Aloneness vs Loneliness: A clinical theological perspective
The clinical diagnosis of PTSD is pretty straightforward. An individual experiencing some or all of the diagnostic symptoms after a traumatic event may have a form of posttraumatic stress disorder. However, the expressions of posttraumatic stress are complex and differ from person to person. Some may experience more nightmares while others display increased startle responses. No matter the trauma or symptom severity causes physiological tear or separation, resulting in a chasm between the victim and their social groups resulting in aloneness and loneliness.
Popular teachings argue humans comprise three distinct parts. Some would say mind, will, and emotion; a person’s cognition and their motivation and emotional state. While others subscribe to Sigmund Freud’s theory, which states that the human cognition comprises Ego, Superego, and Id – namely, consciousness, unconsciousness and pre-consciousness. Spiritual and religious sects argue humans comprise mind, body, and soul; therefore, suggesting the body is the dwelling place for a soul, and the mind directs good and evil behavior. Although these theories provide elemental truths, I am inclined to believe humans have 4 distinct parts (1) body (a physical body), (2) cognition (physiological functioning; to include thought, mental processing, emotion, behavior), (3) soul (spiritual connection to the divine) and (4) relationship. The fourth pillar (relationship) is an important part of what makes a human a human.
Relationship is the human connection with self (one’s physical body, beliefs about self, culture, religious practices, and emotional, physiological and cognitive functioning), others (sociological environment such as family, friends, coworkers, community members and their applied meaning and influence), the divine (i.e., God, a higher power, or the belief that there is a transcendent and transient powerful something that exists outside our realm of understanding) and the world (the cosmic universe, the earth, plants and animals). The fourth part is just as valuable and important as the other three parts, no matter what theory or religious beliefs you align with. Religions across the globe emphasize and elevate human and environmental connection; from religious practices that seek connection with a single deity to practices that seek harmony with the earth.
Trauma victims experience a disconnection from self, others, the divine, and the world. This disconnection leads to aloneness, followed by loneliness. Aloneness is the act of being alone, separated, or isolated from another person or group of people. Loneliness is the emotional experience resulting from being alone, separated, or isolated from another person or group of people.
Healthy individuals may experience periods of aloneness and loneliness in their life. In fact, these types of experiences are very normal. Aloneness and loneliness lead individuals to seek relationships and connection with others. After experiencing periods of aloneness and loneliness, individuals feel better after having a connection with another person or group of people. Likewise, a person will have many kinds of relationships that vary in degree, depth, and meaning. Some will have a deep soulish connection with a person and define this relationship as a kindred spirit. Others will experience deep and meaningful connections with a partner or spouse. Some relationships are superficial and comprise impersonal gatherings or parties. And some will have relationships at work that are casual, and although they are meaningful connections, they are not deep or personal. Healthy individuals develop relationships out of interdependency, want, desire for meaningful connections that edify and or elevate the body, mind, soul. Individuals with these connections have a positive outlook on life, and relationships are fluid and harmonious. Healthy individuals form relationships out of self-love, respect, and an appreciation and acceptance of others.
In contrast, individuals who experience significant trauma may experience loneliness and aloneness differently. For trauma victims, there is a strain in relationships resulting from negative beliefs. Beliefs such as, I am not safe, no one is safe, everyone is my enemy, no one is my friend, and God let it happen because God is all knowing, all powerful and all loving and God was there to save me; therefore, God does not love me—statements that negatively affect relationships. Likewise, a person may believe that no one understands them, sees them, hears them, or knows what they are going through. Others may feel they are different because of what they went through or how hard it is to live with their experiences. These negative beliefs lead to further separation and isolation. Loneliness is the gateway to many types of emotions, such as desperation, anger, frustration, depression, and despair. To avoid feeling lonely, individuals may work long hours, consume drugs or alcohol, or attach themselves to unhealthy people to avoid feeling lonely.
Their world, their feelings about the world, and their feelings about the people in it, are strikingly different from someone who has little or no experience with their type of trauma. For example, a traumatic event causes one to strive to get back to the way things were before the event while simultaneously one believes the present is dangerous and the future is grim, resulting in inner turmoil. A person may want to work it out with their abusive spouse because that person was loving when they first married, while simultaneously feeling the pain of betrayal or feeling ashamed for being angry, and their future self wants to be loved but fears abuse will happen again. This tension between the past, present and future selves result in negative emotional states such as anger and frustration.
Relationships require some vulnerability. The more intimate the relationship, the more vulnerability required. For trauma victims, loneliness may not lead a person to seek connections, and the need for connection may cause significant psychological distress. Although there is a strong desire to want to be loved and feel loved, there is also a fear that love may lead to abuse, abandonment or betrayal. Therefore, it is difficult to establish and maintain relationships—particularly intimate connections. For trauma victims, relationships are black or white and the gray ambiguous middle ceases to exist. These beliefs are all or nothing and manifest in trust or mistrust statements such as you’re on my side or you are not; you care for me or you don’t; you love me or you hate me. Therefore, when conflict arises in relationships, the self-destructive mechanism goes off, which may cause severed relationships.
A trauma victim may believe those around them are spectators or enemies. It may be difficult for a person to believe there are allies, friends, or people who love them. All or nothing beliefs may lead to polarizing emotional states that can manifest in jealousy, control, codependency, or isolation. A person may appear to be needy, clingy and strongly need to be needed that may lead to insecurity, frustration with another person’s performance, and jealousy.
Some individuals will seek help and care from support groups (i.e., social media support groups). On the surface, this might seem like a healthy step forward, not all support groups are created equal. Some support groups provide balanced care and support, while others do little to guide people out of stuck places. Poor support groups lead to further victimhood and do little to empower or enable people to live beyond their traumatic experiences. Likewise, although sharing a bond based on traumatic experiences may feel good, not all relationships are healing. In other words, a drowning person may not find a way out from a group of people who are drowning and likewise it is impossible to get to higher ground if a person is boarding a sinking ship.
Although relationships are the root cause of many negative or traumatic experiences, relationships are an important and equally fundamental part of healing. Humans need connection. No doubt humans have great potential to harm a person’s relationship to self, others, the divine and the world—just turn on the news or scroll through social media. We don’t have to look far to read stories of humans committing heinous crimes against humans and creation. Despite the human inclination to do wrong or harm another person, humans have a profound ability to bring goodness and healing to the world. Unlike animals, humans are profoundly creative and have power to turn negative experiences into something positive—changing the course of their life and the lives of those around them. Likewise, there is great comfort in sharing painful experiences with another person, and although a person may not understand completely, their friendship, connection, and presence can be comforting and healing. The challenges individuals with trauma face are developing long-term healthy relationships and experiencing deep connections. Despite how difficult it may seem to establish healthy relationships; it is possible to experience deeper connections and live outside trauma. Evidence shows trauma can have lasting debilitating effects, but trauma is not the end of a person but the beginning of something newer and greater. Trauma can lead to greater self-understanding, greater self-love, and greater compassion and love for others and the world.