Friday, July 29, 2011

A Cure for Loneliness

One day Emily White thought she was going crazy. Her everyday anguish has started producing “a constant line of chatter” in her mind.

She knew that hearing voices was possibly a sign of an incipient schizophrenic breakdown, so she went to consult with a therapist.

After hearing White explain her symptoms, the therapist told her: “You’re lonely.”

I trust that White counts herself fortunate. She managed to find a therapist who was more interesting in telling her the truth than in making her a psychiatric patient.

Emily White was suffering from social isolation. She did not connect, did not feel that she fit in, and had no one to confide in. This constellation os symptoms produced some very painful emotions.

Philosophers describe it as mental anguish. Sociologists call it anomie. In common parlance it is called loneliness.

But loneliness is not the only emotion that comes from being socially disconnected. Mild forms include embarrassment and shyness. More severe forms range from feelings of abandonment and rejection to feelings of isolation and failure to feelings of being ostracized and stigmatized.

These all belong to a constellation of emotions that relate to the social sanction of shame.  

For those of us who consider that therapy and even coaching has not spent enough time studying shame, it is important to define the emotions that belong to its force field.

White has written widely and well about the fact that society prefers largely to ignore loneliness. It has taken up arms to fight depression, addiction, psychosis and other forms of emotional distress.

And yet, no one even wants to talk about loneliness.

Why should this be so? Could it be because there is no pill to treat loneliness. Psychiatry does not have a stake in the game, so it ignores the game.

Doubtless therapists understand that the cure for loneliness cannot lie in their bag of pharmaceutical tricks. After all, once you call it loneliness you know that the treatment is better relationships with other people.

It’s one thing to say that you need some Prozac. It’s quite another to say that you need to make some new friends.

Courageously, Emily White understood that she was not depressed, and not suffering from a psychiatric illness. She had made efforts to connect with other people. She had been able to form and sustain relationships. She had found intimacy. She worked effectively as a lawyer.

In therapy culture lingo, she did not really have “issues.” To her great credit she understood that her loneliness did not signal an unresolved psychological problem.

And this is a good thing. Therapists who tell you that you need to resolve your “issues” before you can make new friends are also telling you, perhaps unbeknown to themselves, not to bother trying.

For someone who is lonely and disconnected this is very bad advice indeed. It is the problem, not the solution.

Many therapists have serious difficulty dealing with shame-based problems. They assume that someone who is lonely must have a problem. They have learned that loneliness is a punishment for those who have done something wrong in another life, and they teach their patients that they will never find fulfilling relationships unless they search their souls and find out what is wrong with them.

As I say, this approach has produced more loneliness than it has cured.

After all, loneliness has been on the march in America for decades. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam explained it in his seminal work: Bowling Alone.

Perhaps it is merely coincidence, but the more therapy has taken over our culture the more we have seen people become lonely. I would suggest that loneliness is being produced by the therapy culture.

Happily for her, Emily White did not succumb to the temptation to pathologize her behavior. She did not believe that her loneliness was a sign of some deep-seated personality flaw. She did not accept that she was alone because of something she had done, some un-expiated sin.

Not at all. She asserts, correctly, that her loneliness was the product of happenstance. Her father passed away. Her sisters were much older and had their own lives and families. Close friends had moved away or had moved on to different stages of their lives.

She was sufficiently sociable. Her social skills might have been somewhat rusty, but they were not absent.

She was working as a lawyer, and thus, had a circle of colleagues in the office. Her time was organized around her job, so she was not facing a situation where she would have to create her own structure.

Still, she was alone. After work on Friday evenings she saw her colleagues head off to their full lives. She dreaded returning home to her cat in an empty house.

Once she tried going on a bicycle trip with a group of strangers, but that did not work. It is possible to make new friends on vacation, but whatever group routines you develop on a four day long trip will probably not survive the return to normalcy.

Eventually, White joined a basketball league. There she found camaraderie and a routine involving other people. She also found a “partner,” with whom to have a relationship.

One senses that when White felt lonely, the weekends were the worst. Doesn’t that tell us something about our modern culture, namely that the traditional community-based solution to workless days, that being religion, has largely fallen into disuse.

I am all for basketball leagues, and bowling leagues, and other regularly organized group activities. But we should not ignore the fact that religious services, to say nothing of participating in activities that are sponsored by churches and synagogues, can offer a powerful treatment for loneliness.

Yet, large numbers of our fellow citizens refuse to have anything to do with “organized religion.”

The war against religion, and especially the war against organized religion dates to the eighteenth century. It is not a novelty.

It continues to attract adherents by pretending that atheism makes you sophisticated and intelligent. Once it has convinced you that it’s cool to be an atheist, it has blocked your path to religion.

Keep in mind, no group of people has ever congregated on a Sunday morning to celebrate nothing. There is no such thing as an atheist community.

Worse yet, the current mania about atheism has produced an unfortunate side-effect. Namely, that attendance at religious services and participation in events sponsored by a religion has come to be stigmatized.

Admitting that you attended the church picnic will immediately label you slightly bizarre, a rube, a naif, someone who lacks social sophistication and even intelligence.

In promulgating atheism, our sophisticated modern culture has isolated has, along with therapy, isolated people from each other and produced what Emily White calls an epidemic of loneliness.

See also White’s book: Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude.

3 comments:

The Ghost said...

I have been a loner much of my life and can understand the terror that comes with the end of the work week … especially when I was single ...

Ethel said...

Pretty effective info, thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Most of this post is very interesting and informative, but why the lash at atheists in the final paragraphs? People do not become atheists because it's cool or because of some peer pressure. Being atheist simply means not believing that gods exist. You may agree or disagree with them, but you can't tell them they should believe in God so that they can join a church and be less lonely. I simply don't believe that there are such things as gods just like I don't believe there are ghosts around me right now. And while I wish I had something similar to church to be able to reconnect with community, I just can't decide to flick a switch and start believing in stuff I don't think is here in the hope that this may cure me of my loneliness