Being Lonely and Being Alone

Language... has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone. Paul Tillich

How is it possible to feel so lonely, to feel such a struggle in connecting with other people? Why is it that making these efforts feels so unnatural, so alien to a state of ease? Those questions may seem odd to many people for whom relating to others is experienced very differently, with eager excitement and joy. But for those with social anxiety, the experience of being with others produces an acute sense of jeopardy.   

As a psychologist, I can offer perspective on the genesis of this condition. Insecure attachment with care givers can lead to a life-long vulnerability to feelings of insecurity in the presence of others, at least many others. Among the insecure there are those who respond with an accommodating style that can be self-effacing, while others may adopt an avoidant style. And of course, there is temperament.  

Given such considerations, we usually arrive at a 50/50 attribution of cause; it’s the nature-nurture middle ground. It’s a separate matter to reflect upon the experiences of being alone versus being lonely. I believe that most of us do want and need some social-emotional intimacy. Therefore, I am somewhat skeptical of those who dismiss this basic human need by invoking the alone-loneliness distinction.  

When Being Alone is Loneliness

Pain. Unease. Watching with envy and longing. Chronic negative self-evaluation. Assertiveness and confidence issues. These are signals that we are not feeling free, well, worthy, and that we suffer a chronic sense of being relegated to living life in emotional isolation. Note that these characterizations typify the extreme end of the introvert-extrovert continuum, and most if not all of us make choices to settle. 

Perhaps we settle for a while before noticing that we are missing something, wanting fulfillment of affiliation or intimacy needs. And upon noticing some of us are able, sometimes with the support of a significant other or even in a new situation with new acquaintances, to venture forth. But for many these choices are difficult, especially insofar as the internal sense of being alien persists. 

That’s where psychotherapy becomes vitally important. Psyche, self, person, they are all references to that inner, subjective center of experience, the living I. For even as our outwardly facing identity as a Me evolves and “works” for us, it may work better (be more functional) in particular situations and for particular purposes, i.e., professional role, customer in a café, etc. Incongruencies between I an Me can arouse pain.  

Adaptive Development

Relational psychotherapy is informed by an understanding of how caring relationships shape our sense of identity, emotional security, and social confidence. A psychologist engages with the client as a certain kind of intimate other, as an expert and trusted guide to self-discovery. He or she helps you discover, examine, and, where necessary, helps you reshape influences that limit your growth as a person.  

The self is socially constructed in the beginning, first in the arms of our caregivers and in our family of origin. Then, as we move beyond the home, to school and community, broader forces affect us, some prompting learning and change, others reinforcing aspects of our self-identity, i.e., attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings. Family plays an ongoing role of responding to our changes. 

And so, proceeds personal development into the workplace, in intimate adult relationships. At critical points along the way (inflection points), we receive “calls” to reflectively adapt to challenges that are new or overwhelming. Among the “calls” that we may recognize and respond to is the call to know and accept ourselves more completely, and to learn to reveal ourselves more authentically with others.  

As we do this, first in therapy, and then outside of therapy, we are able to overcome certain inhibitions to engaging authentically with others. With each advance in this direction, in therapy and then beyond, insecurities soften and sometimes melt away. Ways of being with others that prove satisfying develop. We find our most natural ways to be with others and further dimensions of self are born and mature.