by up to 14 years, as much as smoking. Feeling lonely is a hugely underestimated continuing traumatic event. It can often get confused with our ability to be alone and to sit with ourselves. For some people being alone is unbearable because they genuinely cannot stand their own company. They are tortured by the thoughts in their head and the constant commentary of abusive self-criticism. So they need other people to distract them. That is very different from feeling lonely – to the point of feeling cut off from the rest of the human race.
When we lived in tribes, our very survival depended on being able to rely on other people and in turn them relying on us. It was literally life and death. If you were ostracized from the group, you perished. You died. Attachment to others was survival. Indeed for every infant attachment is survival. If our primary caregivers are not attached to us, if they do not meet our basic needs for food and comfort, then we don’t survive. So for those who may have had difficult primary attachments, then contact with others feels as though it is about survival, even into adulthood. It's why groups trigger so much of our difficult emotions - groups like families, school, workplace or other social groupings.
"Who knows what true loneliness is - not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion" Joseph Conrad
So, if you feel like you are dying because you do not have contact or connection with other people, then it is not surprising that suicide can become an option. Loneliness leaves you physically cold, raw, exposed, unprotected. Being alive can become unbearable. Human beings need other human beings. Even more problematic is our response to being rejected and cut off – that is to isolate ourselves even further, because it seems less painful. If I reject them first, then I can somehow protect myself from the hurt. If I shut them out, then they cannot shut me out. And so the cycle of isolation continues.
Of course, this is a different feeling from being alone. Spending time alone can be vital too, to connect with yourself, to reflect, to be still, to become grounded. When connection and contact feel like a choice that changes everything. Being abandoned or cut off is not a choice. This is one component of why young people suffering from bullying can be driven to take their own lives. They are cut off from their tribe, pushed out to the fringes, unaccepted and disconnected. It feels like their very survival is at risk. On top of that they don’t have the life experience of knowing that no feeling, however painful, will not last forever, it will change and transform into something else.
So there are some different ways of approaching this. Either we say that people are responsible for themselves, or we are responsible for each other. But this is straying into political philosophy – strange isn’t it, how our world view can vastly impact on individuals. Compassion and self-compassion are vital I think, in addressing this. If we are moved by the suffering of others, we will attempt to connect and ease their pain. If we are moved by our own suffering, we will attempt to connect with ourselves and the need to get comfort from others too.
"We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness." Albert Schweitzer
It is hard to ask for what you need from others. We risk them saying no. We risk rejection. And yet, if we don’t risk that – we may be risking our very lives.
Dr Murphy - signing off