The Phenomenology of Loneliness

I recently went to a local farmers market and became aware of an  uncomfortable, vaguely depressed mood that I have experienced many times before when by myself in a public place:   a restaurant, a  shopping mall,  a movie theatre before the movie starts, or just walking down a busy city street.  I realized  at the market that I was feeling lonely and that I usually attempt to avoid  this painful affect by trying to escape it in various ways:  striking up a conversation with a stranger, leaving the public  scene as quickly as possible,  trying to vicariously enjoy  the interactions that I observed people having with each other.  More recently, I turn to my smart phone to read emails,  play a game or look up  the news on various apps on my phone.   But I  decided this time that, instead of avoiding my loneliness,  I would explore it, and deconstruct  it into it’s emotional components.

 Here’s what my self-exploration revealed to me.

I noticed that practically all of the people at the farmers market seemed to be having a good time with each other.  There were couples of all ages, families with children,  groups of teenagers.  The only people who acknowledged  me were those who were selling the food, flowers, crafts and plants.     Many people were tasting the samples of the various food booths.  Others had purchased meals to eat and were sitting at the tables provided for that purpose.  There was hardly anyone who seemed alone.

As I walked around, I also noticed myself looking to see if there were anyone I knew, perhaps a neighbor, a friend, someone from the gym where I work out.  I realized I was actually feeling a little  inadequate, that I was invisible to the people there.  I thought to myself:  here are all these people in families, enjoying themselves and each other and I’m alone!    No one is noticing me!  No one is caring about me, even recognizing my existence.  What does that imply abut me?  That I’m unworthy?    That I’m undesirable?  That I don’t belong with all these happy people?  How come I’m not with someone whom I can talk to, laugh, walk around and thus feel that I also belong here?

I also realized that, even though I have a loving wife,  good friends who care about me, loving family members (but in another city), I didn’t feel any connection to them at the farmers market.  From a logical perspective, there’s no reason  for me to feel cut off from other people.   But my experience was not at all logical!    In an important sense, the people in the world to whom I do matter, didn’t even exist for me psychologically during that excursion.

As I think about my experience there,  I realize that we human beings are, essentially, social creatures.  We would not have survived as a species unless we banded together thousands and thousands of years ago into groups and tribes.  As babies, we  have always needed caretakers to attach to, to feed and nurture us, to provide safety for us.  We used to need fathers and other males to protect us by fighting off wild animals and hostile  tribes who might want to take away what we have, kill us, or enslave us.

So, I thought that, at a very basic, core level, when we’re alone,  our very continued existence can feel at stake.   This sense of aloneness, at some pre-cortical brain level,  must trigger deep fears  of non-existence, even of death. I think that many people even experience a vague or acute sense of shame at being alone in a crowd of people who are relating to each other but not them.

When I was a child, with no sibs, one way I would attempt to deal with my loneliness was by planning to save up my allowance to buy something and I did a great deal of  browsing in stores for things I was obsessed with, such as a baseball mitt or a camera.  I bought magazines such as Popular Science and would read the ads at the back of the magazine and send away for “magical”  things like a code decoder ring or the parts for making a crystal set.  I would experience great excitement and impatience as I waited for the item to be sent to me.  Of course, when I received them, I was usually disappointed because they turned out to be not as magical as they were made to appear in the ads.  I was also an avid reader and was constantly checking out kids’ books and murder mysteries from the library.  I  particularly liked the sports novels by John R. Tunis and the mysteries of Agatha Christie.   Reading, to this day,  has always been a favorite pastime of mine.  I of course realize  that, when I am reading a book that captures my undivided attention, I am in contact with another human being, the writer of the book who is, in an important sense, talking to me.

Many of my clients through the years have either voiced a sense of inadequacy and worthlessness about being alone,  or felt  them at a preconscious level without awareness.  . From the symptoms they described, it was obvious they experienced a profound sense of loneliness.   Many have been unable to create lasting love relationships;  others were in committed relationships, including marriage, but were unhappy in them because there was a lack of emotional intimacy. Many could be described as loners.  Others seemed to be afraid of feeling lonely, so had to be constantly in contact with others.  (I think that the compulsive involvement with Facebook of some people may be a current manifestation of people who are afraid of feeling lonely.)

Part of the reason for these feelings is, of course, cultural.  We are taught that we’re supposed to pair up.   We’re supposed to have friends, and the more we have, the better.    But as I indicated above, there may even be biological causation involved, i.e., without at least minimally fulfilling relationships, starting at birth, humans can’t  survive as a species.

Many clients of mine who had parents who were unable fully to meet their psychological needs, starting at birth, did not develop the expectations that people in their worlds would greet them with interest and caring.  To use Transactional Analysis terminology, their preconscious assumptions are ether:   I’m Not Okay, You’re Not  okay; or I’m Not Okay, You’re okay.   The result in either case can be an avoidance of others or approaching others with a proverbial chip on the shoulder.  For example, one very large , powerful-looking ex-client of mine, having the expectation that others wouldn’t want to relate to him.  traveled  through his days mostly avoiding people but, when he did come in contact with them,  did so with a scowl on his face.  He wasn’t aware of this scow and, needless to say, most people he encountered shied away from him.  And he, noticing that, felt even more isolated and lonely.

Others compensate for expectations of being rejected by becoming involved in  competitive activities where they can vent the hostility they feel towards other and expect from them.   Still others,  who are lonely because of feelings of worthlessness,  attempt to compensate for the internal emptiness they feel by desperately, narcissistically  seeking attention and adulation from others.    Finally, addictions to drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, sex and internet porn are other ways that some people attempt to deal with the profound loneliness and emptiness they feel inside.

It is important to note that none of these methods really work on a long-term basis because they don’t solve the basic problem:  the lack of of a sustained sense of internal value and goodness and  strong, stable connections to other people.   At most, they provide temporary relief but, when they momentary soothing or gratification wears off, the person is again faced with his or her loneliness.

In my next posting, I will suggest effective ways of dealing with loneliness.  In the meantime, I welcome comments and discussion about this important issue.