A confession of a Chicago Tribune columnist named Marla Paul captured unexpected interest from the public when she stated in print “I am lonely. This loneliness saddens me.” She wrote “How did it happen that I could be forty-two years old and not have enough friends?”
She asked her husband if something was wrong with her. She wondered if people were just too busy for friends. “It seems as though every woman’s friendship quota has been filled and she’s no longer accepting new applicants”. She wondered if perhaps there were women ‘out there’ who don’t even know how lonely they are.
Then this journalist subsequently wrote about the unexpected nerve this column struck. People stopped her at work, while shopping, at her daughter’s school: “You too? I thought I was the only one”. The column elicited seven times as much mail as normal, and all the letters had the same theme: “Why do I feel so lonely? Why is it so hard to make good friends?”
Loneliness, said Mother Theresa, “is the leprosy of modern society”. And no one wants anybody else to know that they are a leper.
Most of our North American values seem to be based on two experiences in life: achieving and connecting. Achievement has to do with our accomplishments – attaining a lifestyle, a certain job, having kids, making it through schooling, pursuing career success, retiring in style. Connecting has to do with how we relate to others: things like falling in love, forming great friendships, being cared for when we are sick or receiving words of deep affection from others we care about.
Of these two experiences, achievement receives the most effort and time from the average person. Our society is focused on achieving status, wealth, fame and is increasingly bankrupt and impoverished when it comes to truly connecting with others.
Jean Twenge (2000) studied the increase of anxiety over the last four decades. She found that children and young adults are more anxious now than ever. In fact, she states that children having “normal” levels of anxiety today would have received psychiatric care thirty years ago. One of the reasons she believes anxiety is elevated is due to the disconnection of families across North America: job relocations, dysfunctional family relationships and divorce have demanded a huge toll in separating people from one another.
We may choose achievement over connection because of how we have been conditioned to see ourselves – in comparison with others. The result is that we focus on our own inadequacies and the differences between us instead of our commonalities. I think, “I’m not good enough”, so I isolate myself. In my isolation, I am lonely.
I dare not do the very thing I need the most – which is to reach out to you – because you might do the very thing I fear the most. You might reject me, and this “me” is all I have. Thus if I’m not sure you will like me, I’ll protect myself with busyness, with being very careful about appearances (so judgement can be avoided), and with the avoidance of situations where rejection could be possible.
Moving out of loneliness requires change. I will have to change how I think about myself and others.
I will have to change my patterns of avoidance and begin to attempt “risky behaviours”. I may need to risk rejection, risk the discomfort of new situations and, perhaps most frightening of all, risk having others learn of my imperfections! It is comforting to know that one commonality we share with every human is the fact that we are all imperfect.
Finally, to move out of loneliness, I need to change direction from an inward focus to an outward one. This can be done by changing the questions I ask, from “What am I going to get? to “What am I going to give?” From, “How can you help me?” to “How can I help you?” and finally, from “What can you do for me?” to “What can I do for you?”
The paradox of loneliness is this: Reaching out brings others in.
Reference: Twenge, J.M. (2000) The age of anxiety? Birth Cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952 – 1993. Journal of personality and social Psychology, 79(6), 1007 – 1021.