I don’t want to be a downer after reading about all of the exciting and innovative presentations but I cannot help the pull to highlight a session I attended on loneliness. I think that part of my draw, as well as my conflict, is that loneliness is such a universal experience.
Dr. Rebecca Curtis started the panel discussion by sharing a couple of case examples that highlighted the struggle with loneliness when there is a conflict between seeking others out and avoiding them. Dr. Curtis described characteristics of this type of loneliness as being related to perfectionism — that an individual desires being in relation with another yet simultaneously devalues others by having high standards for the relationship.
In helping to further expand the concept of loneliness, Dr. Ben Mijuskovic added:
The fear of loneliness is the ultimate universal drive in human beings, in all we feel, think, say and do … loneliness is the prime motivator in all our passions, thoughts and actions. The opposite of loneliness is intimacy, a desire for empathic unity with another self-conscious being, whether divine, human or sentient.
Dr. Mijuskovic went on to criticize behaviorism’s view that loneliness is passively caused by external conditions — environmental, cultural, situational and even chemical imbalances in the brain, in which he argues that the DSM is compatible with this approach since all of these external conditions are transient and avoidable.
On loneliness and the DSM, Dr. Mijuskkovic added:
The DSM analytically dissects, classifies, reduces and vivisects the emotions into separate “diagnoses” and thus fails to “see” the whole interplay of the emotions and its concomitant developing dynamic. Therefore, the DSM fails to include the “diagnosis” of loneliness because it has misunderstood the dynamic presence and force of loneliness by tearing it into lifeless pieces; it has separated the original constitutive members and transformed them into dead parts.
So much of this talk and presentation resonated to the core with my understanding of loneliness in my clinical work. After reflecting on the talk for a bit, I cannot help but see many of the parallels with a larger process of our work as psychologists, and also why the room for this talk was quite full. Each year, thousands of us gather at an annual convention with like-minded individuals in a way to avoid our experience of loneliness in our work, and increase our intimacy and connections with those who we truly believe have the capacity to understand what it is that each of us does. While loneliness can stem from the urge for perfection, I would also argue that loneliness, especially for psychologists doing the work, can also arise from personal insight and self-awareness. Perhaps it is because we are reflective clinicians and have a harder time connecting with those we encounter in everyday life outside of the office, in particular, those who struggle with self-awareness and do not value interpersonal connection.
While this talk focused on understanding loneliness in clinical work with patients/clients, I would be curious to hear your thoughts on the loneliness and isolation of our work as clinicians. If you are willing, please share your experiences in the comments.