lonely older woman

Loneliness is a Powerful Motivator for Bad Decisions

Romance novels and movies reinforce the belief that others can make us feel worthwhile. I can’t live without you songs and images of happy couples and families stir up feelings of alienation. If we believe what we see and hear we fall into the compare and condemn trap.

Some ascribe today’s epidemic of loneliness to societal mobility, social media, the stress of modern culture, and aging Boomers. The methods used to cope range from getting involved in causes, joining groups, using alcohol, drugs, food, television, family drama, or looking online for someone. These strategies ease loneliness for a while, but once we are alone we feel empty.

WHAT CONNECTS US TO OURSELVES

We feel connected when we are honest with others and ourselves. Self-awareness is not easy since we tend to play the roles we assign ourselves early in life, or that parents and other authority figures assign to us.

For example, in reaction to indulgent parents you believe you do not have to work “that hard” so you take the easy, familiar path. Without the muscles adversity develops, you give up when life gets demanding, or find someone who will rescue you from the situation.

If the rescuer complains or leaves, you get angry and accuse this person of not caring about you. If this tactic works, the rescuer goes back to saving you from the struggle growth requires.  Then the cycle of anger and guilt starts all over again.

Strange as it may seem, anger and guilt are the payoffs for victims and rescuers, since they reinforce the belief “this is just the way life is”. The only way out of the prison of futility is through the intuition, the leap of faith that gives meaning to life’s experiences, as my client Lance learned.

KNIGHTS AND MAIDENS

Lance (short for Lancelot, of course) had always wanted to be the hero, the knight in shining armor who swoops in with teeth flashing while his sword cuts through the brambles to rescue the fair maiden. She swoons with delirious relief; the dragon tippy toes off to the cave, and the other knights gnash their teeth in collective envy.

Lance took on the role of the hero after his father left his mother for another woman when Lance was an adolescent. Devastated by her loss, the mother turned to her oldest son for advice and comfort.

“You have to be the man of the family now,” Janice said to Lance.

Janice did not realize what she was doing; she was too frightened and lonely to think clearly. But her decision caused Lance to assume taking more than his share of the load in a relationship was normal. He went through life attracting people who expected him to take care of them. When he could not live up to their expectations, he blamed himself.

Based on his experience as a boy, Lance decided that people could not handle pain and rejection. He did not get involved with people who faced and worked through life’s challenges since they did not need rescuing. Because he gave so much of his time and energy to taking care of others Lance could not find, much less do the work he enjoyed.

THE ANSWER IS NOT OUT THERE

When I began my work over four decades ago I assumed my clients just needed to go through the typical job hunt process: know their skills, research the market, write a good resume, handle interviews well, sort through offers, then go happily off to work.

After clients kept coming back to me with the same problems even after they got a new job or started a business, I decided to delve deeper into career dilemmas by having them write an autobiography that began with grandparents and parents’ beliefs about money, work and relationships.

Lance resisted this unconventional approach at first, but taking a look at the generational family system paid off for him. As he wrote his autobiography. he realized he could not make people happy. It was true his mother, Janice, suffered because of his father’s departure. But Lance saw that it was wrong of her to put him in a position of responsibility he was not capable of handling, a pattern he repeated in his career.

Lance also realized he was angry with Janice for using him as a surrogate husband. (Feeling anger is the first step to coming out of denial, later comes forgiveness).

Next, Lance admitted he was angry with all the people he allowed to take advantage of him. Most of all he was disappointed with himself for not doing something about it at the time. Disappointment was the feeling Lance suppressed all of his life, thus his depression and back pain.

Few of us were taught the value of the feelings, and how to use our minds to process and express them effectively. We believe if we feel grief, anger, and disappointment we will never get over these painful emotions, so we distract ourselves, or hope they will go away.  But without the darker feelings we live lonely, superficial lives.

According to Dr. John Sarno, author of The Divided Mind, depression, physical pain and anxiety are reactions to suppression of the normal emotions we are afraid to feel. If being angry doesn’t fit our idealized self-image, as was the case for Lance, or other emotions are just too dangerous to express we pretend they don’t exist.

Sarno says the brain uses symptoms to protect us from experiencing the rage we feel about not getting our needs met. The purpose of the physical pain and anxiety is to occupy our minds to the point that we can’t think about anything else.

To connect with himself, Lance needed to acknowledge his anger and disappointment and to balance his needs with the needs of others.

TOLERATING DISCOMFORT

Breaking the pattern of taking on more than he could handle took time, since Lance got approval when he rescued people. At least at first they approved of him. But when he couldn’t fix them they got mad at him.

Learning to tolerate others’ disapproval was a challenge for Lance. But the more he said no to what was not right for him, the more his life came into balance.

“Now that I’ve given up rescue missions I’m not as lonely when I’m alone,” Lance said. “I’ve learned how to listen to what’s going on inside of me before I make decisions, to hold still until my mind is quiet. I still get depressed sometimes, and I wrestle with guilt about not doing enough, but not like before. And my back pain is gone.”

right decision, wrong decision

PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION

Change is a process. The subconscious will not accept the new as true until it proves to work. Since our psyche wants us to grow, it takes us back (and back!) to the past until we don’t have to go there anymore.

As Lance discovered, doing what was difficult for him–setting boundaries–changed his self-image for the better. When he felt lonely, rather than judge or distract himself he stayed with aloneness until it changed into solitude. If guilt tried its prosecutorial tricks on him, rather than defend himself against false accusations he refused to listen.

“I have a whole new definition of hero now,” Lance said. “It’s being one for yourself.”

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area. She is also the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Please visit Nancy’s website, Work With Passion.

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