A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend to catch up on the newness in our professional lives, relationships, and family. Despite the exciting details of my present personal life one thing I have learned about being a therapist is that sometimes people just end up being more interested in my professional life. Thus, my friend who had never been to counseling or done any therapy before, started asking me a slew of questions about my job that began with, “What do most people come to you for?”
“Loneliness.” I answered her.
“No no, like do you see more people struggling with addiction. . . wait don’t you work with eating disorders? And what type, or what about marriage problems/breakups?” She shot back.
“100% without a doubt, the majority of what I talk about with clients is lack of connection with self and community. Which is loneliness. . . at its finest.”
The look I got back from my friend was one that I assumed was attached with a long “interestiinggggg. . . she still doesn’t get my question” inside her head.
I got her question though. And I also got why she was confused. I believe most of us would be. I rarely experience an intake session where a client answers, “What brings you in here?” with “I am here to cure my loneliness.”
It usually sounds like one of the things my friend mentioned; I’ve been drinking too much, I am struggling with an eating disorder, my boyfriend broke up with me, I recently lost someone I love, etc.
The reality behind this is that most people do not realize that the loneliness epidemic we, as a country, are in is real.
An alarming number of Americans are experiencing the life-threatening effects of loneliness. And a lot of us are not even aware of it.
And when people get frustrated because they can’t seem to “get better” it might be because they are putting a cast on an arm that is scraped while walking on a foot that is broken.
As in, we might be treating the wrong thing-we are giving all of the attention to the parts of our story we can visibly see and ignoring the parts we can’t-that might be the bigger issue. I can see your drinking “problem,” but I can’t physically see your loneliness.
Connection to others is an actual physical and emotional need that humans have, and we are missing the mark at alarming rates.
No big deal you say? According to an article published this March in Psychology Today, “People with less than three people they can confide in are twice as likely to die from heart disease than those with more confidants.” The same article pointed out that the lack of sufficient social connections is a bigger risk factor in health than obesity and the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
I’d say this is a big deal.
But how do we get from loneliness as the problem to everything else? We ignore, we push away, we numb.
Here is a fact: The emotional pain we feel from loneliness hits the same neuropathways in the brain as physical pain. Loneliness causes an intense sense of discomfort, and well, we humans do not like feeling uncomfortable. Insert numbing strategy.
However, this shows how incredible our bodies are. It is no accident that our emotional loneliness causes physical hurt/pain.
You know that whole phenomenon of how feeling pain is a tool to keep us safe? For example: We feel pain when we touch something hot. This signals that it is dangerous and we shouldn’t touch it. Aka keeping us safe from burning off our hands.
The same idea applies to our loneliness . . .
We have a physically painful reaction to feeling lonely to signal that something is dangerous. I repeat: We were created to be in community. Therefore, loneliness is dangerous- much like touching a hot stove.
Our hurt/pain connected to feeling lonely tells us that we need something–that need is human connection.
This is where we get lost. This is the “insert numbing strategy” area. Instead of reaching out, we pull inward. We drink, we eat, we watch porn or even better. . . The Real Housewives. . . or maybe download a dating ap. We ignore the intense feeling of disconnection and find false ways to connect which actually keeps us hidden.
So yes, the majority of what I treat is loneliness. And the treatment is simple. I love people, I encourage people, I listen to their stories, and create a soft place for individuals to land when life feels painful. But I also push people outward. Moving from lonely to connected requires us to do one of the most challenging things on this planet–become vulnerable. We have to open ourselves up to the very thing that freaks us out–the opportunity to be rejected.
In a Tim Ferris podcast I recently listened to called “Overcoming, Managing and Using Fear” Vince Vaughn was interviewed. Vince spoke about how he believes that the woods we create around fear are greater than the actual thing we are afraid of. I think he is onto something. We create these huge forests around the ability to move out of disconnection and into vulnerability and connection that is far greater than the feeling of being rejected.
We have all been rejected before (AND MADE IT OUT ALIVE), and we will again. I can promise you this. But staying hidden and lonely is much much more damaging to your emotional, and even physical health, than being rejected.
I am going to leave you with a challenge. Because loneliness is an actual epidemic that means that not only maybe you, but someone you know, is suffering from it right now. So, this week move outward, make dinner plans, join a ceramics class, ask the girl in your boxing class how her day was. You’re not only moving away from your loneliness, you could be pulling someone further from theirs.
I don’t know a lot of things- but I do know everyone on this planet deserves a tribe. Everyone. Every human that has a beating heart in this moment deserves to be loved, deserves to feel like they belong, and deserves to have a friend to call just because they are bored. Sometimes this piece of truth can be hard to swallow and hard to believe, I know. However, today I want to encourage you to move out of the lie that you have to earn your way to finding community- you cannot earn that and trying will leave you hurt and lost. This loneliness problem we have is rooted in stories we make up that are not true. And what is true . . . that you’re amazing and it’s so insanley incredible how amazing you are.
We didn’t get here alone- and we won’t get out of here alone either.