Loneliness is a serial killer

By Benjamin Schoendorff

One of the greatest risk factors for early death, on par with smoking and twice as deadly as obesity or alcohol, is loneliness. We can die from being alone.

As human beings, we are the most social of all mammals. Is it a surprise then that social connection and relationships would be literally vital to us? It is so important to us that the fear of rejection is one of our most profound and widely-shared fears. In earlier societies, the worst punishment that could be given to an offending member of the tribe was to be shunned from the group, never to be interacted with again, and treated as if they had never lived. Cut-off from their social support system, the condemned soon died.

In Western society, the triumph of individualism has not erased the basic fact of human existence that we need social connection and relationship as much as we need food and shelter. However, many of us, men in particular, don’t seem interested in or don’t know how to connect? Excessive individualism and our inherent fear of rejection may conspire to prevent us from moving toward others. We may say to ourselves “What is the point, because I’ll probably get rejected and anyways I can do it alone!” This is a cruel irony, that the fear that most stops us from connecting is rooted in our deepest desire to connect. In order to move towards connecting with others, even when we fear rejection, we need to practice psychological flexibility.

As psychotherapists, the vast majority of our clients suffer from a social connection deficit. Even those who are engaged in relationships and have a social circle often withdraw when facing personal challenges or find that they don’t know how to share them in a way that strengthens their connections. Many may feel that there is no one who can truly understand them, and then they lead lives of quiet desperation. If people knew how to create and maintain truly deep and secure relationships, they would have someone to turn to and share their most difficult experiences with. They would be secure in the knowledge that their thoughts and feelings would be received and their vulnerability honoured. However, how many of us actually have deep relationships like this?

I call these kinds of relationships “ the truly intimate ”. that have nothing to do with sexual or romantic attraction, even though the happiest life partnerships do combine both. These kinds of authentic connections form our most secure attachment bonds. Until recently, people came to have relationships like this largely by chance – if you were lucky enough to have parents who knew how to relate intimately and securely with you and each other and to have friends that could sustain meaningful relationships. Unfortunately, very few of us were born into conditions like these.

It seems important to mention that a therapeutic relationship has the potential, by its very structure, to be what I refer to as “an intimate relationship”. Clients come to therapy sharing their most vulnerable experiences and feelings along with their darkest thoughts. Therapeutic relationships are thus an ideal arena to learn how to connect deeply and authentically and then to create and maintain life-sustaining relationships. Yet as therapists, we are not really trained to relate this way with our clients. Maybe we’ve bought into the idea that we have to be neutral and distant, thus shutting down reciprocity that can build connection. More likely we shy away from the vulnerability that comes from sharing when we see our clients as equals. The sharing suggested here is not in the service of bringing up the therapist’s personal issues for some kind of co-therapy, but rather in the service of helping our clients practice connecting in an authentic relationship. As therapists, we too need to practice psychological flexibility.

My friend Jonathan Kanter has spent years studying, practicing and developing Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP, Kohlenberg & Tsai, 1991) a form of behaviour therapy that uses the therapeutic relationship as a primary tool for transformation. Firmly based in behavioural science, and having studied closely the science of social connection, Jonathan has devised new ways of applying FAP to help clients and therapists create deep and meaningful relationships that can transform lives.

We are fortunate to have Dr. Jonathan Kanter offer a two-day training workshop in Montreal on June 16th-17th 2017. You can learn more by watching him introduce his workshop in the video below.