Loneliness is a condition that all of us experience at some point in our lives.
We often think loneliness is brought on by external situations – a loss of a relationship or marriage, a death of a friend or family member, job loss or career change. It’s easy to acknowledge feelings of loneliness when one is going through an identifiable loss or transition.
However, loneliness can also be triggered by feeling unaccepted misunderstood. When we feel the need to hide our feelings or parts of our self, we often retreat from others. We feel less connected and more alone. This pattern often begins in early childhood and continues into adulthood. Violet Oaklander, author of Windows to Our Children, writes about how children cope with a parent who rejects the child’s anger because it is expressed in aggressive, chaotic or, sometimes, simply inconvenient ways. She writes,
“Children whose feelings aren’t listened to and acknowledged feel lonely. Their feelings are their very core, their very being, and if their feelings are rejected, the child feels rejected. So when a child says, “I feel lonely when I get mad – being mad makes me feel very lonely,” it is because he faces a world of people who will not remain in contact with him as he expresses his angry feelings. He is admonished, renounced, punished, avoided, and all this thrusts him into isolation.” (pg. 270.)
As a parent, I certainly recognize myself as this adult at times. But to be aware that our children need a safe and accepting place to express their intense feelings of anger, confusion, sadness, helps me provide space for my child’s strong emotions. I am able to react with more patience and less impulsive judgment or reactivity. I sit with my child or hold him if that helps. As I stay present to his upset, I remember that the act of staying connected to him emotionally is vital to his growing sense of connection to himself and his world.
While children suffer from their parent’s rejection or denial of strong feelings, as adults, we may continue the pattern we learned in our own childhood and reject our own strong, aggressive, chaotic or confusing feelings – our own childhood pattern lives on in the way we react to ourselves. As adults, we tend to adopt the same attitudes our elders had towards intense, negative reactions and, in turn, we reject these feelings in ourselves. The more we do not accept or avoid strong feelings and admonish ourselves for them, the more loneliness intensifies.
Oaklander writes about this well, “Holding in feelings results in loneliness. The less one is able to express what is going on inside, the more isolated and alienated one feels. Each time feelings go unexpressed, the protective wall or shell gets thicker and the feelings of loneliness swells behind the barrier.” (pg. 270.)
Adults go to great measures to escape loneliness. We busy ourselves with work, relationships, constant activity in order to escape our loneliness. To be and stay with our true selves can be very difficult and frightening. To do so, we must learn to self-confront, to look deeply at what we are experiencing and re-train our inner parent to self-soothe, so we can listen to, stay connected to and build relationships with the parts of us that have intense, aggressive, chaotic or confusing feelings. By staying connected to ourselves, we learn to relate more compassionately to more parts of ourselves, and to hold ourselves in new ways that allow us to feel connected to others as well. The ability to recognize and remain in contact with strong emotions is the beginning of the end of loneliness.