Have you ever been lonely in a roomful of people?
Have you ever been perfectly content all alone?
Most people would answer yes to both questions
and yet a number of the same people complain of painful
chronic loneliness. What is loneliness?
Why are some people troubled with it so much more
than others. How can we help children understand
this difficult and painful emotion and what
can be done about it?

Loneliness is a feeling, not a fact.

The emotion we refer to as loneliness has its roots in an affect that has critical survival value for babies. We might call this affect the distress of abandonment. The sense of sadness and despair a small child or animal feels on being left alone is painful and elicits two kinds of behavior.

First the baby cries, which has the potential to get Mom's attention in case she has wandered off and misplaced the baby. Have you ever heard the plaintive sound of a bear cub or elephant calf separated from its mother? It is not difficult
to recognize the tone of fear and sadness in the sound of their cry.

If the mother is unable to or does not respond to this cry, the baby will eventually fall into a quiet state of despair and depression. Even this emotional state has survival value. For an infant separated from its mother, continued crying could attract the attention of a predator. Falling into a state of depression is the only option available to the infant to conserve its energy and give the mother time to sniff it out and come to the rescue.

Because the state of despair and depression is so painful, it is easily remembered and associated with abandonment.

So when we experience some reminder of abandonment later in life, it is natural to recreate the pain of distress and depression associated with abandonment, and this is the experience
we call loneliness. Reminders of abandonment can be subtle, such as scenes in a movie where a character is experiencing loneliness. Or they can be the natural reaction to the loss of an important person in your life.

We can also think of the possibility of future abandonment and create anticipatory loneliness, imagining a future life alone.

Accidental practicing of the thought and feeling of loneliness can lead to more frequent associations and reminders that evoke the feeling of loneliness. Loneliness can become a learned state of mind regardless of the reality of the individual's social circumstances.

Fear of loneliness can motivate us to seek friendship.

Loneliness may also have some survival value for adults because the prospect of loneliness may motivate us to reach out to others whom we need for survival. We are social animals and our best chance
of survival lies in our alliances and cooperation with others. The lowest status member in the tribe has a better chance of survival than one who is isolated and alone.

The pain of loneliness can also become a stumbling block.

Loneliness is not the same as shame, but shyness is a form of shame in the presence of strangers that can cause people to become isolated and associate their isolation with abandonment. Some people have such intense shyness that it interferes with their functioning because of their inability to risk rejection when they venture out in the social world.

Finally, shame and depression can lead a person to hide themselves and their feelings behind a social façade in much the same way that the abandoned infant hides quietly in the tall grass in its depressed state. Without reaching out, a person becomes more isolated in reality as well as in thought and feeling.

Because the brain is designed to pay attention to pain and danger, focusing on the pain of anticipated loneliness can lead one to withdraw in depression rather than do the things necessary to make new friends or strengthen old friendships.
Sometimes it leads to a belief that relationships are inevitably painful and therefore not worth the effort. This is potentially very dangerous, because the more time we spend alone, the more likely we are to reflect on the pain of loneliness or the anger over rejection. These emotions are hysically draining as well as socially disadvantageous.

In many cultures, human and animal, a grieving person becomes the focus of the attention of the group. The friends show up to prevent the widow or widower from withdrawing too much into their grief.

Understanding the basic emotions contributing to loneliness and social phobia can help us recognize and begin to correct the more extreme expression of these emotions.

Author's Bio: 

Brock Hansen, LCSW, author of Shame and Anger: The Criticism Connection, is a clinical social worker and personal effectiveness coach with over thirty five years experience in counseling individuals with a variety of problems related to shame and anger. Educated at Johns Hopkins University and Smith College School for Social Work and trained in hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming, as well as cognitive therapy, he has a private practice in Washington, DC. He is also available for telephone coaching and can be contacted by email at brockhansenlcsw@aol.com. Other articles on topics of shame and eating disorders and emotional intelligence for kids can be found on his website at www.ei4rkids.com and www.shame-anger.com. He lives near his DC office with his wife of 35 years, Penelope.