Jul 3rd 2024

The loneliness myth: what our shared stories of feeling alone reveal about why you can’t ‘fix’ this very human experience

by Sam Carr


Sam Carr  Reader in Education with Psychology and Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath


If you could take a pill to “cure” your loneliness, would you take it? The so-called “loneliness epidemic” has been widely reported and commented upon across the world in recent years, affecting young and old.

There have even been numerous urgent calls by governments and policymakers to address it. However, it should also be noted that some researchers have questioned whether we really have the credible data to back up such claims.

But even if there were enough evidence of a loneliness epidemic, I think it’s important to consider what that would mean about loneliness itself. For example, would it mean we should strive to eradicate it from our individual and collective lives, as we would a virus or disease?

Psychologist, James Hillman had concerns about what I like to call the “loneliness-as-pathology” perspective. He said “solutions” like Prozac, or even socialising in “recovery groups” can reflect the idea that we should “abolish” loneliness.

But what if, as Hillman went on to argue, loneliness is an inevitable part of being human? Wouldn’t we be trying to “cure” something that’s as much a part of our journey as death itself? He put it this way:

If loneliness is an archetypal sense built into us all from the very beginning, then, to be alive is also to be lonely. Loneliness, therefore, will come and go as it chooses in the course of a lifetime, quite apart from our efforts to deny or avoid this reality.

In different ways, I have spent most of my career researching loneliness. I’ve carried out hundreds of interviews and observed the plethora of ways it can show up in people’s lives, from childhood and into deep old age.

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Numerous case studies of human suffering have led me to believe that loneliness may not be so much a “single feeling” but simply a label we give to a medley of human experiences and unsatisfied appetites that revolve around a sense of disconnection that may well be inevitable from time to time.

In my recent book, All the Lonely People: Conversations on Loneliness, I presented an array of examples of the different ways in which loneliness can present. The conversations are drawn from a range of projects and interviews I’ve conducted over the years, that each offer a glimpse of a particular shade of loneliness. I have given my interviewees pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.

Jake: the loneliness of childhood

As with adulthood and later life, encounters with loneliness are frequently a part of children’s lives. Sometimes they are brutal encounters and sometimes more subtle or fleeting.

Jake’s story is an example of one of the more extreme shades of loneliness that can take hold in childhood. He was ten when he participated in a study a colleague and I conducted about children’s experiences of foster care. Jake was removed from his parents due to abuse and neglect in early childhood. He had been in seven different foster homes and nobody had yet shown an interest in permanently adopting him because of particularly challenging and complex behavioural issues. He was living in a foster home with Trudi, his foster carer, and her dog Zak. Jake told me:

Maybe I would feel safer if I were, like, adopted or something, but I’m in foster care, see, which is why the social worker comes around and checks on me, ’cos they, like, own me, or something. The problem is that nobody wants to adopt me so I can live there all the time without having to move to new homes.

Jake’s loneliness stemmed from a complete lack of belief or faith in loving, caring, adults. He simply hadn’t found a loving family or a place to call home, a secure base upon which to anchor himself. Understandably, he’d given up trusting adults and no longer allowed himself to get close to them.

But I learned from Jake’s story that, even against the odds, we can find unlikely pathways out of loneliness. Jake’s pathway was his relationship with Zak, the family dog.

I don’t mind being really close with Zak, ‘cos he won’t get rid of me. I do feel really safe with him … I think he’s my friend because he wants to be and not just because he has to be.

Zak was a six-year-old golden retriever. He was calm, gentle, and had a sort of caring wisdom about him that some dogs exude. We quickly realised that Zak’s role was paramount in helping Jake to feel less alone in the world and in helping him learn to trust Trudi.

A boy and a dog in a park.
Jake’s relationship with the family dog was key in dealing with his loneliness. Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

Jake opened up to us about the important role Zak played as the only living creature on Earth who could help him feel less alone, especially in relation to his lack of control over having a place to call home.

I used to hide in the living room with Zak when there was a knock at the door. I used to worry it was the social worker coming to take me away. I didn’t feel safe without him and, when I was with him, just holding his ears, I felt relaxed and I wouldn’t have the big thumping feeling in my body.

Jake told us that he often felt afraid and alone at night, and the intensity of his feelings frequently prevented him from sleeping. He described how, one night, he had wandered into the dark hallway in his pyjamas and peered through the banisters into the kitchen below. He saw Trudi’s silhouette. She was doing the washing up and Zak was sitting beside her.

Trudi had been talking to Zak. Jake hadn’t found it odd that she was talking to the dog – after all, he talked to Zak more than anyone. Zak was, in fact, the only one he really trusted. It wasn’t the fact she was talking to the dog that made his heart thump. It was what she said that was so powerful, for him. What he heard made him feel a deep thumping in his body; his heart was pounding so hard that he almost shook.

Trudi had told Zak that she “liked having Jake around”. She said that she thought he was a “lovely boy” and that she “hoped he would be around for a long time to come”.

“Nobody has ever said that about me.” Jake said. It excited and terrified him in equal measure to think that Trudi felt that way about him. Jake had never experienced what it felt like to be wanted before. He had never experienced the sense that someone wanted him around, cared about him, or liked him. And, strangely, hearing it in secret, eavesdropping in the hallway, made it all the more credible.

Trudi wasn’t saying it to make him feel better. How could she be? She didn’t even know he was listening. But what she said to Zak that night shook the lonely little boy’s world and opened him up to the idea that it just might be possible to be wanted in this world.

Alex: the loneliness of adolescence

Compared to Jake, Alex was a 13-year-old teenager living in a relatively privileged home in the sense that he had a loving family and a stable home environment. In our conversation, he talked about what might be considered a more “everyday” experience of loneliness which stemmed from the fact that he was afraid to reveal himself to the world.

He said that he often tried to hide, to blend in, to melt into the background, and as a consequence of not being seen he experienced a sense of loneliness.

When I was little, I was the exact opposite. I could say whatever I liked, and I didn’t care what people thought of me or whether they liked me. I don’t know where it all started. But it did. I’m scared that people won’t like me if I show them who I am.

“OK, so, how does that connect to your feelings of loneliness ?” I asked him.

“Because nobody really gets to know me. Nobody really knows who I am,” he answered. “That’s a bit lonely, isn’t it? There are so many opportunities where I could share things about myself, but I don’t because I don’t think they’d want to know.” He offered me a recent example from his school life.

Lone teenager listens to music on a hill.
Alex was too shy to reveal too much about himself to his classmates. Shutterstock/mooremedia

He was in an IT lesson and his teacher had set the class an exercise that involved telling the rest of the class what kind of music you liked, via a PowerPoint presentation. Pupils had to state their favourite band or artist and explain why they liked it. He said:

It was so hard for me to actually say what I liked that I told her I never listened to music. I lied to her so that I didn’t have to say what I liked. She ended up telling me what she liked, and I put that on my PowerPoint and didn’t have to reveal anything about myself.

I asked him if he knew, at the time, what his favourite sort of music was. “Of course, I knew,” he replied definitively. “I like stuff, lots of stuff, but I just couldn’t risk telling people because I was so afraid of being judged”.

Will: the loneliness of heartbreak

Sometimes, loneliness inevitably stems from an obvious experience of loss. For example, I talked to Will, a 21-year-old man, about the loneliness he was experiencing in the aftermath of a recent heartbreak.

“I’m telling you, she became someone else in the space of a week. Cold. Callous. Unresponsive.” He told me.

“And I feel like I metamorphosed from someone she loved into a traumatised nuisance that she would rather see the back of, because it simply made her feel guilty and bad about herself to even look at me.”

“You’ve seen the film Ghost, right?” He looked at me for confirmation.

“Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, 1990?” I replied. “Yes, I’ve seen it a few times.” Satisfied with my response, he nodded and continued.

Will was a bit of a film buff and in the course of our interview various film plots offered him metaphors that helped articulate how he was feeling. “Well, then you’ll know the plotline of that film, which really sums up how I feel right now. It’s the whole part where Patrick Swayze is murdered and becomes a ghost. And the woman he loves, Demi Moore, simply can’t see him any longer – he’s invisible to her because he’s a ghost and, in a literal sense, I suppose, he is dead to her – and there’s this whole sad plot line where he is no longer visible to the woman he loves.”

“That’s exactly how it feels to me, as though I suddenly turned into a ghost and Melissa just … stopped seeing me. Does that sound crazy?”

It didn’t sound crazy to me. I remembered the times in my life when partners I had deeply loved had suddenly stopped seeing me as someone they loved too and transitioned into a person I no longer recognised, almost overnight.

Will’s story raised some of the unique features of loneliness often associated with something like heartbreak. The psychologist and therapist, Ginette Paris, has suggested that we resort to metaphor when we are trying get to know the unfamiliar. People have used metaphors such as “being blotted out of a masterpiece and replaced as easily as I was painted in” or “being lost in a harsh, barren desert” to describe heartbreak.

The Jungian analyst, Aldo Carotenuto, once wrote that when someone breaks our heart there is an immediate collapse of a psychological order. We lose who we were for our lover, who we were with them, and who we were to them. Every relationship is different, so nobody else can ever really know exactly what it’s like to lose what you’ve lost. It’s an experience for which there are no reference points in the external world. And what could be lonelier than that?

Ray: the loneliness of losing someone to dementia

There are phases of life that seem to create unique clusters of circumstances that give rise to particular types of loneliness and disconnection. My colleague, Chao Fang from the University of Liverpool and I have written extensively about our efforts to listen to older people’s experiences.

Our work has identified that, if we live long enough, we are more likely to experience a series of inevitable losses that often bring about a profound sense of loneliness. These may be the loss of meaningful long-term relationships, our health and fitness, or our careers, roles, and identities. Each person’s experience of these losses is unique.

Elderly couple on a bench
Dementia can lead to extreme loneliness for the caring spouse. Shutterstock/Volodymyr Martyniuk

Ray, for example, was 78 and had been married to Pam for most of his life. “We’ve been married over 50 years, you know – well, 54 to be exact – but Pam has dementia now. That’s why we moved to this retirement community,” he told me.

From this point in the conversation, the essence of Ray and Pam’s loneliness started to reveal itself. “This was supposed to be the community for us, for her,” he told me, “the place where she could hold on to the things she loves”.

As he spoke, I began to appreciate just how hard it must be for him to come to terms with the fact that he was slowly losing his wife, watching her become increasingly alienated from the world around them.

“Pam used to belong to a book group – it was such an important part of her life,” he continued. “Well, at first, she laughed about it, but now she cries at the same time. You know, she taught all those children, over, gosh, goodness knows how many years teaching … 35 years teaching, and she taught all those children to read and write – and now she can’t even read herself, and she can’t write.” As he said this, I noticed a tear rolling down his left cheek.

“It’s so cruel to her that she is no longer able to do the things she earned a living doing … that she loved doing.” He stared off into space and I waited for him to gather himself. “So, she belonged to a book club,” he continued, “well, she’s tried the book club here, and she gets so … how best to describe it? Frustrated. Because she can’t complete a sentence. Frustrated. Because she hasn’t been able to read the books. The font size is too small,” he said, incredulously.

“There are all these little things that gradually rob her of the things she loves. We’ve tried audiobooks, but she falls asleep as soon as she starts listening to the thing.” Ray then said something that touched me.

In some ways, I just feel she’s a bit like a leper, really, because no one actually wants to get close to her.

He started to cry. “She’s a lovely girl, lady, old lady … you know?” He wept openly then.

I feel very lonely … Shall I tell you what the real hell of it is? It’s just sitting here, like you’re already mourning somebody you’ve lost, yet you’re still living with them – it’s sad, but it’s true.

Ray had identified a key feature of spousal loneliness that has been associated with dementia – that the onset of loss and grief begins a long time before their spouses actually die.

Learning to live with loneliness

Stories of everyday loneliness like these are valuable because they help us to appreciate that loneliness has many guises and isn’t really a universal phenomenon. When somebody tells us they feel lonely, we know almost nothing about their experience until we have heard the story of their loneliness and the unique circumstances that give rise to it. The feeling is really just the tip of the iceberg. Stories help us to discern what loneliness looks like and how it is lived.

Stories of loneliness can also help us to appreciate that it is a part of most people’s journey through life. We all have stories like these inside us, whether we have shared them or not. Perhaps accepting this reality makes more sense than seeking to pathologise what may be an an inevitable human experience.

In fact, we may do more harm than good by stigmatising and pathologising loneliness, creating a sense of shame around it that forces people to compartmentalise the experience, mask it, or drive it underground.

Of course, this is not to say that we should take loneliness lightly. It is a challenging and difficult part of life. But this is where stories come in. In stories, we have the opportunity to share our loneliness with others, unburdening ourselves, and no longer keeping our loneliness exclusively to ourselves. An essential component of the suffering in loneliness is often the fact that we are alone with our loneliness. In my experience, stories of loneliness hold great value for both listener and storyteller, fostering empathy, compassion, and connection.

Ultimately, the answer to loneliness may well be found in learning to live alongside it, as opposed to denying its existence or seeking to eradicate it.


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Sam Carr, Reader in Education with Psychology and Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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