The Trouble with Loneliness

Everyone feels lonely from time to time. It could be about sitting alone at lunch. Being left out of a group activity. Or, not having anyone to spend time with on the weekend. When this feeling of loneliness becomes the norm, however, it can create all kinds of problems in people’s lives. Unfortunately, that’s what we are finding now. Despite living in one of the most connected times in human history, people report feeling more isolated and alone than ever. In fact, a video by Kurzgesagt Merch titled “Loneliness” stated that 46% of the United States population feels lonely regularly. Forty-six percent! That means that almost half of us feel pervasively alone. That number doesn’t include introverts, who prefer to be by themselves, and really enjoy that time. It is talking about everyday people who feel less connected than they want to. Loneliness is a growing problem in our society.

The trouble with loneliness is, people are not meant to be isolated.

People are meant to be part of a tribe. When we look at human history, the reason we made it as a species is that we work together. We are not particularly strong, fast, or tough. We survived because we found a way to work together and to pool resources so that we could all survive together. That means that survival depends on being a member of a tribe, so when we don’t feel connected to a tribe, the feeling of loneliness that takes over completely disrupts our lives. Again, some people don’t want to be part of a tribe, and that’s not who we are talking about here. We are talking about the people who very much want to be connected, but just don’t know what they are doing wrong.

There is hope!

Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT) theorizes that loneliness is the core problem that needs to be addressed in treatment. RO DBT believes that it is problems in the connection that creates many other mental health disorders. The three main components of psychological well-being in RO DBT are receptivity and openness, flexible-control, and intimacy and social connectedness. Let’s take a look at them below!

Psychological well-being involves:

Receptivity and Openness

Letting go of a personal belief or way of doing things, and letting in another person’s perspective when you believe you are correct is incredibly challenging. There is a survival component to being “right” because there was a time that your actual life could depend on making the correct choice. Even now, so many parts of our lives (e.g., job success, promotions, or new innovations) depend on getting it right. After all, what if someone is trying to deceive us? What if I spend all of my time and effort on seeing something from someone else’s perspective only to find that I was right all along? There is usually a reason we have formed habits, and that reason is sometimes because it is the most effective way that we have found to do things.

It IS possible that you could expend extra energy only to find that you were, in fact, correct. So, what is the purpose of doing things in a new and novel manner, or attempting to see things from another person’s point of view? The answer is, it’s about the RELATIONSHIP!

As people, we are naturally drawn to others who are more open-minded and would like to be close to them. Being close to these open-minded people reminds us that we are part of a tribe, and being a part of a tribe means survival and that we are safe. According to the RO DBT Skills Training manual, “Openness is a powerful social safety signal because it acknowledges our shared potential for fallibility and willingness to learn from the world.” Basically, we are able to buy into the idea that we will be heard, and work together to learn new things that will help us.

Flexible-control

Flexible control means being able to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Many people who are lonely are over controlled in life. This could mean having a hard time being flexible when a friend or partner wants to do something spur of the moment or feeling uncomfortable in certain situations such as dancing your heart out at a wedding or letting shame keep you from trying something that you would really like to do.

The examples are endless, but one of the core themes in these situations is that embarrassment, flexibility, and novel behaviors in a group actually create shared experiences for the tribe, which brings a feeling of closeness. If everyone at a wedding is dancing the conga and laughing together, it makes people feel like they are a part of the in-group, while those too worried about what they may look like are left behind. So, worrying about shame and exclusion actually brings you further from your goal of being included!

Intimacy and Social-connectedness

Research shows that we only need ONE other person that we feel close and connected to in order to feel less lonely. That being said, I understand if your goal is to have more than one person in your life. We can trace back these connections to species survival and working together as a group for the tribe. Intimacy is the way that we achieve that closeness. Have you ever had someone be really vulnerable with you? Maybe they shared about something challenging that they are going through? Maybe they shared about something that they failed at? Did you find yourself feeling more drawn to them afterward? If you did, that is what tends to happen.

As people, we tend to want to avoid embarrassment. However, embarrassment and vulnerability actually make people feel closer to you. I can even draw them in to have a closer relationship with you. This doesn’t mean that you need to walk up to strangers and spill your deepest darkest secrets. What it does mean is that you have to learn to be okay with sharing a little more with the people you want to connect with. “Vulnerability” is not a bad word in RO DBT, which focuses on is helping identify levels of intimacy within interactions, and how to help those interactions go deeper so that you can create the lasting closeness you are desiring!

The Trouble with Loneliness: Conclusion

In essence, if loneliness is the norm for you, and you are wondering what is getting in the way of building the close relationships you are desiring, RO DBT may be for you! Integrated Care Clinic currently provides individual treatment for RO DBT and is putting together a skills group as we speak. Call us now for more information!

Dr. Rebecca Crecraft

Dr. Crecraft is a postdoctoral fellow. She is a trauma specialist, transitions expert, and family disorder healer. Her specialties include emotion regulation, healthy boundaries, and moving on from your past.

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