As a psychotherapist, I frequently observe how lonely and isolated people feel. Although they may be married or successful in their career, people often report a painful sense of disconnection or alienation.
Although there are varied reasons for experiencing a sense of isolation, here are three things I’ve noticed that may contribute to the epidemic of loneliness in our society.
Being Critical of Others
John Gottman’s research into what makes partnerships thrive has highlighted how criticism is one factor that leads to breakups (along with contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness).
Pointing out someone’s perceived flaws is usually experienced as hurtful. Many of us have grown up with painful criticism, which is toxic to well-being. Feeling criticized in our adult life may trigger a storehouse of pain that makes us want to withdraw. Or we may react to criticism by lashing out at the person who has criticized us. Attacking or withdrawing keeps us isolated and shuts down the potential for intimacy.
As we become more mindful of when we’re being critical, we can notice the feelings and unmet needs that underlie our criticisms. Instead of telling our partner with a sharp tone of voice that he is unavailable or that their work is more important than our relationship, we can reveal our loneliness and perhaps take a risk to ask for a hug — or a heartfelt conversation.
As we replace criticism with a more vulnerable expression of our tender feelings, we’re more likely to draw our partner and other people toward us.
Criticism is toxic because it triggers shame. Many of us grew up with a gnawing sense that something is wrong with us. When someone criticizes us, we may revert back to the hurt child — the one who can never do anything right. Shame is an extraordinarily painful emotion. When it gets triggered, we find ways to not feel it.
Bret Lyon, PhD, and Sheila Rubin, LMFT, who lead workshops on Healing Shame, describe shame as a form of trauma. Our impulse is to avoid it by shutting down — or we shift our shame to the other person, blaming them and making them feel badly. Lyon describes how shame is like a hot potato. We want to pass it on to the one who shamed us or transfer our shame to another person. This shame-transference is a reflection of the shame we carry inside and don’t want to feel.
Shame aversion — the refusal to feel any shame and work with it skillfully — is responsible for much of our isolation. Instead of allowing ourselves to notice when it arises, we push it away or dissociate from it because it feels so threatening; it dysregulates our nervous system.
Rather than sinking into shame and getting overwhelmed by it, we can notice it, allow it some space, and realize that shame has arisen in us, but that we are not the shame.
Believing We Should Be Perfect
The desire to be perfect has an insidious way of keeping us constrained and isolated. Perfectionism is often driven by shame and fear. We cling to the notion (usually unconscious) that if we can be perfect in our words and actions, then no one can shame or criticize us; rejection won’t hurt as much if we don’t make ourselves vulnerable.
Realizing that we are imperfect might prevent us from taking risks to connect with people. We hide our true feelings and desires, fearful that if we expose them we’d be rejected or humiliated. Our intention is to protect ourselves from pain, but keeping ourselves hidden increases a painful sense of isolation.
As we find more inner strength, we realize that it’s ok to have human flaws. We can accept and love ourselves, despite how people respond to us. We have no control over how others perceive us. But we do have control over how we hold and view ourselves — hopefully with respect and dignity, despite our shortcomings.
The failure to accept our imperfections may lead to stonewalling behavior, which Gottman identifies as another factor that leads to divorce. We hesitate to engage in authentic, meaningful conversations because we’re afraid that we’ll fail — or that it will make things worse. It’s safer to refuse to talk when our partner wants to discuss our relationship. We may find it more interesting to retreat to the computer room or watch television than have a soulful conversation.
Realizing that we don’t have to be perfect may inspire us to have more authentic communication with our partner or friends. Simply listening with an open heart can help us feel less isolated. Deeper connections can happen in our life by offering the gift of non-defensive listening.
We can find more meaning and richness in our relationships as we take the risk to be more vulnerable — revealing our authentic feelings rather than attacking or shaming people. We can live a less lonely existence as we let go of the isolating belief that if we can’t say or do something perfectly, then don’t say or do it.
We often experience the same thing that others feel but don’t express. The loneliness you may feel is rampant in our society. By taking the risk to engage with people — whether through your smile, your humor, or sharing your true feelings — you take a step toward healing your isolation. At the same time, you may be offering a gift that helps others feel less isolated, too.