WellNest psychotherapist Sana Imran provides insight into emotional loneliness. This is a two-part post. Look out for the second post, which focuses on ways to manage emotional loneliness, later this week.
Emotional connection is a basic human right.
As human beings, we all have a need for connection and attention – this is as old as the human race itself. We have all heard the saying “safety in numbers,” and stories about our early ancestors, who hunted, gathered and lived in groups. Research has proven that feeling connected to others increases our sense of safety and reduces our stress.
Yet many of us can find that connection physically but struggle to find it emotionally.
Have you ever said:
“I grew up in a nice home, had access to everything I wanted, I have a good family…I should be happy!”
“I have been given it all – a nice family, am well taken care of, received a good education, am doing well in my career. I shouldn’t complain!”
“I have a great partner and we have a good social life…why do I feel so lonely sometimes?”
If this is you, chances are that you are experiencing symptoms of emotional loneliness
This article will explain the difference between emotional connection and emotional loneliness and provide some context about how our upbringing may have played a role.
It is not a formal diagnosis of exactly what happened to you, however if you find some pieces resonate with you, I recommend further reading and working with a therapist to better understand your individual experience.
One book that details this well is “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” by Lindsay Gibson.
What Does Emotional Connection Feel Like?
A sense of intimacy.
An emotional connection allows us to feel we have someone in our lives that we can talk to openly about our feelings. We feel safe opening up, feel seen for who we really are, and find the connection to be fulfilling.
Emotional connection exists when the person you are speaking with is seeking to know you and not judge you.
What Does Emotional Loneliness Feel Like?
Emotional loneliness is the feeling of not receiving sufficient empathy from others.
People experiencing emotional loneliness often have trouble identifying exactly what the underlying cause is. They will speak to having their physical needs met, however the struggle is that they never quite learned what meeting their emotional needs would look or feel like.
Some traits of people who experienced emotional loneliness growing up:
Putting other people’s needs first, believing in our core that this will be the price of admission to a relationship.
Taking on the role of “helper” in our relationships, convincing others that we have few emotional needs of our own.
Covering up our own needs, thinking that sharing them will prevent a connection to someone.
Unfortunately, all these actions result in us feeling lonelier over time.
Why Do I Feel This Way?
There may be many different reasons why this has been your experience over time. Often, these feelings are the result of not receiving adequate validation and an authentic emotional connection when younger.
The Connection To Attachment
Adults who feel unsure of why they are experiencing emotional loneliness are encouraged to reflect on their attachment experiences growing up.
For example, consider moments when you scored a high grade on a test during school – who did you go to? What was their reaction? What about when you received a low grade – who did you go to then and how was it received?
Think about a time when you fell and hurt yourself physically – how were you taken care of? What about the moments when you felt sad or experienced some form of grief – who did you speak to and how were you soothed?
Most people are very confident about their parent’s reactions when they were physically hurt – “they got me bandages, treated me to ice cream, let me watch television for longer, etc.” However, most people have trouble remembering those times when they were sad or grieving – “I’m not sure, I can’t remember if I went to anyone in those times” or “I would talk about it with my teacher instead, that was easier.”
Usually, they are able to articulate that this is because they were not sure how their main attachment figures (i.e. parent/s or other loved one) would react
Perhaps there had been an experience in the past where they did not receive the emotional soothing they were seeking, they may have heard their parent/s express negative judgment about someone else expressing difficult emotions, or perhaps they felt that getting the reaction they did not want from their parent would be harder to deal with emotionally than not going at all. Either way – they learnt that this relationship is going to work in a certain way.
These thoughts about where to go, who to turn to for support, how to process our loved one’s reactions, are learned and strengthened over time.
When we, as children, didn’t receive the emotional connections we were searching for from the people that are “supposed” to be our key attachment figures, we create new ways to connect with them. After all, as children, we need them, and we seek their approval. So we negotiate and create new roles for ourselves.
This is often not a carefully thought out process or something we or our parents are aware of. It happens slowly, through observation of what our parents/attachment figures give attention to.
“Good grades mean happy parents? I will push myself academically so I can win their approval this way!”
“Tears are not the way a ‘big boy’ expresses himself? I will do something to make you pay attention!”
Unfortunately, playing these roles does win attention, however it does not achieve closeness.
The Impact Of Emotional Loneliness In Adulthood
As we said earlier, children are very skilled at adapting to their environments. They learn what is required of them to survive, and as they reach adulthood, have denied their core instincts to the point where they may start acquiescing to relationships they don’t really want.
If you are someone who feels a sense of deep emotional loneliness, you may have created a number of different ways to cope. Some examples of what you might be doing today in relationships include:
- You apologize for seeking help because you feel everybody else’s problems must be bigger or more important than your own!
- You feel guilty for complaining if everything looks okay on the outside – you feel you don’t have the “right feelings.”
- You are the “rescuer” in most of your relationships. You feel a strong responsibility to help others, sometimes to the point of self-neglect.
- You doubt that someone would want to have a relationship with you just because of who you are. You have convinced yourself over the years that to be close to someone means always playing a role and putting the other person first.
- You have formed certain “healing fantasies.” According to Gibson, these are hopeful stories about what will make you truly happy one day – “if only…” This helped you survive in an emotionally unsafe home by giving hope for a better future. It is especially challenging though, because as we enter into adult relationships, we often subconsciously expect these new relationships to make our healing fantasies come true.
As Bowlby, the pioneer of attachment theory said, “safety lies in familiarity.” Over time, we gravitate toward relationships we already have had experience with because we feel we know how to deal with them. This perpetuates the cycle we have been stuck in their whole lives.
Why Did This Happen To Me?
This is not your fault.
And in many cases, this is not your caregivers fault - they likely did not know any different. Your parents most likely received a similar form of parenting when they were growing up. They may not have been taught how to respond to emotions and soothe.
They may have not been shown what emotional intimacy feels like and as a result, were unfamiliar with how to offer emotional support when they themselves became a parent.
To put it very simply, there is a very high chance your parents experienced emotional loneliness themselves growing up and may still be today
This is part 1 or a two-part post on emotional loneliness. Next week, we will explore what we can do about.
If this topic felt heavy for you, please take a few moments to close the tab and take care of yourself. Hold a soft object or something that helps you feel grounded. Make a warm drink. Do a few stretches- your body was most likely holding you tightly as you read this piece. Stretching will help release that tension.
We want to hear from you: Does this topic of emotional loneliness give language to feelings and behaviours you have been carrying out for along time?
That's it for now! I will see you for part 2 later this week :)