The surprising reason people come to therapy.

Meghan sat upright in the big, cushiony sofa with her hands clasped in her lap. It was our sixth session together, but she still bristled when I turned the conversation to anything besides the weather. To be sure, she had anxiety surrounding intimacy, but that wasn’t the reason Meghan entered therapy.

James sat in the same sofa and took twenty minutes to explain how his dry-cleaner, a man who had previously been his friend, had knowingly ripped him off.  To be sure, he was also frustrated his wife had rolled her eyes and insisted he pay the Crispy Clean bill anyway, but frustration wasn’t the reason James entered therapy.

Mary teared-up as she told me that her husband had called her “rude” when she, in her sleepy haze, had allowed her morning alarm to sound on his day off. Sure, she was sensitive to verbal insults as an adult daughter of a “mean” alcoholic, but that wasn’t the reason Mary entered therapy.

Each of these people had friends; Each of them interacted with countless acquaintances every day; Each of them was in a relationship. And each of them was profoundly, desperately lonlely.

The loneliness that plagues so many people in our boxed-in and plugged-in (and eyes-down and eyes-glazed) society is the pain of standing in a crowd of ten million people but not actually being seen by any.

Sure, Megan sat right in front of me and told me the names of all her siblings. Sure, Jame’s wife knew all about the over-charging of the cleaners. And yes, Mary’s husband talked to her about the groceries and the kid’s play practice and the upcoming birthday party. But, for a number of reasons including their own hesitations to initiate emotional intimacy, none of these people were actually seen and actually understood.

We don’t typically label this loneliness as such, but we sure try to quell it. We buy fancy cars and designer bags and make ourselves vomit and have affairs and spin webs of lies and sacrifice our families for promotions- all for gaining the ultimate measure of visibility; approval. We shoot drugs and drink alcohol and mindlessly eat and zone into porn and into video games and into our jobs and anything else that will alter our minds- often for the promise of not feeling the pain of being invisible or misunderstood.

As one of the most common reasons that people enter into therapy, I know a few things about this kind of loneliness:

I know that it grows when we have an attachment injury. When a parent or significant other abuses or abandons or betrays or neglects or even passes away, we feel so acutely invisible.(And during grieving, not even the reality of not actually being invisible can change the lonely.)

I know that the resolution of loneliness is not in a “numbers game.” The sheer quantity of people with which we engage is not as important as the depth of which we allow ourselves to be known and extend ourselves to know others. People with walls-up don’t get out of lonely. People who cry and fear and get angry and get humble (and bear witness to the crying and fears and anger and humility of others) get out of lonely.

I know that people who are the loneliest sometimes bark up the wrong trees because they seem like the “safest” trees. Unavailable people don’t demand real, scary intimacy.

I know that people who are the loneliest are the most placating AND the most volitile. They go along with the wishes of others because they fear rejection, but then no one ever actually sees who they really are or what they really need, and they’re angry for it.

I know the thought distortions of depression and anxiety can be a bitch. Confirmation bias and mental filters are powerful for people who believe “I  worthless” or “Othrs will reject me.”

I know that tolerating some crappy realities won’t cure loneliness, but it will prevent it from fueling itself.

I know resentment and the walls that accompany resentment must be obliterated in order to resolve loneliness.  Empathy and tears are requirements of forgiveness, and forgiveness (the kind that just accepts that it happened, not get the other person off the hook) is required for connection. (Connection with anyone, not just the person who caused pain. Relationship trauma easily becomes all-consuming and pervasive.)

I know hopelessness that an unlonely life is not possible = the tricks of a depressed and anxious mind. I know that therapy works wonders, but engaging meaningfully in real life and relationships PLUS therapy is the only way out.

I know that a person who does not know and tolerate who (s)he is alone  will not experience real connection (only frantic addiction and clinging or avoidance and fear).

Just something to think about, from the therapist who thinks there is no shame in being lonely and also no shame in gently holding your partner’s chin and demanding reflective listening and eye contact. Errrr…. I mean, if you want….


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