As a psychotherapist, I often hear how lonely and isolated people feel. Even if married or successful in their careers, many people carry a painful sense of disconnection and alienation.
Here are some things that may be contributing to your loneliness and fueling the epidemic of loneliness in today’s society.
1. Criticizing People
John Gottman’s research into what makes partnerships thrive highlights criticism as one factor that leads to breakups, along with contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
As an interesting exercise, notice how often you silently or actively judge others. Many of us have grown up with so much criticism, whether at home, in school, or while playing sports, that it feels normal to be judged. But criticism hurts — a hurt we may deal with by protecting ourselves and not showing our true feelings and desires.
Building a wall to protect our tender self contributes to our isolation.
Feeling criticized in our adult life may trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response. We either withdraw or lash out at the person who has criticized us. Attacking or freezing up keeps us isolated and poisons 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 it. Instead of pouncing on our partner with a sharp, hurtful comment (“You’re so unavailable, your work is more important than our relationship!”), we can reveal our loneliness — and perhaps take the risk to be more vulnerable (“I’m feeling lonely for you,” or “I need a hug”). When we replace criticism with a more tender, less defensive response, we’re more likely to draw our partner toward us.
Criticizing others may be an extension of how you judge and shame yourself. Being more gentle with yourself may soften your tendency to criticize others.
2. Shaming Others
Toxic criticism triggers toxic shame. Many of us grew up thinking that something is wrong with us. When we become the object of criticism, we may revert back to the hurt child — the one who can’t do anything right. Shame is such a deeply painful emotion that when it gets triggered, we find ways to distance ourselves from it.
Bret Lyon, Ph.D., and Sheila Rubin, LMFT, who lead workshops on Healing Shame, characterize shame as a form of trauma. Our impulse is to avoid it by shutting down — or shift it to the other person, blaming them and making them feel the hurt that we don’t want to feel. Lyon describes shame as a hot potato. We want to pass it on to the one who shamed us or transfer it to another person. This shame-transference is a reflection of how painful shame is, and how we’ll do almost anything not to feel it.
Same aversion — the refusal to feel any shame and work with it skillfully — may contribute to our isolation. Instead of noticing when it arises and being gentle with ourselves, we dissociate from it because it feels so overwhelming; it deregulates our nervous system.
Rather than sinking into shame and getting flooded by it, we can notice it, allow it space, and realize that shame has arisen but that we are not the shame.
3. Struggling to Be Perfect
Perfectionism is often driven by shame and fear. We’re driven by the notion that if we can be perfect in our words and actions, then no one can shoot arrows of criticism at us. The problem with perfectionism is that it’s unattainable. And it diverts us from the emotional availability necessary to feel connected with people.
Avoiding shame by trying to be perfect prevents us from taking risks to show our authentic selves. We hide our true feelings, our weaknesses, and our wants, fearful that if we expose them we’ll be rejected or humiliated. Our intention is to protect ourselves from pain, but keeping ourselves hidden increases our isolation.
The more inner strength we tap into, the more we realize that it’s OK to have flaws.
We can accept and love ourselves despite how people respond to us. We have no control over how others might perceive us. But we do have control over how we view ourselves. The more we hold ourselves with respect and dignity, despite our shortcomings, the more we can reveal ourselves to people in a natural, straightforward way. As a result, there is more potential for real connection and intimacy in our lives.
The failure to accept our imperfections may lead to stonewalling behavior, which Gottman identifies as another factor that leads to divorce. We have difficulty engaging in authentic conversations because we’re afraid that we’ll fail — or make things worse. It’s safer to flee to the computer or television when our partner wants to discuss our relationship.
Realizing that we don’t have to be perfect may prompt us to talk more openly with our partners or friends. Listening with a sincere heart can help us feel less isolated.
Deeper connections can arise by offering the gift of non-defensive listening.
We can find more meaning and richness in our relationships if we take the risk to be more vulnerable — revealing our authentic feelings rather than attacking or shaming people. We will live a less lonely life if we let go of the isolating belief that if we can’t say or do something perfectly, then don’t bother.
The loneliness that you might feel is rampant in our society. By taking the risk to engage with people — whether through your smile, your humor, or sharing your feelings or a kind word — you take a step toward healing your isolation. Simultaneously, you may be offering a gift that helps others feel less lonely too.