Loneliness and Solitude: A Key Issue for Our Time
It’s well known that loneliness is a crucial issue in our time. Our recent experience with the pandemic has only highlighted our awareness that modern life for many in Canada and around the world is extremely lonely. How do we cope with loneliness, and how is it related to that other human state, solitude? Loneliness and solitude figure very importantly in understanding our psyche.
Photo by Tobias Tullias
Psychiatrist Dr. Diane McIntosh, on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup recently cited a 2021 StatsCan study where more than one in ten people 15 or older reported that they always or often felt lonely. Dr. McIntosh indicates that this number is steadily on the increase. What is this state of loneliness, and why is it so significant for us?
The Nature of Loneliness
In our deepest nature, we human beings are inherently social creatures. In ways that are fundamental to the structure of our of our brains and our entire nervous systems, we are hard wired for social connection. We are creatures that need to be interacting with others, to be seen and acknowledged. In fact, this process of being seen and acknowledged by significant others is absolutely critical to our healthy development.
This latter point, about the need to be seen and acknowledged, is central to our experience of the reality of loneliness. We all have a deep inner need to be seen, valued and accompanied. This stems from the way that human beings come into the world. Unlike may other species that are born basically complete and “ready to go”, human beings are creatures that complete a great deal of our development over years outside of the womb. As a result, we are fundamentally dependent on interactions with others, both to survive, and then to become who we are capable of being.
This state of affairs continues throughout the human journey. We need meaningful ongoing interaction with other people as a way of furthering our development as individuals who are part of the social connectedness of the human race. This is a fundamental human need.
When we feel cut off from others, and feel unseen and unacknowledged, there is a strong sense that something very important and nourishing is missing from our lives. That is very painful. And it can happen in a vast number of different ways.
One may feel lonely and isolated in a wilderness or desert, where there are no other human beings around. Or, one may feel lonely in the midst of crowds of people in an urban area. Or, in a surprising but profoundly affecting way, a person may feel desperately lonely in the midst of a family that would appear “close and loving” to many outside observers, but where the individual is not seen for who they are, or allowed to be that person. This is a reality that was brought close to a surprising number of people who were confined at home during the pandemic.
How Loneliness Involves Relationship with Others—and with Ourselves
As human beings, we are strongly motivated to avoid loneliness and to find good meaningful connection. However, escaping the grip of loneliness can be difficult, at times.
As mentioned above, the fact that one lives surrounded by people is no guarantee that a person may avoid loneliness. In fact, it may make it worse. Whatever situation one lives in, one key to getting past loneliness is to find ways to meaningfully connect with others—to be seen and acknowledged by others, and to see and acknowledge them. As a depth psychotherapist, an important part of the work I do with people is helping them to find good ways to enhance their meaningful connection to others.
However, there is another important dimension to the whole issue of loneliness, and that is the whole aspect of solitude. While it certainly is a psychological truth that we need to be connected to other people, life also asks us another important question: “Can you also be alone with yourself, and appreciate your own value, and find the riches within you?
While it’s true that as human beings, we need other people, it’s also true that we need to cultivate the capacity to be with ourselves. It’s essential for me to find the riches and wisdom within my own being. Those things are there within us, and we need to be in touch with them for our own completeness.
This experience of reaching into the inside of ourselves is what is meant when Jungians and others refer to “solitude”. As Jungian analyst and author Robert A. Johnson asserts, “If you can transform your loneliness into solitude, you’re one step away from the most precious of all experiences.”
Connection, Loneliness and Solitude
The issue of loneliness raises the question of connection for us in two very important but distinct ways. The first vital avenue is the way of connection with others. The second, less obvious but equally vital way is the way of solitude, which involves us in the depth reality of connection with the Self.
These two avenues are both vital parts of depth psychological work. The ways in which we need both the reality of genuine connection and eros with others, and the deepest possible connection with our own reality and truth are matters which are right at the heart of Jungian depth psychological work, and the individuation process. This precious work is often furthered in the best way through work with the support and insight given by a Jungian analyst.
WIth very best wishes for your continuing personal journey,
Registered Psychotherapist and
Certified Jungian Analyst (IAAP)
Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional
© Brian Collinson, 2024