Loneliness—The Hidden Torment
CAN you pick them out in a crowd? Does it show on their faces? When they greet you, will their smiles cover it? Can you tell by their walk, their posture? Notice the elderly man sitting alone on the park bench or the young woman by herself in the art museum—are they tormented by loneliness? Study the three generations represented by mother, daughter, and grandchild strolling in the mall. They seem happy enough, but can you be sure? Consider your workmates. You may know them as happy people with caring families and with income adequate to support them comfortably. Yet, can it be that one of them could truly say, “I am lonely”? And what are the chances of that happy, vibrant teenager being lonely? The answers to these questions may surprise you.
“Lonely” is defined by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation.” It is a feeling of lacking something, of an emptiness inside, and it is not always discernible in someone’s outward appearance. One researcher says: “In our society, loneliness is a secret we keep—sometimes from ourselves. Loneliness has a stigma attached to it. There’s an assumption out there that if you’re lonely, it must be your own fault. Otherwise, you’d certainly have lots of friends, right?” Sometimes this can be true, especially if we expect or demand more of others than is reasonable.
Experts seem to agree that women—especially married women—of all ages expect more from life than men. Understandably, widows, divorced women, and older single women are sometimes lonely. But what about seemingly happily married women with families? Consider, for example, this lament from a 40-year-old schoolteacher: “I have no time for friends; I miss that desperately. But I feel funny even saying that. How can I complain about being lonely . . . ? After all, I have a wonderful marriage, terrific kids, a beautiful home, a job I love. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But something’s missing.”
Although women may truly love their husbands and be devoted to them and have a like response from their mates, such love does not necessarily fulfill all their needs for companionship. The schoolteacher quoted above explains: “Even though my husband is my best friend, it doesn’t make up for not having good women friends. Men may hear, but women listen. My husband doesn’t want to know how overwhelmed I am. He wants to jump right in and solve the problem. But my women friends will let me talk about it. And sometimes I just need to talk.”
When a woman loses a loved one through death or divorce, her emotional upset may be profound. Loneliness sets in. Not only must the grieving widow or divorcée turn to her family and friends for support but she must also turn inward to her own strength to adjust to the new reality. Although her loss will always be a part of her life, she must realize that it cannot be allowed to become an obstacle to her getting on with her life. Experts have found that those with stronger personalities may often overcome their loneliness faster than others.
There is a difference of opinion over which one has the greater pain—the widowed or the divorced. The magazine 50 Plus reported: “Whenever we invite divorced people into our widowed support groups, the two sides wind up arguing about whose pain is greater. The widowed person says, ‘Hey, at least your spouse is alive,’ while the divorced person will say, ‘Hey, you haven’t been personally rejected the way I was. You don’t have the sense of failure.’”
When it comes to loneliness, men cannot boast of being the stronger of the two sexes. “Men handle things more physically than emotionally,” said Anne Studner, program specialist for the Widowed Persons Service of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). “Women will tell the story 10 trillion times, but men will attempt to replace their wives rather than work through grief.” Male counselors may spend considerable time with bereaved men before they slowly begin to discuss their emotional feelings.
Experts have found that, unlike women, men seek the companionship of a woman to confide in rather than a man. Dr. Ladd Wheeler, an expert on loneliness at the University of Rochester, reveals that males do not confide in each other deeply enough to feel emotionally connected. “The need to escape an overwhelming emotional isolation after the loss of a wife, and the subsequent reaching out to a female friend, may also help to explain why men typically remarry much more quickly after widowhood or divorce than women.”—50 Plus magazine.
The Lonely Young
There are many reasons why children and young adults become lonely—often similar to those affecting older people. Moving to a new location and leaving friends behind; not being liked by classmates in a new school; religious and ethnic backgrounds; divorce in the home; the feeling of not being loved by parents; being rejected by members of the opposite sex—such things loom large as contributing factors in loneliness.
The very young need someone to share their play activities with. They need emotional support and understanding. They need affection and confirmation of their own worth. They must know that others will be loyal and trustworthy. When loved, they feel secure and also learn to show love to others. These social supports may come from different sources—family, peers, and even pets.
Both male and female students, from the lowest grade to college, often suffer the same degree of loneliness, many times brought on by nonacceptance by their peers. “I feel bad because I am alone and I don’t talk,” lamented one female high school student. “I just listen to the teacher, do my work and that’s it. When there is free time, I just sit there and draw or something. Everybody is talking to each other, but nobody talks to me. . . . I know I can’t hide forever. For now, that’s all I have.”
The blame, however, cannot always be rightly attributed to other people’s aloofness or snobbery. A person may have behavioral or social difficulties, such as being extremely shy, temperamental, and overly impulsive and having difficulty getting along with his or her peers. A disability can also play a devastating role in causing youths of all ages to suffer loneliness unless such ones are strong and outgoing.
The Need to Help Yourself
Health educator Dolores Delcoma of Cal State Fullerton put her finger on a key truth when she commented on a person’s attempt to fight loneliness: “The effort needs to come from inside him. He eventually has to realize his problem because no matter how much people try to help, the only person who can help him break out of his shell is himself.”
Those who make adjustment difficult for themselves are identified by Dr. Warren Jones as loneliness-prone personalities: “These people unwittingly do things that prevent them from feeling close to others. Some don’t know how to listen, and they monopolize the conversation. They tend to be more critical of others and themselves; they ask fewer questions, and often wreck a friendship by saying mean or obnoxious things.”
In addition to such ones, who basically lack self-esteem, there are others who lack the social skills needed to relate to others. Concerning them, therapist Evelyn Moschetta says: “Lonely people don’t feel very good about themselves. Anticipating rejection, they don’t bother to reach out.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, researchers have found that elderly women and men suffer from loneliness less than younger people do. They are not sure why. They have also found that when loneliness is suffered by the elderly, it is due more to a lack of friends than to a lack of kin. “It’s not that family relations are unimportant to older people. They turn to family for assistance. But they can have lots of family to assist them, and still feel terribly lonely if they don’t have friends.”
The Need for Close Friends
For people of all ages, close friends sometimes fill a need beyond that which family and relatives can supply. People need a friend, a close friend, one they may confide in or reveal themselves to without fear of being hurt. Without such a friend, loneliness may increase. It is of such a friend that the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘A friend is one before whom I can think aloud.’ Such a person is a confidant to whom you can reveal yourself completely without fear of betrayal or anxiety that your confidences will be used to disparage you or cause others to laugh at you. Some whom you may have considered loyal companions may not have always lived up to your trust, but there is “a friend” who does “not reveal the confidential talk of another,” who is “sticking closer than a brother.”—Proverbs 18:24; 25:9.
There are those who like to pose as being tough and needing no one. They claim to be independent and self-sufficient. Nevertheless, they often collect in groups of so-called toughies. Children have clubs, build clubhouses, form gangs; older youths have motorcycle gangs; criminals have cronies who will not squeal on them; those with drinking problems join Alcoholics Anonymous; those struggling with obesity join Weight Watchers. People are gregarious; they group together for support. Even in their misery, they love company. And unanimously they hate loneliness. What can be done about loneliness?
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“Lonely people don’t feel very good about themselves”