Recently someone requested I write an article about loneliness. I wasn’t sure what to write. Then I watched the first season of “Californication” and was feeling a little down myself and figured I could parlay that into an article.
First it is important to identify two types of loneliness. People can feel lonely because they are missing someone or are simply alone when they would prefer to be with someone else. The other type of loneliness is more pervasive and is felt even when in the company of many others. As both types can be distressing, this article will briefly discuss both.
First, there is real benefit in being comfortable alone. If we accept this as true it may indicate an issue if you are feeling uncomfortable when alone most times. It has long been my belief that in life we try very hard to avoid the fact that ultimately we are alone. We are born alone, we live alone in our skins (meaning no one really knows us completely, and no matter how close we are to someone we are ultimately alone) and we die alone (no matter who is there when you take your final breath or who attends your funeral). Sometimes when you are alone for a period, this ominous feeling can come upon you reminding you of how alone you are.
In existential therapy, you would be encouraged to experience this sense of solitude from everything and accept it as reality. Time alone can assist with this experience. At the same time I believe it is best to have balance in your life. This means not wallowing in this sense of aloneness, and instead sometimes distracting yourself from it by being with friends or otherwise engaged in activities that allow you to feel connected to others. I believe there is a balance between our being solitary and at the same time connected. But many existentialists would disagree. Regardless of the method, it is important to accept the solitude nature of your existence (which is described above).
The other, more pervasive, feeling of being alone is more pathological. Although accurate, it seems to feed upon itself and render the individual depressed and isolated. This individual feels alone even when in a crowd. It often seems no amount of contact can bring the person out of this feeling. It is my opinion that this form of loneliness is derived from depression. In this regard, I believe this type of depression stems from the death instinct. Freud was the first to identify the life and death instinct that he believed existed in all people. The life instinct was the libido, and one result of its energy was to bring individuals into fruitful contact. This doesn’t just refer to procreation, but to survival of oneself and the species. We need others to survive.
The death instinct, or aggression, is more destructive. It seems in many people this death instinct is overactive, and leads to self destructive behaviors. For some this is demonstrated in the social isolation that results in loneliness. On one hand the individual longs for contact with others, and on the other the thought produces anxiety or, in another scenario, the person uses defense mechanisms to make themselves superior and can then find few worthy of close contact. Either way the result is the same: an individual who remains isolated and alone.
So what is to be done about loneliness? First, as I hope I have made clear, one should at least attempt to embrace the fact that ultimately they are alone. Second, they should make the effort to connect with others, despite full connection being impossible (yet often longed for). The connection people can experience together can be very powerful, and help to provide energy to the life instinct. The problem with this culture is that often people aren’t really connecting, instead they engage in pseudo-connections. These pseudo connections may be demonstrated in compulsive or empty sex, superficial relationships, internet networks, and other unfulfilling endeavors. Human connection is wrought with potential problems, but it is the best source of connection we have available. The problems of human relations can be overcome, or at least managed. The first step is to really listen, and to seek to be understood. Often, for people that cannot find a suitable partner for this endeavor therapy will assist in both meeting the need initially and providing guidance in making this happen outside of the therapeutic relationship.
This seems so simple: when pervasively lonely simply connect with others. But there are often an array of issues that inhibit the simple solution. These can range from a debilitating depression, generalized anxiety, or social awkwardness, among other things. However, the ability to connect with others is vitally important to a happy and healthy life. In most studies on happiness supportive relations are identified as important contributors to happiness.
One final point is important to make: in this culture there is a tendency to idolize the melancholy and the loners, at least by some people. Hank Moody in “Californication” is self destructive because he lost the love if his life (the mother of his child). He sleeps with many women and drinks excessively in an attempt to escape the loneliness he is feeling. Despite spending much of his time with others he seems hopelessly alone, misunderstood, and depressed. Perhaps this is why so many people feel connected to his character. Of course this character is not the only one idolized who experiences this. The list is extensive. This can be another obstacle to breaking free from the death instinct. But in reality, death will eventually take you. Why not embrace your life while you can?