Do you know someone who is wrongfully imprisoned? From personal experience, I can tell you it’s a frighteningly traumatic experience to be held in a literal jail without cause; to have no one who listens or supports you; to feel totally abandoned. (You can read about the three times I was falsely arrested in my new book, “WHEN EMPATHY FAILS.”)
But the prisoner to whom I’m referring could be your next-door neighbor who is a work-at-home entrepreneur, your widowed and elderly aunt, your sister married to an Aspie, your coworker living with an abusive partner, the clerk at the grocery store from another country… many people today are wrongfully in a prison of loneliness.
Your first reaction might be, “well, they just need to get out more and try harder.” But it’s not as easy as getting over a little bit of “cabin fever.” The bars of their prison may come from a lifetime of rejection, ostracism or abuse. Not only are there deep psychological wounds, but their plight also leads to physical pain and illnesses that further add to their social isolation. They become too weak to fight anymore. They give up.
Dr. Cacioppo, one of the founding fathers of social neuroscience, likened loneliness to hunger. A New York Times, in remembrance of him at his recent death, highlighted some of the profound things he’s taught us:
- “About one in four Americans are lonely, without any confidants, and that social isolation results in negative emotional and physical consequences.”
- “Chronic loneliness increases the odds of early death by 20 percent, which is about the same effect as obesity, though obesity does not make you as miserable as loneliness.”
- “Being with others doesn’t mean you’re going to feel connected, and being alone doesn’t mean you’re going to feel lonely.
- “If the only acceptance you can get of yourself is a fake representation on the web, that’s not going to make you feel connected.”
- “Being lonely is not the same as being alone.”
Loneliness causes people to turn their attention inward. They start second-guessing themselves. Their minds race to the darkest possible conclusions.
What can we do? It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference. Here are a few simple suggestions:
- Really notice everyone you encounter.
- Smile and say “hello” to each one.
- Even if something about their situation makes you uncomfortable, acknowledge them as a fellow human deserving of dignity.
- Listen with your whole being, when they speak.
- Make a phone call, send a text or card to remind someone you value them.
- Rather than having a critical attitude, look for the best in others, and give praise when possible.
Being empathic, you “see” the plight and it moves you to do what you can. Are you the sort of person who fears getting involved, because it feels too draining? This indicates you still have room to improve your empathy skills; for the highest form of empathy, radiant empathy, lets you feel for others without confusing their pain or thoughts with your own.