Valentine’s Day inundates us with images of romance, often leaving us feeling wistful or lonely, as our own lives—whether single or coupled—seldom seem as rich or passionate as the ones on TV. For some, this is a passing melancholy; but for others it’s part of something more serious. Everyone experiences loneliness at times, yet few people know it can trigger evolutionarily determined response patterns that actually undermine our ability to connect with others—creating a vicious cycle of pain and isolation.
Animals (whether fish, caribou, or humans) that find themselves on the periphery of their social groups are the ones most at risk from predators. Being in that type of danger causes the animal to go into a self-preservation mode, called hypervigilance, where it is on high alert for possible threats. This includes being on alert for social threats, which can feel as keen as any other kind; and once we are in a state of hypervigilance, we experience rejection whenever we try to engage with someone else. Any possible sign of lack of interest jumps out at us, in much the same way you notice every restaurant sign you drive past when you’re starving, and things start to look like they might be restaurants that really aren’t; every unreturned phone call or text becomes a sign that we don’t matter to that person; a single bad date seems to mean we’ll be alone forever; and we’re inclined to dismiss any evidence or arguments that might disabuse our fears.
Although these distorted response patterns increase the pain of loneliness, they also serve a purpose. As John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago noted the evolutionary positive of this suffering is that it impels us to take action to foster and repair the intimate relationships without which our sleep, health, and longevity (not to mention our happiness) are all impaired. Without the pain of loneliness, we might neglect those loving social connections that are of utmost importance to our well-being. But, just like aspirin that heals in small doses but harms us in large ones, too much isolation can have serious mental and physiological consequences that ramp up the dangers of social situations to the point where they become aversive and almost impossible to navigate.
Hypervigilance makes us feel the negative aspects of social interactions far more keenly than the positive ones—so, for example, a friend’s one crabby remark appears more significant than the two hours of enjoyable conversation that went with it. In these circumstances, we can feel it’s hardly worth seeing anyone at all — even as we desperately crave intimacy. Just as bad, when we feel lonely and consequently under attack, we become prickly and defensive, disengaging the empathy that lets us connect positively with others and depriving us of our social skills when we most need them. Sadly, these responses can be triggered even by those we love when we feel rejected by them.
It is not the number of our social connections that determines loneliness, but their quality —just one close friend may be enough for a fulfilling social life, while hundreds of superficial or incompatible ones may only exacerbate our isolation. And one of the loneliest places of all is to be trapped in an intimate relationship with a person we don’t feel genuinely connected to.
Loneliness is one thing that cannot be fixed without help—indeed, without making ourselves deeply vulnerable to another person. Unfortunately, though, once we’ve fallen into the trap of hypervigilance, every attempt to make social connections will likely be sabotaged by our heightened sensitivities to rejection unless we learn to become aware of this process and stop allowing it to control us.
To accomplish this, we need to be keenly aware that feeling isolated creates biases and filters that change how we experience and interpret social interactions, and we need to teach ourselves to challenge them. The goal is not to go through life in optimistic ignorance, unaware of social competition and danger, but to scrutinize our fears and assumptions. Does treating the distance to a group of strangers at a party like a bed of hot coals really make sense? What’s the worst that could happen if we crossed that space? Might the long-term rewards of making a new friend outweigh the risk of rejection?
As meaning-making animals (unlike the caribou or fish), we have enormous power to shape our own experiences and decide how we will react to them. When our interpretations are colored by hypervigilance, we see rejection and attacks everywhere, and we respond by withdrawing into further isolation or lashing out. But if we can take off those discolored lenses and reengage our abilities to empathize, we could find there’s a good chance that the stranger across the room might be feeling lonely too, and in need of some extra kindness. Shifting our focus from fear and hurt to warmth and receptiveness can begin the journey out of isolation and into the comfort and joy of love that we all seek.
This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.
Ruth Bettelheim, PhD, has been a practicing psychotherapist and executive/life coach for over 40 years. She taught developmental psychology at The Claremont Graduate School, The Center for Early Education, and The California School for Professional Psychology. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, USA Today, and other journals. Dr. Bettelheim belongs to numerous professional organizations including the American Psychological Association, Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the Society for Social Neuroscience.