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Loneliness and Mental Illness

"Conquer your loneliness by making yourself go out," the FAQs say. Fine advice, for garden-variety loneliness. But if you don't need to be told to go out, and you want no-nonsense advice for a very tough problem, click on the following articles, written by a professional psychologist:

The Six Types of Loneliness

What To Do About Loneliness

What To Do About Loneliness

People who live with mental illness are especially vulnerable to loneliness. 

The Six Types of Loneliness

Loneliness: a feeling, usually sad and sometimes devastating, that one needs more companionship than one is currently getting.

William Sadler (July, 1975), in Science Digest, describes five "causes of loneliness":

1. Interpersonal Loneliness

You miss somebody who was once close to you. This type of loneliness is closely associated with grief. You're always on the lookout for a new loved one. But, if you find a new potential partner before you heal, you're so afraid of more rejection or desertion that you watch him or her like a hawk.

2. Social Loneliness

"The individual feels cut off from a group that he or she feels is important...ostracism, exile..." This type of loneliness is often imposed on minority groups.

Why not solve the problem of ostracism by defining the group that has rejected you as "not important"? Sure, as long as you're not in the minority group, persons diagnosed with mental illness (consumers). If consumers define those who are prejudiced against them as "not important," they cut out most of the population.

Defined more accurately, social loneliness is what you feel when you are unwillingly cut off from a social group that is very important for your survival or well-being, and there's nothing you can do about it right now.

3. Culture Shock

The loneliness that happens when you move to a whole new culture. This probably includes social loneliness, since most cultures reject foreigners at least somewhat.

4. Cosmic Loneliness

Everybody feels cosmic loneliness sometimes. It's also known as "existential loneliness," the sense that it's not possible to achieve perfect, complete intimacy with another person. It's this type of loneliness that turns our attention to a higher power. This is what philosophers, priests and ministers can help with.

5. Psychological Loneliness

This is the loneliness that comes from the depths of our being, either from our chemical makeup or from our reactions to past traumas. This is the type that I can help with (see What To Do About Loneliness).

6. I want to add a sixth category to Sadler's five. Have you ever been trapped in a situation where you had nobody to talk to who could respond at your level of intelligence? Or where nobody would even listen to your ideas? This can cause strong feelings of loneliness.

In Loneliness, Robert Weiss (1975) writes that loneliness is NOT the same as depression. Lonely people fear that they will always be lonely; depressed people are sure of it. The lonely feel sad and discouraged; the depressed have numbed out and just don't care any more. The lonely cry a lot; the depressed are "cried out." Most important, loneliness can, potentially at least, drive people to go out and find friends; depression is more likely to tempt people to give up and just sleep all day.

That's not good because, in 1988, a team of psychological researchers at the University of Michigan (Chicago Sun-Times, July 29) found that social isolation is a bigger health risk (a stronger morbidity factor, if you don't mind psychobabble) than smoking. So why are there no anti-loneliness ads on TV? Because, as opposed to smoking, loneliness is something psychologists haven't yet figured out how to combat.


What To Do About Loneliness

The self-help FAQs and pamphlets tell lonely people to learn to enjoy being alone. They say that you'll find that you're a nice person to spend time with.

Obviously they weren't talking to people who are seriously lonely. When you're really lonely, you do NOT enjoy your own company. It's not "nice" to spend time in the company of zillions of fearful, angry, resentful, envious, spiteful, vindictive thoughts.

To fight real, serious loneliness that curses you through no fault of your own, you have to use a "divide and conquer" strategy. The solution has two sides to it:

A. The Couch Potato Side

Dealing with loneliness is a very delicate balancing act. Sometimes you have to sit at home and face it, but sometimes you have to go out and try to meet people. Five strategies make up the Couch Potato side of conquering loneliness:

1. First, define the problem. E.g., only when you correctly define your problem will you be able to sort it out conquer your loneliness.

2. Seek help. Call the local crisis hotline and just talk. It's amazing how talking (even though you're not given any answers) can help you straighten out tough issues. And if you can manage to get therapy for free or a low price you would be foolish not to try that too. There's no shame in seeing a therapist.

3. If you have a friend or relative you trust, confide in them about your loneliness. (Don't dump your loneliness on anyone you don't feel very close to, of course.) Hiding important feelings from loved ones can cause painful misunderstandings and aggravate your loneliness.

4. Just sit on the couch, sometimes, and let yourself completely feel the loneliness. A little self-pity is a good thing because it motivates you to change your thinking and your life and, eventually, solve the problem.

If you don't sit down and face your loneliness once in a while you will find yourself trying to make yourself feel better with addictions. Drugs, alcohol, joyless sex, very risky sports, food, even sleep, can be used to keep your mind off your loneliness (or off any problem, for that matter). The trouble is, addictions only give temporary relief; you need more and more kicks as time goes on. Eventually, addictions either lose their effectiveness, kill you, or both.

5. Analyze the loneliness to death. Exactly what emotions make up your loneliness? Attack each feeling individually:

a. Anger that you have been rejected or deserted or fired? Do some screaming or hit a punching bag. A surprisingly effective way to diffuse anger is to draw a big picture of some mean person and then scribble all over it with a red magic marker and, finally, rip it up.

b. Sadness. Sadness is basically feeling sorry for yourself, a feeling everybody deserves a little of. Let yourself wallow in self-pity for five minutes a day. Then tell yourself, "Deal with it," and go on with your life.

c. Fear -- the most painful emotion. For fear you need to bring out the heavy artillery. First, admit that you're afraid. Don't be embarrassed; you only have to admit it to yourself. Are you afraid you're lonely because you're an undesirable person? Because you went through such an awful trauma that you can never risk love again?

Now that you have admitted your fears, take another look at them and you will realize that they are all ungrounded fears. Not one of the above fears, and no fear that puts you down, could be the cause of your loneliness. You are a good person or you wouldn't be reading this article. Ditch those fears!

B. The Social Butterfly Side

The other side of the solution to loneliness is to go out and risk rejection. But they are two sides to the same coin. For a while, you sit on your couch and face your fear of rejection. That gives you the impetus to get up and take more risks. Then you come back to your couch and lick your wounds and plan new strategies. It's not pretty; it's life.

Have you ever been so lonely that you hung with the wrong people and regretted it later? Better to stay at home. Don't let anybody tell you to "just get out -- go anywhere." Use that couch time to figure out what places and people you had better avoid. Staying on the couch for a couple of evenings doesn't necessarily mean that you aren't doing anything about your loneliness. Don't let anybody knock your self-concept down; it's a very valuable tool.

1. Constant Vigilance Is In Order

Just getting up off the couch and going out isn't enough. You probably know this already, but when you do go out looking for new friends, you have to cover up your loneliness very thoroughly. If your loneliness is the first thing about you that people spot, they will run. Mask your loneliness with a big smile. A fake smile is OK in this situation; it's certainly better than a lonely frown. (If you are really lonely and you let your guard down for even a second, that default frown will come back.)

2. Find Ways To Help People

When the negative thoughts start to get out of hand, go out and look for somebody to say something cheerful to. Try to forget yourself and brighten somebody else's day. In fact, there may be a volunteer job you could enjoy doing.

3. Change Your Life -- Carefully

Back in 1970 my friend was really lonely. He happened to pick that time to move to Los Angeles (from N.Y. State). This pulled his thinking right out of the rut it was in and completely ended the loneliness. For a while, he saw life as nothing but a big, exciting adventure.

But then the loneliness came back. So he moved to Washington, D.C. This time the loneliness got even worse. Why did the first life-change, but not the second life-change, work? Because the first time he was just looking for adventure; he didn't see moving as a cure for loneliness. The second time he was using the technique of moving to try to run away from the loneliness, and he had no other good reason to move.

You can't run away from yourself. If you try making a big change in your life, have some other reason, a good reason, for doing it besides your loneliness.

So, to beat loneliness, go out sometimes, to places you carefully choose, and risk rejection. Then, when you get back home, let your hair down and face your lonely feelings. Neither alternative is much fun; loneliness is hell.

The bottom line is: nobody, not even I, a psychologist who has been through it, can give you a quick cure for loneliness. But if you try everything I recommend and get no results, then your loneliness probably comes from the chemicals inside your body. What I'm saying is that if your loneliness persists for years and years you may well have been born with the bipolar complex.

If so, there's no shame. The bipolar complex just means that you were born with special gifts and unique problems, such as loneliness.

Here's the rub: the problems always seem to come first. If you are bipolar, first you will have to deal with some serious loneliness. Once you find the right meds for you, then you will get the incredible gifts that come with the bipolar package.

  Next Memo: What Is Recovery?

Got feedback? Email Dr. Bradt at cassjmb10@att.net

Donít force behavior! 
Change attitudes.