Welcome back, dear readers. In our previous discussions, we explored the loneliness epidemic in the United States, and its physical health implications. As we traverse the landscape of human connection, our focus now shifts to a more intimate terrain—the internal struggles that underpin loneliness and its impact on our mental health. It's crucial to understand that overcoming feelings of loneliness is not just about seeking external connections but also about bridging the inner gaps within ourselves.
One of my patients poignantly remarked that while the Surgeon General's report on the epidemic of loneliness addressed its external aspects, it overlooked the internal issues that prevent people from forming connections. Her insight is profound. Many, like her, struggle with childhood traumas and the internalization of a 'negating other'—often a parental figure whose critical voice continues to echo within, long into adulthood.
This particular patient's journey is a testament to the transformative power of therapy.
She grappled with the deep-seated impact of a mother who was a 'negating other.' This internalized voice led her to sabotage her connections, leaving her feeling empty, unreal, and unworthy. Through therapy, she began to understand how her sense of self-alienation was at the core of her struggle. She realized that she wasn't sharing her authentic feelings with herself or others, which impeded her ability to develop satisfying connections, despite being well-liked and respected.
Today, we explore the concepts of relational trauma, self-alienation, and its root in deeply internalized shame, concepts extensively analyzed by Daniel Shaw, LCSW, in his trauma-informed psychoanalytic perspective.1 These concepts are pivotal to understanding the internal blocks to connection and community that we all crave.
Loneliness, more than a mere absence of social interaction, is an expression of the self-alienation that stems from internalized shame. This type of shame, born from problematic attachment and developmental experiences, traps individuals in a cycle of self-doubt, self-condemnation, and often self-loathing that belies or blocks intimate connection with others. This is an innately human experience, not exclusive to lonely people. Older people are subject to this, as well as young people whose experience may be exacerbated by social media and a lack of social support.
Shaw's work highlights the adhesion of shame in those who have suffered childhood trauma. Abused and neglected children often bear the burden of their parents' inadequacies, leading them to internalize a sense of badness and self-alienation. This phenomenon creates a confusing mix of conflicting self-states, where a child, in seeking love and approval, may lose touch with their authentic self-perception.
Self-alienation refers to the state in which I have lost contact with my authentic perceptions, feelings, and needs. I inherently need others to help me identify and make meaning of my experience, but I feel that my need for that connection is shameful and bad, so I have repressed the whole thing (the feelings, the needs, and the shame of both). I therefore feel depleted, underaroused, and alienated from my own center, without a metaphorical rope to help pull myself out of this hole.
Self-alienation is closely linked with chronic dysregulation—where individuals fluctuate between hyperarousal and hypoarousal—rarely finding a state of emotional balance, and developing without the crucial skills of self-regulation that underpin agency and self-esteem. In such a dysregulated state, self-reflection often leads to self-condemnation rather than to understanding and compassion for oneself.
Many individuals believe they are primarily struggling with depression because they live in a state of hypo-arousal: i.e. being understimulated, lacking emotion, passion, joy. Underlying this depressive presentation is a pervasive sense of shame. This shame, often unrecognized, perpetuates feelings of despair, exhaustion, and hopelessness. It’s crucial to identify this underlying shame to begin the journey of healing, because the catch-22 is that we cannot move from alienation to connection without moving through that shame, and any associated grief.
Shame almost always evolves from relational trauma. Relational trauma, at its core, consists of having one’s subjectivity negated by another, typically by a person with more power, or a person upon whom one depends.
Remember my patient’s mother who was a ‘negating other’?
If you have a parent that was unable to take your perceptions and feeling states as real. Or they conveyed this in words of contempt or dismissal, or inaction such as neglect—that your emotions were unimportant, wrong, oversensitive, or nonexistent—you too have relational trauma.
Relational trauma can also take the form of emotional abuse, where a parent or partner does or says things that hurt you, but then blame or punish you for your reaction, if you express the hurt.
Relational trauma also underlies the more concrete forms of physical or sexual abuse, which rest on the negation of the victim as a human with a real subjectivity as well.
In the internal world of someone who has experienced relational trauma, there exist parts that are ashamed, and parts that are shaming. These ashamed parts hold painful memories and beliefs, while the shaming parts actively blame the individual for their suffering. This self-perpetuating cycle mirrors the negating voices from significant others in the person’s past or present.
The kicker here, however, is that the shaming parts tell the suffering, shameful part that its need for connection and understanding—the essential interdependency which we all have—is bad.
This is the essential conflict that leaves the victims of relational trauma unable to grow, and utilize external connections to gain the benefits of connection we’ve been addressing. It often takes an experienced therapist to help an individual unravel this tangle, and trust others with their vulnerability, grief, and shame.
The experience of loneliness is deeply felt, touching all areas of life for older adults, young adults, and elderly people. If you're lucky enough to have strong social relationships and those you consider close friends, it's important to recognize that people of all ages know the isolation of chronic loneliness, and it can often lead to low self-esteem, as well as myriad risk factors like exacerbated social anxiety, emotional problems, and even risk of premature death. The lack of connection that drives these negative outcomes can be assisted by contact with community organizations, meetup groups, or even a support group specific to loneliness itself. Ultimately, making new friends, more frequent contact with a particular family member, and the development of quality relationships in general is key to overcoming the effects of loneliness.
The path to healing from self-alienation involves developing self-compassion in the place where shame and shaming is active.
This is often a struggle fought tooth and nail to insert compassion into a system that is convinced that suffering itself and the need for healing is pathetic and problematic: shameful. As psychotherapists, our role is to guide individuals through understanding and healing from the conditions that have led them to chronic disappointments and frustrations, often rooted in experiences of shame and humiliation. In many cases, this system shields the individual from the pain and grief of childhood neglect, negation, loneliness or fear. Accepting compassion entails accepting and grieving the pain one has experienced, and this pain has often been defended against in this repressed, internal self-shaming system.
As we continue our series, remember that the journey from loneliness to mental wellness is not just about external connections, but also about healing the inner wounds of shame, negation, and self-alienation. My Love Thyself course can also be a useful step on this healing journey, building stronger connections from within.
In our next chapter, we will explore the complex world of shame in greater depth, understanding its role in our ability to form authentic and fulfilling connections.
Join us as we further unravel the layers of connection, healing, and wholesome relationships in our lives…
1 Daniel Shaw (2023) Shame and Self-Alienation: A Trauma-Informed Psychoanalytic Perspective, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, DOI: 10.1080/07351690.2023.2226021
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