background

  

                                  I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.

   
Living with loneliness is indeed a challenge on our journey through life, even for the strongest person. Perhaps you’ve traveled on the Loneliness Highway and reached the point where you joined other lonely hearts in singing the old song, “I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Tragically, for some individuals the level of loneliness leads to depression and even to thoughts of death. Other people struggle but somehow manage to exit the Loneliness Highway for safer travels on a better roadway. Changing highways can be difficult, just as it is hard to get off of the “island of loneliness” where you’ve been stranded and stuck for too long. Whether your image of loneliness is a highway or an island, you know the heart-pain that you feel. Without doubt a lonely heart is a hurting heart.

Ideally, we might prefer to eliminate every bit of loneliness, but the realistic result of the human condition is that some loneliness will probably accompany us in our travels through life. Our challenge is to recognize loneliness and to use practical tools for managing it effectively. A survival attitude could include this admonition about loneliness:  “Eliminate all that you can – learn to live with the rest.” Believe it or not, we CAN learn to live with loneliness. There may be times, strangely enough, when some loneliness might even be beneficial and useful to us. I invite you to join me as we explore this difficult issue of loneliness.


Meeting Loneliness . . .

Do you need an introduction to loneliness? Your first response might be “No thanks! I’ve already met loneliness—and I don’t like it!” Clearly, you don’t need or want another introduction. You already know from personal experience how much loneliness can hurt on both emotional and physical levels. You’ve felt the waves of sadness and you’ve wiped the tears of heartache. You’ve felt the physical fatigue and pain as your body lets you know that it is sympathizing with your emotional pain. You’ve struggled with the disrupted sleep and appetite patterns triggered by prolonged loneliness. I like to think of loneliness as a type of emotional infection that I refer to as “lonelyitis.” Like any infection that is not diagnosed correctly and resolved effectively lonelyitis usually worsens over time and will generate or feed other unwanted problems, such as clinical depression. Loneliness can clearly damage and even destroy a person’s emotional system. When we consider this destructive power inherent in loneliness it’s no wonder that we don’t like it.

Surely you’ve met loneliness in the music of current culture. Make an internet search of songs whose titles contain words like “lonesome” or “lonely,” and you’ll be amazed at the prevalence of the loneliness theme.  You could ask with Elvis Presley “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” or you could declare with Hank Williams “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Perhaps you prefer the John Denver version “Already I’m so lonesome I could die” as he sings “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” You could share your own personal pain with Johnny Cash’s “Oh, Lonesome Me,” or you could agree with Roy Orbison’s song that you are “Lonesome Number One.” Maybe you connect with Orbison’s song “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel).” Numerous songs use the words “all by myself” to describe a variety of lonely-troubled hearts. Perhaps you can connect with the song by the King’s Singers, “That Lonesome Road,” that reminds us that we have to “Walk down that lonesome road all by yourself.” Based on the Unchained Melody lyrics we learn that “lonely rivers flow” and “lonely rivers sigh.” Is there anything, anyone, or anyplace that is not somehow touched by the pain of loneliness? Clearly, the prevalence and power of loneliness is definitely reflected in the music we hear.  

The term “Lonely Hearts Club” could stimulate thoughts of a dating service or a rock music album. On an informal basis every person who struggles with loneliness might be a member of the international “Lonely Hearts Club.” You might be comforted by the reminder that there are millions of other people traveling the Loneliness Highway with you. Yet, in spite of the host of co-travelers you still see yourself making the journey through life all by yourself. Feeling lonely is very personal for you. No wonder, for it is true that the last part of the word “lonesome” is the word “me.” And, it is also true that the core part of the word “lonely” is “one”—again, all by myself! I think of one person who frequently describes daily activities and excursions with the phrase “all by myself.” This individual grieves the lack of companionship and struggles painfully in her battle against the frequent attacks of loneliness.  

As we become more acquainted with loneliness we learn that we can feel lonely even in the midst of people. The term “alone” suggests a physical state, that is, no one is here with me—I’m all by myself. I can be totally alone in a physical sense, and I may or may not be lonely. Loneliness is an emotional state and can occur in private or in public, when we’re alone or when we’re with other people. Interestingly, other people could be physically present with us and we still feel lonely, like “lonely in a crowd.”   

Our growing acquaintance with loneliness increases our awareness about its connection to depression. Loneliness itself is not depression, but it is often a key feature in a state of depression. When asked why they get depressed many people would identify acute loneliness as a trigger or cause. The song lyrics “Already I’m so lonesome I could die” take on new meaning as thoughts of suicide intensify the depression already present. In sharing her story of depression one lady indicated that loneliness played a key role in her bouts of depression. She also stated that her depression seemed to intensify her feelings of loneliness. In other words, loneliness and depression become a vicious cycle of mutual reinforcement and increased misery.

Furthermore, after meeting loneliness we often become more vulnerable to poor judgment and major mistakes. For example, driven by loneliness individuals engage impulsively in premarital sex, and sexually-transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies often result. People rush into unhealthy marriages or participate in harmful affairs. Other people choose to abuse alcohol, prescribed medications, or street drugs. These impulsive and foolish choices lead to intense suffering as both the individual life and important relationships are damaged or destroyed. As a therapist I’ve often asked individuals about the reasons behind their misbehavior or unwise decisions. I want them to understand what increased their personal vulnerability and the corresponding failure to resist temptations and harmful mistakes. The response I’ve received on numerous occasions is simply “I was so lonely.” Loneliness is a common reason—or excuse—for many of the mistakes we make. Predictably, our mistakes often make messes, and messes always generate misery.  

As we meet loneliness and become more acquainted with its painful features we can understand more fully why loneliness is definitely a serious threat to both individual and relationship health. No doubt you can agree with the person who said, “I’ve met loneliness . . . and I don’t like it!” In view of the threat we need to develop and use effective tools for managing our loneliness.


Measuring Loneliness . . .

The effective management of loneliness begins with accurate measurement. We must learn how to monitor and measure the level of loneliness that we experience. This issue of measurement evokes several interesting considerations.  

At any given moment in life how able are you to determine your “LQ,” that is, your Loneliness Quotient? On a 1-10 scale, think of a zero as “no loneliness” and a 10 as “maximum loneliness.” Or, you could use a “3-M” scale: minimal (0-3), moderate (4-6), maximum (7-10). Regardless of the specific scale used it is vitally important that you are able to identify and measure the loneliness you’re experiencing. We are often tempted to deny or minimize our loneliness, perhaps because we interpret it as some type of personal weakness, or we hide our loneliness because of fear that other people will criticize or think less of us if they know about our struggle.

Your sense of loneliness is probably greater if you’re an extrovert rather than an introvert. An extrovert would experience more loneliness than would an introvert when both are deprived of human contact, such as being placed in solitary confinement. If you are a “people-person,” you’ll probably be more disposed toward loneliness than would the individual who is definitely not a “people-person.” Your level of loneliness might also be related to certain family of origin patterns regarding times of interaction and togetherness. The degree to which you want to be included or excluded from other people’s activities is certainly an important factor. Your feelings of loneliness could correspond to the amount of validation, acceptance, or approval you get (or don’t get) from your interaction with other people.

Some levels of loneliness might provide some benefit for you as they alert you to your need for human interaction. You appreciate the fact that your physical hunger pangs alert you to your need for food, and you head for the kitchen or other source of nutrition. Likewise, your loneliness pangs could simply let you know that it’s time to connect with another human being for the purpose of getting the emotional nutrition that is needed.  In a helpful sense your loneliness is your personal alarm system that says, “You need people.”


Managing Loneliness . . .

Our increased ability to measure loneliness will improve our skill in the management process. The notion of management suggests that some level of loneliness will continue to be a part of our journey along the Highway of Life. In all likelihood we will not be able to eliminate all loneliness; instead, we will strive to manage it as effectively as we can so as to prevent unhealthy levels of loneliness. Good management begins with the acceptance of one reality:  some loneliness is a part of life. Essentially, our goal is to eliminate all that we can—and learn to live with the rest.  

Can we live with loneliness better or manage it more effectively by taking a passive approach or an active approach? The approach we choose is a crucial component to the management process. It appears to me that, based upon their choices, many individuals prefer take a very passive approach to loneliness management. For example, I asked one lady recently how she coped with her loneliness. She responded, “I just wait until something good happens.” That coping strategy of “just waiting” might work well at times, but the risk lies in the reliance upon other people or circumstances to intervene on her behalf. What will she do if they refuse or fail to cooperate with what she needs? What if other people are not even aware that she is lonely? A passive approach is usually less threatening and, therefore, more tempting, but the desired results are not likely to occur by chance or happenstance. In contrast, other people choose an active approach to managing their loneliness. They choose to “make something good happen” to reduce and relieve their pain of loneliness.

Unfortunately, current social trends push us toward certain active approaches that invite and involve things that are inherently negative and self-defeating. For example, a man who feels lonely while on a business trip takes an active approach for reducing his loneliness by calling an escort service and hiring an overnight companion. In one sense he solves his current loneliness, but his unwise decision generates other serious problems. Or, he might reject the temptation of “prostitute therapy” and elect instead to invite three good friends over to spend the night. Specifically, he invites Jack, Jim, and Bud. They are always very eager to come over and relieve his loneliness. Oh, you’re curious about these three guys? You might know them better as Jack Daniel, Jim Beam, and Budweiser—you know, the alcohol dudes! The unwise usage of chemicals (like alcohol, prescription medications, or street drugs) and the unhealthy reliance upon addictive pornography, gambling, or similar practices are not workable solutions for managing loneliness. In the use of these tempting strategies the long-term underlying problem of loneliness is neither reduced nor resolved. At best, it is perhaps only temporarily diffused or diverted.   

Clearly, we need an active approach that will provide workable solutions and positive results. With this need in mind let’s consider three active strategies that can help us in the effective management of our loneliness.  

Strategy #1:  Accept more Inattention.  

The first active strategy deals with the issue of attention. Basically, my loneliness suggests that I’m not getting the amount of attention I want to receive from other people. These feelings of loneliness indicate some level of inattention. So, it is to my benefit to learn how to accept more inattention, that is, to live with more loneliness. This acceptance involves a revision of my personal expectations about attention. My revised belief might be “Beginning today I will not expect as much attention from other people as I expected in the past. As a result of this new belief I will be more able to live with less attention, and I will experience less loneliness.” The new belief should lead to and is reinforced by certain statements that I tell myself in a purposeful and positive manner. For example, I reassure myself “I’m feeling lonely. Some loneliness is okay. It’s not wrong or bad, just hard. However, I can experience it all right and I will be fine.” Another stream of positive thought might be “Feeling lonely does not mean that I’m a bad person or that I’m unloved or unwanted. It just means that right now I’m not personally involved with other people. I can change that if I choose.” My new mindset is that I come to view loneliness as an inevitable part of the human journey through life. Everyone experiences some loneliness at times. The emotion is uncomfortable and unpleasant, but I will experience it, get through it, and survive it. My active strategy is that I hereby accept more inattention as a part of my life—and less attention is okay.

Strategy #2:  “Achieve more independence.

The second active strategy deals with the issue of emotional independence. We must remember that emotional dependence upon other people tends to feed our feelings of loneliness. The bottom line is that we need to achieve more independence in that we learn to depend more upon ourselves and less upon other people. Too many of us are very immature at healthy self-caring. We depend almost totally upon other people to affirm and validate us, to equip and enable us, and to encourage and strengthen us. We need to do more of these things ourselves and thereby decrease our expectation that other people will provide for all of our emotional needs. This strategy puts the proverbial ball back in our court, so let’s deal with it.

To achieve more emotional independence we have to take personal responsibility for our attitudes and actions regarding loneliness. We need to learn and practice the art of being by ourselves and enjoying our own company. In other words, we need to become our own best friend. We can learn how to entertain ourselves if we’re in private at home. Or, we can practice going to movies, restaurants, or other public places by ourselves so that our comfort and enjoyment levels will gradually improve. The practice of going someplace “all by myself” becomes more acceptable and much easier. Since loneliness is often intensified when we’re bored and have nothing to do let’s devise and use a “shopping list” of activities that are suitable and beneficial for us in our individual time.  

Our emotional independence is clearly connected to our thought processes. Our thinking patterns determine our level of emotional dependence or independence, along with the degree of suffering we experience from our loneliness. Unfortunately, most of us become our own worst enemy in that our negative thought patterns actually increase and worsen our suffering. To illustrate, let’s pretend that our goal is to magnify our suffering, that is, let’s suffer to the max. How could we make that process happen? Several Cognitive Distortions could serve as helpful allies in my effort to increase my suffering. One cognitive distortion I would practice is Emotional Reasoning, meaning that I would take my emotion and use it as a proof of some negative reality. For example, I could say to myself, “I’m feeling lonely. Therefore, no one wants to be with me. Nobody loves me or cares about me.” The Overgeneralization distortion could be used: “I’m always feeling lonely; everything just makes my loneliness much worse.” The Fortune-telling distortion could be added:  “Things will never change for me; I’ll be lonely forever.” Another distortion is Catastrophism:  “Loneliness is horrible and overwhelming; I’m doomed to a life of total misery.” We could add the Labeling distortion: “It’s no wonder that I’m lonely. I’m a failure—and a loser. I’m such a bad person that no one would want to spend time with me.” Okay, you can see quickly how this type of unhealthy, negative thinking will only intensify and prolong our sense of loneliness and, as a result, generate more suffering.       

Without doubt our goal is to decrease (not increase) our personal loneliness and the suffering that goes with it. The decrease of suffering requires that we abstain from the Cognitive Distortions just described. We must train our Mental Gatekeeper to recognize these distortions, and he must be kept alert and on-the-job to prevent these types of thoughts from entering the inner parts of our minds where serious emotional damage could be done. The truth is that unhealthy thinking increases our suffering from loneliness whereas healthy thinking decreases the amount of suffering we experience from loneliness. One lady with whom I spoke about loneliness stated her belief:  “Loneliness is mostly a state of mind.” There is a great deal of truth to her statement.

To gain more emotional independence we must make sure that we do not obsess with or dwell upon our feelings of loneliness. To recognize and acknowledge them is healthy; to obsess about them is unhealthy. Sometimes our coping choices turn out to be more of the problem than the solution. I recall one fellow who had gone through a very painful divorce and he was struggling with the loneliness that typically follows most marital breakups. When he mentioned how hard and lonely the previous day had been for him I inquired about his coping strategy. “What did you do when you got home to make things better?” His response was interesting: “Well, I went home and drank beer and listened to country music.” Additional disclosures indicated that he had spent the entire evening thinking about how lonely and depressed he was. It was no wonder that his suffering reached an all-time high. His need to achieve more emotional independence definitely required more work. Many people achieve more emotional independence by improving their diversion skills. In other words, they learn how to switch their focus from their loneliness to positive activities like music, games, reading, videos, and physical exercise. Interaction with pets (like dogs, cats, birds, etc.) is another positive diversion. The challenge about loneliness is similar to the challenge regarding worrying:  divert your attention—get your mind off of the negative and onto something positive and productive!  If you have trouble thinking of suitable diversion activities you might want to develop a “shopping list” of possibilities. You can add to your list over time as new ideas are generated. Keep your list in an obvious place and consult it whenever you’re struggling to come up with a good diversion from your loneliness.  

Emotional independence will enable us to manage our loneliness more effectively. This type of independence will be strengthened as we take more responsibility for self-caring activities and for healthy thinking. We will work hard to reject the Cognitive Distortions that feed loneliness. We will refuse to obsess about the pain of loneliness. We will continue to feel some loneliness, but we will suffer less with the loneliness we feel.

Strategy #3:  Activate more interaction.

The third active strategy deals with the issue of assertive interaction. Specifically, we determine to activate more interaction with other people. We know that increased interaction with other people is a positive solution that will bring healing, so we stretch our comfort zone and reach out to people. The words “activate” and “assertiveness” might stimulate other words such as initiative, effort, and work. The management of loneliness is not an easy task to accomplish, but the ultimate outcome makes the hard work worthwhile. I think of one fellow who has learned how to manage his loneliness through interaction. He still struggles with the death of his wife and experiences bouts of loneliness. Whenever he gets to feeling excessively lonely he purposefully leaves the house in search of people. He goes to one or more appropriate places in which he knows that he’ll have interaction with positive people. He uses this strategy to help him live with his loneliness.

Too often, however, individuals who are feeling quite lonely seem unable to think of specific ways to connect with other people. Unable to generate ideas they continue to wallow in their loneliness. As a therapist I’ve encouraged individuals to write down a list of potential active strategies that would involve interaction with other people. For example, identify ten to twenty friends or relatives you could telephone; put their phone numbers on the list so they are readily available. Add to the list names of people who are “shut-ins” or who are hospitalized. Go visit one or more of these individuals. Practice the marketing slogan “Reach out and touch someone.” One of the best ways to manage our loneliness is to provide assistance to someone in need. If you have the financial resources available, keep several $20.00 bills in an envelope. In times of loneliness take two or three of the $20.00 bills with you to a public place and search for someone who appears to need a “twenty-dollar lift.” Share your finances and your heart with the person in need. That action allows you to “get out of yourself” and to get into someone else’s life.   

Like the diversion activities “shopping list” described earlier this interaction “shopping list” is fluid in that new possibilities continue to be added. The individual keeps the list in a handy spot so it can be consulted and applied in times of loneliness. Interaction between two people requires a “bridge” that they have constructed over which they can talk and relate to each other. Sometimes we have to initiate that bridge even when we’re lonely. We cannot wait passively and hopefully for other people to build the bridge toward us.  We must be assertive and activate the process, even when the bridge is built over troubled waters. In fact, a bridge is more necessary when the waters are more troubled. This bridge-building process is what I mean by the challenge “Activate more Interaction!”

Thus far we’ve explored three active strategies for managing our loneliness. There are other solutions or resources that could be of benefit to you in your times of loneliness.  One potential resource is professional therapy. A trained therapist could help you to explore your personal pattern of loneliness and to help you brainstorm for workable solutions. Another positive resource is spiritual faith. I recently asked one lady about her management strategies, and she responded “I pray.” Prayer provides her with the inner strength and comfort she needs during her lonely times. One fellow disclosed that he uses his spiritual faith by recalling and reciting certain memorized scriptures that encourage him, one of which was Psalms 25:16. He said that King David must have been struggling with feeling alone, desolate, and lonely because he prayed to God, “Turn to me and be gracious to me for I am lonely and afflicted.” If you can connect with David’s loneliness you might want to imitate his prayer as you tap into your own spirituality. On another level we might benefit from using David’s statement with our friends and family. If we want them to reach out to us perhaps we could tell them, “Turn to me and be gracious to me for I am lonely and afflicted.” I wonder how they would respond to such a request.

Another potential resource is medication. We understand that there is no such thing as a “loneliness pill.” No medication can actually remove our loneliness. However, it might relieve some of the symptoms of depression. The increase of energy and the improvement of our thought processes should enable us to think through and work out our loneliness. Appropriate medication could be a helpful ally and it could be used until we learn to identify and apply other tools and techniques.


Concluding Thoughts . . .

Travels along the Loneliness Highway are disturbing and difficult for even the strongest person. The dark clouds overshadow us and hinder us from seeing the sunlight of life. While on this highway we focus upon our loneliness and wallow in our misery. Our obsession with loneliness obscures our optimism and hides any hope for the future. Clearly, it is to our personal benefit to exit the Loneliness Highway as quickly as possible and to choose a better roadway. Every highway in life involves some loneliness, but on those roadways the loneliness does not totally dominate our travel. In terms of loneliness management a safe highway is one on which you can tackle the tip: “Eliminate all that you can—learn to live with the rest.”  

If current loneliness is interfering with your journey along the Highway of Life, I hope that you’ll consider the tips and tools explored in this brief article. I wish you well as you work to manage your loneliness more effectively. As always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.

 

 

VIDEO:  To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Living with Loneliness" please click on the image to the right or click here.

 

 

 

 

 












(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)

 
 
 

 

 
            Mental Health Blog #1316

*************************************************
 

9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill Baker.com