When we perceive ourselves as lonely, it can actually imperil our health. Research has shown that both perceived and actual social isolation were associated with increased risk of early mortality. Studies have found links between perceived loneliness and heart disease, while other research has suggested that loneliness and social isolation may be a greater threat to public health in the United States than obesity. On the contrary, when we feel socially included, both our physical and mental health improve. Feeling lonely can be temporary in cases like moving away from home or traveling on your own. It can be necessary like when exiting an unhealthy relationship or taking time to get to know yourself. Yet, loneliness isn’t something that we should take lightly. A loneliness survey, conducted by AARP, showed that more than 42 million U.S. adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.
According to the Encyclopedia of Human Relationships, “the most broadly accepted definition of loneliness is the distress that results from discrepancies between ideal and perceived social relationships.” The key word here is “perceived.” Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Individuals can feel isolated or outcast in even the most social-seeming of circumstances. Alarmingly, one study in the United Kingdom, which surveyed millions of people, showed that one in 10 people didn’t feel they had a single close friend.
“As a social species, humans rely on a safe, secure social surrounding to survive and thrive,” wrote loneliness researchers Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo. So, what is making us feel so isolated? Science may be offering many answers to this question. Studies have shown that lonely people have more fear of negative evaluation and often engage in overly cautious social behaviors that perpetuate their social isolation. Ironically, social media has even been linked with increased feelings of social isolation among young people.
While there are many elements in our society that can drive us to feel removed or alienated, the prevalence of loneliness across a population of diverse ages and social backgrounds drives us to look closer at the personal psychological factors that are at play. “The isolation and comfort of contemporary society carry with it the risk of reinforcing psychological defenses that contribute to an inward, self-protective, and somewhat emotionally deadened way of being and living,“ wrote my father, Robert Firestone, in a book we co-authored Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion. Individuals build certain psychological defenses to adapt to their early environment that can hurt or limit them in their current lives. These defenses can lead to feelings of alienation, isolation, and depression. To truly face and fight our loneliness, we have to look inside at these deeper defenses, as well as the self-image we formed as a result.
Our psychological defenses come from negative experiences early in our lives that caused us to develop certain adaptations and behaviors, so we could feel safe and secure in our environment. An angry, erratic parent may have led us to stay quiet and retreat inward so as not to attract attention. An unavailable, distant or rejecting parent may have similarly caused us to retreat and try to be self-sufficient, taking care of our own needs. As adults, we maintain these adaptations even when they are no longer conducive to our current lives and relationships. We may be reluctant to trust again. We may harbor old fears of rejection, negative anticipations, or cynical views. We may project negative qualities onto others and practice caution in how we approach them.
In addition to having suspicious feelings toward others and self-protective attitudes toward ourselves, we tend to be self-critical, seeing ourselves in the same unfavorable ways we were seen or treated in our early lives. For example, if we felt invisible, burdensome, obnoxious, or unimportant in our family of origin, we may carry these shameful feelings inside us and listen to self-critical thoughts or “critical inner voices” that put us down in regard to new relationships.
These “voices” don’t just isolate us by criticizing us and diminishing our confidence but by tricking us into self-protecting. “Don’t trust her,” it says, “she’s probably using you.” “Stay home tonight. You don’t need the stress of going out and talking to people. Things are too hectic. You need your own space. ” These voices can seem self-soothing when they entice us not to take chances, but they’re self-punishing the minute we listen to them. Even in a crowd of friendly faces, our critical inner voice can try to sabotage us into feeling alone, “No one here really knows what you’re like or who you really are. You have everyone fooled, don’t you?”
These destructive attitudes and expectations can lead us to engage in distancing behaviors and adopt pseudo-independent tendencies that push people away. Our defense may be to toughen up and act like we don’t want anything from anyone anyway. Or, it may be to get shy and try to stay in the background. We may remove ourselves from others and indulge the feeling that we are a burden. Ultimately, we are driven to be inward.
In Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion, we discuss inwardness as “a retreat into oneself.” In an inward state, a person adopts “a lifestyle characterized by a decrease of feeling for oneself and others, a reliance on painkilling habit patterns and substances, and a defensive, self-nurturing orientation toward life.” We seek satisfaction internally and spend our time engaging with our critical inner voice. As my father wrote, “We relate to these “negative parental introjects instead of real objects (or people).” He continued:
From this detached vantage point, one is observing oneself rather than experiencing one’s life. The person’s gaze is focused inward, on him- or herself, rather than outward toward others. Events in the interpersonal environment are filtered through this distorted lens of self-absorption, transformed (given a negative loading) by the voice process, and responded to inappropriately in a self-defeating manner.
The dramatist Eugene O’Neill once wrote, “Man’s loneliness is but his fear of life.” Our tendency to seek isolation and retreat from interactions with others is a way of punishing ourselves and indeed, retreating from life. Most of us move in and out of the state of being defended and listening to our critical inner voice and truly being ourselves, coming alive, and being vulnerable and open to others.
Our fight against loneliness is therefore more of an internal struggle than we may imagine. It is primarily a matter of being a friend to ourselves, standing up against our inner critic and challenging our core defenses. We must cultivate a compassionate attitude as we step out of our comfort zone and risk making a mistake or getting hurt. When we discover and befriend ourselves, we learn who we really are stripped of our defenses. And when we know ourselves, we are more inclined to form deeper friendships with others. We’re better able to create lasting connections that won’t repeat patterns from our past that reinforce old, negative identities.
When we do this, we can expect to feel challenged. Inwardness offers us a means to feel miserable, but also safe in our shell. Our defenses do the same, keeping us in an old, familiar state of being. We can find caring friends who help challenge our inwardness, but the real work begins with us, in consistently finding the strength to evict our inner enemy, in believing that we are lovable, and by making the space to let people in.