The psychology of loneliness (and how it changes us)

This article was originally written for The Startup.

Back at it again with the uncomfortably close eyes.

‘I had no more plans for the afternoon than a migrating bird has collateral assets.’ — Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

There is a strange thing that happens when you have been isolated for a long time.

It makes no sense to anyone who has never experienced it and it didn’t make sense to me until I started researching the psychology behind it.

This is an attempt to explain it, based on my experience and what I’ve read.

You develop a simple fear of other people. They become a threat, not an opportunity. You do not want their eyes sliding over your skin, reading the discomfort in your shoulders and jaw. You do not want them to extend an offer to join them in a conversational dance, where you know your voice will be muffled and choked, and they will ask you to repeat every sentence two or three times.

Silence is comfort. Silence is free of judgement. Silence is escape.

When this first happens, it is abhorrent to you. Knowing full well that other people are perhaps the main ingredient for a happy life, you do not understand the swift stab of anxiety at their presence. You blame yourself. The fear is irrational, so maybe you rationalise it by starting to believe you do not care for others. You do.

***

You do not want other people to claw at the edges of your existence, to fracture your silence, to recognize you. A barista remembers your order and you shy away, scared to be seen. At the darkest, you see friendliness as an intrusion because of the guilt it provokes.

When you shy away from people, it is not from them, but from the way they make you feel.

The word ‘shy’ is telling, by the way. As an adjective it means to be retiring and wary of others, easily frightened and timid. As a verb, it means to draw back, to recoil, to step away out of fear. This is what shyness makes you do: recoil.

Of course, not all lonely people are shy and not all shy people are lonely. But long-term loneliness forces you to be shy.

***

Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City:

‘What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do.’

Loneliness is not just hunger, it is the psychological equivalent of malnutrition, the lack of something we need to survive. Malnutrition makes your body detach from your mind. You are starved, you can feel your skin disintegrating, your nails snapping, your fingers and toes turning pallid purple as the circulation shuts off, the stattacco heartbeats.

Every fiber of your being, every cell, is craving but it is not a hunger that can be filled with a big meal. It is not even hunger. Your body no longer wants feeding, it cannot digest, it rejects what it needs the most.

Loneliness is a form of hunger. If you try to refill yourself too fast, it destroys you, and you cannot cope. You must drip feed yourself company. Self inflicted loneliness, like self inflicted malnutrition has its own emotional complexity.

To break through the walls, you must first defeat whatever made you build them first. And sometimes it’s hard to know what that was.

***

You want to be anonymous, a ghost gliding through the crowds, with no body and no shadow, leaving no footprints.

You dream of self-containment, of invisibility.

Noise, people talking, makes you wince. Small talk sounds painfully inane and there’s no option to prepare for it. Joe Moran writes in Shrinking Violets:

‘The real problem comes with informality, when conversations are meant to form artlessly through casual encounters, as if out of thin air. At work this happens at places like the photocopier, that office-life equivalent of the parish pump, where gossip is exchanged and alliances cemented, or in corridors which are officially meant for direct access to somewhere else but an unofficially for chance meetings and lingerings. It is in these liminal spaces that I come unstuck, never knowing if I am supposed to stop and say hello and for how long.’

***

I remember a day last winter when it was snowing and I was sat in a sandwich shop, working because my flat was too cold to tolerate. A group of kids stomped in and sat next to me, yelling at each other purposelessly and scattering tobacco everywhere, kicking at my chair. The owner walked over and said, “sorry, I’m closing early because of the snow so you’ll have to leave.”

As they shuffled out, I stood to go. The owner laughed and said that he wasn’t closing, he could just tell they’d been annoying me and I was free to stay as long as I wished. I thanked him, overwhelmed and guilty to have been seen, to remember that my inner thoughts were written on my face.

***

You are lonely and yet you want to be alone.

When you somehow end up in a social situation, you practically claw at the walls in your need to leave, to return to your cocoon. Lock yourself in a bathroom. Go outside and chain smoke. Fidget. Avoid eye contact.

The one thing that should alleviate your loneliness — time around people — instead throws you into a fit of panic. Speech is a burden. The weird rituals necessary to be aesthetically acceptable to others are a burden too. Most days, the effort to untangle the mats in your hair and change out of pyjamas is enough to confine you indoors, an invisible cage of your own failings.

What you don’t notice is how the cage shrinks day by day, how the bars close in on you, how the ivy grows over the hinges. The longer you’re alone, the harder it is to break through.

Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City:

‘When people enter into an experience of loneliness, they trigger what psychologists call hyper-vigilance for social threat…In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual tends to experience the world in increasingly negative terms, and to both expect and remember instances of rudeness, rejection and abrasion.

…This creates, of course, a vicious cycle in which the lonely person becomes increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents.

This is what the non-lonely don’t understand and it’s why loners are so easily typified as anti-social, standoffish, aloof, rude, lacking social skills, as the architects of their own misery. The problem is, of course, that you do want people to talk to you and engage with you.

Anneli Rufus writes in Party of One:

‘We do not choose to have such tiny fuel tanks. They can be quite inconvenient. That is why we seem rude when we do, why we seem bored and often are. Spaced out and often are. Running on empty. Not heartless. Not heartless. Not unappreciative. Not fools. We know the rest of the world has big tanks. We know they don’t know.’

And Joe Moran writes:

‘The fact that extreme shyness can seem attention seeking has always tended to arouse distrust in the non shy. To an unfriendly observer it can look like inside out narcissism an overcooked performance, self absorption masquerading as modesty…in our increasingly confessional age, with its cult of sincerity and authenticity, people are becoming more suspicious of those who hold back, as if diffidence must be in some way fraudulent or cheapened by ulterior motives.’

***

Healthy relationships are contingent on a healthy sense of self, something impossible when you have been alone too long.

You cannot maintain the detachment expected in relationships, the way you should exude the vibe that you are fine as you are and do not crave other people, that this new friend or prospective partner is not your first shot in so long.

You are forced to lie about your loneliness because to admit that you live frozen in a solitary block of ice is enough to chase anyone off.

Just like those who remain virgins well into adulthood, no one wants to be the first because they smell there must be a reason, there must be something wrong with you. You, in turn, let yourself believe that and it is the belief that makes you what you fear: clingy, desperate, antisocial.

Your thinking turns macabre, melodramatic to the point where you identify with Frankenstein's monster:

‘Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was besides, endowed with a figure so hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even the same nature of man…When I looked around I saw or heard none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?’

Nope. But it can sure feel like it.

***

You become obsessed with identifying, pre-empting and meeting your own needs. Pausing a dozen times an hour, you take your own pulse of desires — do you need water, tea, coffee, a snack, a nap, different music, a break?

You like identifying a need because it creates a sense of urgency, something to do, someone to care for. Anything that creates structure is a delight.

Joe Moran writes:

‘After all, the shy know as well as anyone that life is a perpetual performance, that when they step on stage all they are doing is substituting one role for another…For the shy a crisis can be easier or at least no more difficult than the challenges of daily life…I am reassured by clarity and structure, by physical props and affordances than tell me how I should behave.’

In my experience, lonely people are often hypochondriacs, excessively in tune with every quirk of their bodies to the point that they can make themselves ill from panic. Their days are an extended body scan meditation. On top of that, being lonely genuinely does damage your health. The abstract for a review of research into the topic summarised:

‘Perceptions of social isolation, or loneliness, increase vigilance for threat and heighten feelings of vulnerability while also raising the desire to reconnect. Implicit hypervigilance for social threat alters psychological processes that influence physiological functioning, diminish sleep quality, and increase morbidity and mortality.’

The same review explains that long term loneliness literally makes you more likely to die during a given time period, discounting other risk factors like smoking. It increases the amount of stress you perceive, heightens fears of rejection, increases anxiety and anger, and diminishes optimism and self-esteem.

‘ These data suggest that a perceived sense of social connectedness serves as a scaffold for the self — damage the scaffold and the rest of the self begins to crumble.’

We are social creatures and being alone makes us feel unsafe:

‘…lonely individuals see the social world as a more threatening place, expect more negative social interactions, and remember more negative social information. Negative social expectations tend to elicit behaviors from others that confirm the lonely persons’ expectations…This self-reinforcing loneliness loop is accompanied by feelings of hostility, stress, pessimism, anxiety, and low self-esteem.’

***

This is the irony of loneliness. It is self-perpetuating.

The more you focus on yourself and shy away from others, the worse it gets.

Even worse, it can get to the point where people only interact with you out of pity or obligation, because they know you’re alone. Because they know you could comfortably slide off the face of the earth. They are trying, yet the reason they are trying only makes you feel more disconnected, deepens the self-disgust.

Pity is, at least in British culture, the highest form of insult. It strengthens the desire for cyclical self reliance. You don’t want to hear the well meaning suggestions to join a club or go to a meet-up group or sign up for another appbecause you know those who suggest it haven’t been in the same position, and don’t know that to walk into a room full of strangers is to step into the lion’s den.

You don’t want anyone to be concerned about you. You want them to care, of course, but you want them to care for you, not for your sadness.

***

‘Eventually most of us come to see that our feelings of unbelonging are unexceptional, and that the truly heroic act is to carry on trying to connect with others, even if it can be dispiriting to keep doing something you are not very good at.’ — Joe Moran, Shrinking Violets

For a long time, I avoided writing about loneliness despite its pervasive influence on my life.

The reasons for that are manifold. Firstly, it took me a long time to even notice I was experiencing it. I am introverted by nature and I both like and need solitude. I’d lived alone with virtually no social contact for nearly six months before I recognised it. And it would take another six months for me to realise it was impacting me.

Second, it felt like a dirty secret, like I would taint myself by writing about it. They say that everything we do online is part of our resumes and admitting that I spend more time talking to my cat than to humans is not the kind of qualification I want to display. It is the fear of judgement that makes so many of us hide our loneliness. Yet I do not believe there has ever been anything wrong with me. I simply chose to focus on work and learning and that led me away from people, at a time when my old social circles collapses.

At the same time, I think this is one of the topics that those of us who can and want to share our experiences with, have a responsibility to do so. Ironically, it does help others to feel less alone.

It’s a topic I know intimately. It’s one of the few I feel qualified to write about. I know isolation in a way most people never will. Apparently, the average person spends 80% of their time around others. I’d estimate I spend about 95% of it alone and maybe 1% in social situations.

I’ve spent 3/4 of my working life as a remote freelancer, working alone. I lived alone for a year in an area where I barely knew anyone. I once spent a month alone in a barn in the countryside. I’ve travelled alone for months. I go out to eat alone or to concerts, to museums and galleries. I’ve spent New Years alone, Christmas alone, birthdays alone, any holiday you can name alone. It is my default state.

The difference between perceiving yourself to be isolated and actually being isolated is that, in the latter case, you sense the lack of a safety net. You know there’s no one to stop you falling.

She wrote it off as my own fault. I didn’t bother to argue.

***

I can see my spiral in hindsight, but at the time I was blind to it.

I was in a relationship, I was in love or something approximating it, it ended, I withdrew then by the time I stopped wanting to withdraw, it was too late. I’d painted myself in a corner. During the relationship, I’d felt so happy and secure that I didn’t make much effort to build other connections and neglected the existing ones.

In the aftermath, I was disjointed, dismissive of everyone, unappreciative. People tried at first. I didn’t let them in. Or maybe it was the other way round.

Like most lonely people, it didn’t come from some deep flaw within myself, it was simply a compounding confounding set of circumstances that piled on top of each other.

In the summer, I wrote of the first signs that the isolation was starting to abate. That didn’t last long. A few bad things happened at once — I got ill, a family member got ill and more — and things melted away. I needed a break.

And until I feel okay about engaging again, New Year perhaps, the days are long and quiet and repetitive. I stick to meticulous routines and plans. I work. I sleep. I focus on work because of its structure and logic. The fact that I love my work is dangerous in its own way because this vacuum lets me work more, which provides a justification for remaining within it. So I don’t leave the house much.

Most of the time, 90% of the time, I am okay with this. I’m not especially unhappy. Again, solitude is not the same as loneliness. This is nothing like the long cold quiet months I used to live through. But when I’m healthy again, I do plan to finally start tackling this, on breaking the cycle.

The answer does not lie in joining a club or talking to strangers in coffee shops or another fucking app or whatever else. It’s not about forcing myself to enjoy clubbing or drinking or parties.

Ending loneliness starts with truly understanding how it affects us. We can’t break the cycle if we don’t see it and see how it’s changed us. We can’t connect with others if we believe the lies our brains tell us about them and ourselves.