Raksha is typical of many teen girls. She was an only child who grew with much stress in her home. Her dad was emotionally unstable. Raksha tried to be understanding; she reasoned that her dad had enough to worry about just taking care of his own problems, but she often longed for someone who would treat her as a special person. She reached her teen years wondering if a man would ever pay attention to her, let alone love her. When she entered junior college, her parent’s divorce, and she and her mom had to move to a new city, so her mom could get a decent job.
“It was hard making friends at my new college,” Raksha explained later. “Actually, I never did make any girlfriends”. And home wasn’t much better. Mom was gone most of the time. I thought I would die from the loneliness.
“That’s why was so surprised – overjoyed, really – when Raj asked me out.” Raksha and Raj began dating. Raj was older and more experienced, and before long he started pressuring Raksha to have sex with him. Raksha knew other girls at junior college who were sexually involved, and this added to her turmoil.
“There was no way I wanted to go back to the way things were before Raj”, she says. “If I had lost Raj, I would have been lonelier than before”. Raj had filled a lonely void in Raksha’s life, so rather than lose him, she consented to have sex with him. Raksha needed acceptance, and she thought her physical relationship with Raj would make her feel wanted. She and Raj still date, and they still have sex together, But Raksha knows Raj also dated other girls. And she’s still lonely.
Problem of Loneliness
Loneliness is an uncommonly common problem. It exists everywhere, among all kinds of people.
Loneliness is the painful awareness that we lack meaningful contact with others. It involves a feeling of inner emptiness which can be accompanied by sadness, discouragement, a sense of isolation, restlessness, anxiety and an intense desire to be wanted and needed by someone.
A study by psychoanalyst Michael Whitenburgh revealed that the greatest fear – beyond claustrophobia, beyond the fear of insects, beyond fear of flying – is the fear of loneliness. As prevalent (and destructive) as loneliness is among the adult population, it is even more pronounced among youth and can be overwhelming, consuming and devasting.
The teen years are the time in life when the need for social acceptance is at its peak. Adolescents regard themselves as no longer children, and most are making efforts to become more independent from their family. Ties with peer groups are extremely important. And the resulting pressure can be tremendous.
Even if a teenager has a pleasant family atmosphere, loneliness can be great problem, if there are inadequate ties with other teens.
Psychologist Craig Ellison has suggested that there are three kinds of loneliness:
- Emotional Loneliness involves the lack or loss of a psychologically intimate relationship with another person or persons. The emotionally lonely person feels utterly alone and can only recover by establishing new in-depth relationships with others.
- Social Loneliness the feeling of aimlessness, anxiety and emptiness. The person feels that she/he is ‘out of it’ and on the margin of life, instead of an in-depth relationship with specific companion, the socially lonely person needs a supportive group of accepting friends and skill in relating with others.
- Existential Loneliness refers to the sense of isolation which comes to the person who is separated from God and who feels that life has no meaning or purpose. Such persons need a committed and growing relationship with God, preferably within the confines of a concerned community of believers.
Causes of Loneliness
Loneliness may have many and varies causes and identifying them most often a job for a highly trained professional. However, some exposure to the possible influences on a young person who is feeling acute loneliness may nonetheless be helpful for the caring adult or parent.
- Low Self Esteem: Studies by Levin and Stokes and Peplau and Perlman suggest that “negative evaluations of their own bodies sexuality, health, appearance, behaviour, and functioning” contribute to a young person’s vulnerability to feelings of loneliness. As Collin writes,
When we have little confidence in ourselves it is difficult to build friendships. The person is unable to give love without apologizing; neither can he or she receive love without cutting one- self down– Collin
- Poor Family Relationships: A number of studies suggest that family background is crucial factor in a young person’s vulnerability to loneliness J. Ponzetti Jr writes: lonely students recall poorer relationships with their parents and childhood friends. They also remember less family togetherness. Mohan and Hecht and Baum noted significant correlations between loneliness and disrupted patterns of attachment suggesting that the lack of bonding early in life may contribute to the experience of loneliness.
- Social Factors: In their books Why Be Lonely? Carter, Meirer, and Minirth write: Our society is fast, mobile, and changing. Although we may come in contact with hundreds and thousands, there is not enough time to build relationships, and so people are lonely. also because of mobile there is less time for personal communication. Even the little time people have for each other is spent in loneliness in front mobile screens. Research shows that excessive mobile usage also causes individuals to trust each other’s less and thus promote loneliness.
We live in a society that tends to promote loneliness.
Temporary or Changing Circumstances: Sometimes youth are lonely because of their circumstances: a girl whose boyfriend “dumps” her; a unathletic boy whose closest friends time is consumed with cricket camp, practices and games; a college student who has not yet made friends; a teen whose family has moved to a new neighborhood, leaving many friends behind. Such situational loneliness is often temporary, however particularly in the case of youth.
People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.
- Fear: Sometimes individuals do erect barriers to keep others out. Often this is done because of fear of intimacy, fear of being know, fear of rejection or fear of being hurt – as we may have been hurt in the past. The loneliness is painful but for such people it is no less painful than the fear and insecurity of reaching out to others.
- Hostility: Some people are lonely because they harbor feelings of anger and bitterness that alienate others and drive them away. Such alienation, of course, often produces further frustration and anger, deepening the person’s loneliness in a whirlpool of self-defeating emotions and reactions.
An inability or unwillingness to communicate is sometimes at the root of a person’s loneliness
Inability to Communicate: Communication breakdowns are at the root of many, perhaps most, interpersonal problems. When people are unwilling to communicate, or when they don’t know how to communicate honestly, there is a persisting isolation and loneliness even though individuals may be surrounded by others.
Some loneliness results from estrangement from God
Spiritual Causes: An individual in an open rebellion against God will often feel a deep existential loneliness that can only be corrected by filling that God-shaped void that exists in every human hearts. The same loneliness often results from unforgiveness (not asking forgiveness) or even from a casual negligence of God’s care and His claim on one’s life.
Effects of Loneliness
Loneliness effects young people in many and varied ways. The following elaboration of the effects of loneliness may not only serve as warning but may also help equip a parent or concerned individual to spot the problem, which may in turn lead to a successful response to the problem.
Loneliness has a way of infecting every fiber of our being; our hopes, ambitions, dreams, vitality, desires, wants, as well as our actual physical bodies.
- Physical Effects: Ira J Tanner’s book Loneliness – The Fear of Love records some of the physical effects of loneliness. Eating and sleeping are frequently affected. Obesity and greed may well be symptoms of loneliness, although loss of weight can also be traced to despair that goes with a feeling of being of no importance or worth to anyone, not even to ourselves. The misery of loneliness may manifest itself in the legs is not uncommon, stemming from the heavy burden of fear that we are carrying on our backs. Stooped shoulders, turned-down corners of mouth, a slow and painful walk, silence and withdrawal – all bearing testimony to loneliness.
- Low Self-Esteem: In the cruel cycle that loneliness creates, low self-esteem and a poor self-concept can be not only a cause but also an effect of loneliness. Lonely youth report feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and worthlessness. As their loneliness deepens, they view their lack of friendship as a personal failure, a reflection of their unworthiness. Such people sometimes withdraw into self-pity, self-centeredness, and self-abuse.
People who have constant bouts with loneliness often fall into overly dependent style of life.
- Dependence: Carter, Meier and Minirth writes, an overly dependent person becomes excessively worried and upset if he is rejected by someone. He clings to people, sucking up all their emotional energy. Dependent persons tend to follow a predictable progression in their relationships. They first discount their own abilities to take charge of their emotional lives. Second, the expect others to fulfill their needs for them. Then they begin to make demands of those whom they depend, Naturally, this causes others to retreat from them, keeping at distance. Dependent person finds himself back to square one and usually continues the cycle endlessly.
Loneliness breeds depression, which can lead to despair and, in some cases, to suicide.
- Depression and Despair: Youth often keep their problems and feeling bottled up inside, fearing to express how they feel or not knowing how to express how they feel, increasing their sense of aloneness and heightening the despair they feel. The self-pity and alienation that often characterize chronic loneliness becomes a cycle of self-defeating attitudes leading the sufferer ever deeper into what it seems like a black hole of hopelessness.
- Substance Abuse: Alcohol and drugs often seem to be attractive means to escape to a chronic sufferer of loneliness and may turn to substance abuse in an attempt to ‘drown their sorrow’ or in a misguided attempt to make friends of other abusers. Such behaviours, of course, fails to produce the desire results and adds yet another problem to the loneliness.
Person suffering with extreme loneliness will often feel out of fellowship with God, estranged from him, perhaps even deserted by Him.
Spiritual Effect: Cartner, Meier and Minirth speak to this in their book Why Be Lonely? Because of our human imperfections, we are bound to fall short of a state of constant communication with God. Unfortunately, the person who suffers from loneliness does not allow himself to grasp the inner peace found in this relationship. He feels far away from God.
Response to the Problem of Loneliness
People suffering from acute loneliness are often counselled to “change jobs, join a club, be positive, become aggressive, get married, travel, move, have fun, never be alone. listen to music, watch netflix, enjoy movies, read a good book, take up hobby, pursue cultural interests, expand your horizon, play, increase leisure, renew goals, volunteer – and all of these activities may temporarily remedy the pain of loneliness, but they fail to meet the problem on a deeper level and do not produce the desired lasting results”.
When helping lonely teenagers, however, the wise caring or parent or friend will instead pursue a course such as the following which may help determine the root problem and address it affectively:
Encourage the young person to talk freely about his or her loneliness. Attempt to help the youth express himself or herself with such questions as:
- Can you describe what you’re feeling and thinking?
- Have you struggled with feelings of loneliness for some time?
- When do you feel most lonely?
- When do you feel least lonely?
- Are there times when these feelings get away? Describe them.
- What are some ways you try to cope with your loneliness?
Try to stay away from “Why” question (Why do you think you are lonely?) and instead try to focus on “What” (What makes you feel better?) and “How” (How do you think you can respond when you start to get overwhelmed again?)
As the young person shares his or her feelings of loneliness, communicate your empathy and interest by:
- Leaning slightly forward in your chair.
- Make eye contact.
- Nodding to indicate understanding.
- Reflecting key statements (“You feel… and “You’re saying…”)
- Waiting patiently through periods of silence and tears.
Be careful not to say “I know how you feel” or to relate stories from your past but try to communicate that the young person is not alone in feeling the way he or she does.
Be alert to every opportunity to offer sincere and truthful affirmation to the young person, particularly if there is a chance the youth’s loneliness is a result of low self-esteem. Collins says,
Lonely people must be helped to see and acknowledge their strengths, abilities and gifts, as well as their weakness.– Collin
Counselees must be reminded that in God’s sight every human being is valuable and loved, that every fault can be forgiven, that each of us has abilities and gifts which can be developed, and that all people have weaknesses which can be lived with and for which we can compensate.
Gently but firmly guide the youth to talk through the causes and effects of his or her loneliness, sensitively steering him or her to accept responsibility for our own loneliness. If we sit back passively and wait for a relationship to be restored or a new one to be formed, it won’t happen. If we blame our lonely situation on someone else, we’ll only feel bitter. If we blame it on ourselves, we’ll only feel defeated.
The first step in overcoming loneliness is to face it and accept the responsibility for coping with it.
Be especially alert to opportunity to guide him or her to answer the following:
- Is the loneliness due to a temporary situation? All of us experience occasional situations that cause loneliness, such as the student who moved with his parents to new city. Such bouts of loneliness often disappear when the temporary situation is gone.
- Is the loneliness due to changing circumstances? Life has a way of surprising – or disappointing – us with sudden changes that throw us off balance. The grandparent the teen had always confided in dies. His or her three best friends have begun to do some things the lonely teen can’t participate in, and now they are shutting him or her out. These situations usually take more out of us than temporary events. New adjustments are required that don’t come easily. We have to experience the grief of loss; we have to find new friends and build relationships. And that’s not easy.
- Is loneliness due to something inside the youth? Perhaps the youth is shy by nature. Maybe he or she has an inner insecurity that makes it hard to make friends. Certain characteristics of the youth’s personality may alienate him or her from others. Maybe he or she has dreaded social skills. While this their kind of loneliness may be the most difficult to resolve, it can – once identified – be addressed with honesty and sincere effort.
Enlist the young person’s participation in developing a plan of action for overcoming his or her loneliness.
Once the primary cause or causes of loneliness have been identified, guide him or her to establish specific goals (such as adjusting expectations in a particular way or taking new risks in specific areas). Such an action plan should involve small or manageable steps, it should be specific and measurable, it should be reasonable and workable, and it should be stated positively (“I will invite a friend to a concert this weekend” instead of ” I’m not going to hibernate in my room all weekend”).
If the young person’s loneliness seems to persist or worsen – particularly if his or her behaviour becomes erratic, or he or she begins to talk about suicide – refer him or her as soon as possible to professional counselling.
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Bijo Joseph is the Founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg, 357152/Sec. 8 Co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery and livelihood programs and peer support offered by counsellors, coaches, social workers and volunteers.