The majority of people who feel isolated are not: they live as a couple, work, have children, friends… What does this feeling of inner emptiness say?

It’s a feeling of emptiness, a vague sadness with no real cause that grips our hearts. Around us, people chat, laugh, seem to get along so well. But it’s impossible to share their joy: their centers of interest seem so distant from ours, we feel misunderstood, as if a glass partition kept us away. We are similar and at the same time so different, so close and simultaneously so far. This is the paradox of the feeling of loneliness. We never experience it so much as in the company of others. When we feel the distance that separates us from them. He seizes us in the middle of the anonymous crowd. It weighs on couples who no longer know what to say to each other or whose life trajectories have diverged too much. It makes us fear family meals when we are perceived as the marginalized, the black sheep, or when we fail to adhere to the values ​​of the family clan. Links only feed us if they make sense. Otherwise, they imprison us without filling our inner emptiness.

A very personal perception…

Some, by force of circumstance, live cut off from the world and do not suffer from it. A 2016 study by the Research Center for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions (Credoc) also showed the lack of immediate correlation between real isolation and personal impression of loneliness. More than half of people who feel lonely are not. The work of John Cacioppo (1951-2018), a pioneer in social neuroscience research, claims to shed light on this mystery. Three specific personality traits are found in those most particularly overwhelmed by the subjective feeling of loneliness: an intense need for recognition and approval, a great fear of being outside the norm and, finally, a difficulty in clinging to thoughts and comforting activities in times of slack or when they are really left out. In addition, they would often unknowingly emit signals likely to alienate others – they smile less, tend to be aggressive, sensitive, when on the contrary they should deal with the environment.

The chronic, disabling disease, which cuts us off from the healthy and prevents us from enjoying the pleasures of life, its distractions, also increases this painful feeling, which bereavement, breaks, trials revive just as much. As well as certain periods of existence: adolescence in particular, when the body in full mutation triggers a great upheaval; the beginnings of adulthood, where one hesitates between fusion with the other and the need to distinguish oneself; and, of course, old age, where the destabilizing impression arises that everyday life looks less and less like decades past, while friends disappear. The image we have of loneliness also weighs on our way of feeling it. The more it frightens us, the worse we will experience its inevitable appearances. The perception that our society has of it – which makes it rhyme with asociality, selfishness, failure – does nothing to help us tame it.

And silencing this pain is not easy: medical imaging shows that beyond its psychological aspects, it activates brain areas (the anterior cingulate cortex) also at work in the perception of physical suffering. It is not for nothing that difficult prisoners are placed in solitary confinement in prison. To be left out is a punishment. Perhaps the worst, because the company of our fellow human beings, as heavy as it is sometimes, is almost as necessary to us as the air we breathe.

…inherent in the human condition

However, for the humanist philosopher Jacques Natanson, the feeling of loneliness is not a neurotic anomaly, it is inherent in the human condition: “It says the absence of others but also their existence, insofar as I cannot bind to him. If I feel alone in the crowd, it is because I perceive it as a compact unit of which I am not a part. Each living being lives its experience in a separate, singular way. Only love makes us completely forget this singularity, this irremediable estrangement between me and others – for as long as it lasts. Because, after a period of communication, of perfect communion, when the path is reversed, the feeling of loneliness comes back again.1. In fact, only believers, nurtured by divine love, can pretend to escape it – and even then, not always – because they encounter inevitable moments of doubt.

For Freud, it is the worry, the helplessness that we all felt as children in the darkness of the night which is at the origin of the feeling of loneliness, recalls the psychoanalyst Joëlle Picard2. As we grow up, we gradually conceal this primary experience: by integrating within ourselves the image of a reassuring, protective parent, then by learning to be alone, to rely on our own resources. We will realize that as soon as someone speaks, the darkness vanishes and peace returns. But, regularly, the inner emptiness will remind us – when we feel let go, when we wonder about the meaning of our existence. As unique beings, from a necessarily personal history, endowed with psychic zones that only we can penetrate, we can only feel alone sometimes.

The feeling of loneliness is the exact opposite of the “oceanic feeling” evoked by Freud in his correspondence with Romain Rolland.3 : this one soothes us when we have the impression of becoming one with the universe. However, if we felt it permanently, could we survive? The feeling of loneliness has, indeed, its usefulness: it reminds us of our need for the other, for collective life, without which our species would have disappeared.

A back room to reconnect with yourself

Some cling to their solitude as much as to their own life, even if it means exposing themselves to the bite of lack. This is the case of the shy, of those who are a little phobic of social life. For the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who thought that love is only an illusion, “one can only be oneself as long as one is alone. Who doesn’t love loneliness doesn’t love freedom. Everyone will flee, bear or cherish loneliness in exact proportion to the value of their own self.4 “. The writer Maurice Blanchot invites us to dialogue with our feeling of loneliness by indulging in the exercise of writing a diary because, there, “when I’m alone, I’m not alone, I come back to me in the form of Somebody. Someone is where I’m alone5 “. Writing connects us to our inner life, to the hidden parts of our self. This observation joins the idea of ​​the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who posed that the best antidote to the feeling of loneliness was a good relationship with his unconscious.

But if there is one wise lesson to be learned, it is undoubtedly that of Montaigne (1533-1592). Inventor of philosophical introspection, he explored his moods to better understand the complexity of the human psyche.6. He had the experience of the disease – kidney stones resulting in acute, disabling pain. He lost his best friend. This means that he was forced to deal with inner loneliness to transform it into an ally. “We must reserve a back room all ours in which we establish our true freedom”, he advises his readers. This back room is not an isolation cell. It is a refuge where our consciousness discusses with itself and learns to dispense with the necessity of distractions and occupations. It is a house where we can exist on good terms with ourselves without indulging in egotistical, narcissistic withdrawal into ourselves. It’s up to us to decorate it as we see fit. We are the owners and solely responsible for it.

1. In “Singularity, separation, relationship” by Jacques Natanson, on
2. In an intervention by Joëlle Picard at the APF Psychoanalysis Interviews, December 9, 2017.
3. Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland, correspondence 1923-1936 by Henri Vermorel and Madeleine Vermorel (PUF).
4. In Aphorisms on wisdom in life by Arthur Schopenhauer (PUF, “Quadrige”).
5. In Literary Space by Maurice Blanchot (Gallimard, “Folio essays”).
6. In Essays, Book III de Montaigne (Honored Champion).

For further

==> 6 habits to fight loneliness

To fight loneliness, we must not only multiply initiatives to get out of isolation, we must also change our state of mind and adopt new behaviors.


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