The Loneliest Number

The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely.
— Thomas Merton

We can all agree that being separate individuals in relationship with other separate individuals is agreeable and even desirable. In theory. The practice part is a whole different story. If we allow ourselves to be honest, the idea of being separate (100% complete and whole on my own, responsible for myself and only myself) can seem threatening. Honesty would have us consider that fusion (1+1=1) is what we're really seeking and perhaps pursuing. Otherwise, we'd all be in healthy, functional, thriving and growing relationships. And honesty tells us that isn't the case. 

Hayley Quinn, the UK’s leading Dating Expert and self described "magnet for chaos" who "liked chaos because when [she] was in chaos [she] didn't have to confront anything that [she] was", explains, "Love is sold as the ultimate solution to ourselves, the thing that makes our past okay, that gives us direction for our future and imbues our everyday reality with meaning" which is an "act of escapism" where relationships are driven by the fear of loneliness, not love. 

Psychotherapist Ross Rosenberg has focused much of his clinical work on the dynamics between people who seek fulfillment in another person (friend, child, parent, significant other). Isn't that what fuels Hollywood, the Top 40 and bestsellers? Something in me is deficient or lacking and the solution is found in you and what you can give me. On some level, we've all subconsciously drunk the Kool-Aid. 

Don't get me wrong. Relationships are necessary and important for human flourishing. But when pressure is placed that they be more than they are intended to be, that's when things get dicey.

Loneliness is experienced as toxic.

According to Rosenberg, the pain of being alone is so intolerable that it creates a distorted definition of self.  Loneliness is experienced as toxic and we search for ways to eliminate this feeling, at whatever cost. Some feel the need to rescue another and some want to be rescued. Others think solely of their own needs and seek people who will meet those needs by denying their own. The goal is to find security in another because we fear what we are as an individual.

No one wants to admit any of this might be true of them. But like my friend Jeremy says, "Reality is our friend and sometimes our friend is ugly". Ugly but a friend, nonetheless, and good friends help us grow. 

Reality is your friend and sometimes your friend is ugly.

Reality check:

  • We pursue relationships out of fear of being alone rather than for the gift that they can be.
  • We're unable/unwilling to process intimacy, pain, and disappointment because we are convinced that others will make us better.
  • We depend on and need others to validate and approve our choices while sacrificing our own voice, thoughts, contributions.
  • Power is outsourced, demanding others be responsible for and manage our internal world. 

The lower the self-awareness, the higher the tendency to give power externally. But what if you accept the invitation to look inside? What will you learn when you take responsibility for yourself and not place that on someone else? What if you consider what your voice would say?

You'll find a richness when you see your own competence and durability to not implode under crisis or grief. You'll find more of your internal strength when no one else can fight the battle for you. You'll see and be aware of your own capability to be your own best ally.

Loneliness loses its toxicity because you're learning to enjoy your own company. Instead of pursuing relationship out of fear, you're "inviting someone to see, value, hold, and appreciate the beauty of your own inscape that no one else can see" (Dr. Leah McDill). That's fertile soil for any relationship worth having. 

Loneliness loses its toxicity because you’re learning to enjoy your own company.


Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody. I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.
— Mother Teresa

We are a tribal species. No man is an island, you've heard. Studies have proven this inherent pull to be a part of something is crucial to our ability to not only survive but thrive.

In a CNN article entitled, "The Importance of Belonging", Amanda Enayati reported on such consequences, "Isolation, loneliness and low social status can harm a person's subjective sense of well-being, as well as his or her intellectual achievement, immune function and health. Research shows that even a single instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, IQ test performance and self-control." 

It is clear we were wired to belong. But there are many things that can threaten our sense of belonging. Whether through a choice we made with isolating consequences, difficult life circumstances or harm inflicted by another, we find ourselves lost and alone.

How are we to find our way to a place with receptive and open arms? Storytelling. Social psychologist and Stanford assistant professor Gregory Walton found that placing our traumatic experiences in a narrative "with a beginning, a middle and an end" provides "meaning [that] the negative experience is constrained, and people understand that when bad things happen, it's not just them, they are not alone, and that it's something that passes."  Through sharing their experiences, his studies' subjects learned that they are not alone when terrible things occur. It brings awareness that others have also experienced similar things. 

How are we to find our way to a place with receptive and open arms? Storytelling.

By withholding our stories, we choose to live cut off which can lead to feelings of isolation and depression. However, by offering our stories, we can discover an emotional connection to another that fosters a sense of belonging which can lead to healing. We are comforted that we are not alone in our struggles. 

Academy award winner Mahershala Ali speaks to the importance of both telling and listening to stories, "When you peel all the layers away, we're all the same. We're all dealing with wanting to be a part of a tribe. We all need to be supported. We all need a presence in our lives." The beloved saint would agree. 


We’re all dealing with wanting to be a part of a tribe. We all need to be supported. We all need a presence in our lives.
— Mahershala Ali