Lonely while surrounded by friends - Macleans.ca

Lonely while surrounded by friends

A lawyer breaks a social taboo by writing about her painful disconnect from the world


Lonely while surrounded by friends

In her new, groundbreaking book, Emily White makes a startlingly brave confession: for a long stretch of her 30s she was acutely lonely, at a painful disconnect from the world around her. What will be just as surprising to many, the 39-year-old environmental lawyer doesn’t fit any of the pathetic, predatory or pathological lonely-gal stereotypes perpetrated in pop culture: she was a popular kid, her job was engaging and she had a network of caring friends and family. She was so high-functioning, in fact, that she created “another me,” a faux busy, social being to mask her malaise. Lonely: Learning to Live With Solitude chronicles White’s five-year journey that saw loneliness become her constant companion: “If it was clutching me, the least I could do was twist its grip and really look at it,” she writes.

A dogged researcher, engaging narrator and elegant thinker, White drills down to the affliction’s causes and effects, which can include cognitive breakdown and early death. Research on the subject dates back only to the 1960s, coincident with shrinking household size, deterioration of old social networks and increasing amount of time spent alone.

Loneliness can take different forms, the American-born, Toronto-raised author says: there’s “situational” loneliness, the short-term result of a breakup or move; then there’s the “chronic” or “persistent” loneliness said to afflict 10 per cent of the population, including those in marriages.
Why some are more susceptible is not fully understood, though studies suggest genetics plays a role. Chronic loneliness is often confused with depression, but it’s different, White writes: depression “really feels like something hounding and snapping at you,” but “what lonely people find themselves drowning in is absence.” Put more plainly: “nothing sticks.” Because the social taboo surrounding depression has lifted, it’s easier for people to say they’re depressed than lonely. The stigma is such that White often lied when asked what her book was about: “It was like I was admitting there’s something wrong with me.”

The poet Michael Redhill has written of loneliness “metastasizing,” a pattern White charts in her own increasingly isolating choices—to work at a very small law firm, to move to the Arctic for a while, and to live a distance from friends and family. It’s common for the lonely to engage in decision-making patterns that lead to increasing detachment, White says, “because it feels like home.” And that only exacerbates aloneness: “It makes you see other people as risky, so you start avoiding the people you need most.”

Lonely also tracks White’s poignant efforts to connect—via online dating, a bowling club, Jungian therapy and a bike trip that ends up with her all alone on her bunk bed listening to her companions laughing on the other side of the wall. It wasn’t until she became involved with her current partner, with whom she lives in St. John’s, Nfld., that loneliness loosened its grip. Had it not, she believes, she wouldn’t have finished the book. One of the insidious effects of her loneliness, she discovered, was an intellectual “dulling down” found in studies of isolated seniors: her vocabulary shrunk and she found it hard to focus. That’s why a book like Lonely hasn’t been written before, White believes: “You need a certain amount of intellectual traction to sit down and write it, and loneliness takes that away.”

Lonely challenges the “Living Alone and Loving It!” industry that glosses over the obvious fact that people who live alone (as an increasing number are) are more prone to loneliness, as studies indicate. White wants to break through the resultant mythology that prevents people from admitting they need help: “It makes it seem as if we all just walked off the set of Friends.” She points to the media frenzy last December over a study that spawned alarmist “Loneliness is contagious!” headlines. “I thought, ‘Great, I’m about to publish a book about being lonely and they’re portraying lonely people as disease vectors, as in: stay away from them!’ ” She knew the study in question; its authors hadn’t used “contagious” in that sense at all, she says. “But that’s what the media picked up.”

White views loneliness as a social problem that requires social policy solutions like the outreach programs being pioneered in the U.K. Self-help, that modern panacea, isn’t of use to the lonely, “who are already pretty maxed out trying to be their own companion”: “Awareness can only help you so far,” she says. “You need help from outside.”


Lonely while surrounded by friends

  1. I just read this and it's an incredibly beautiful book. Whether you've experienced what she's talking about or not, you'll appreciate the quality of the writing. A very meditative book in many ways.

  2. But, but, but…she’s pretty ! She couldn’t possibly have any problems….

    I’m sitting in Tokyo and going to India on the weekend and have friends all over the world and this amazing dynamic incredible job / life….which is also deeply lonely. I think it’s an interesting statement that this is not depression and will get this book…after all I have plenty of free time to read it with really no social life consistently. I think this lonliness question is at the heart of the appeal of the movie ‘Up in the Air’ and why it was so hard to watch for me.

    I’m glad she found someone in St John’s, it’s a lovely town.

  3. TK – what makes you say she's pretty? That's not a photo of her at the top, its just some random image from a stock site that had a 'lonely' tag.

    • Irony makes me do it…or sardonicism (?). As in, "pretty people don't have problems" or "if I get great abs / the perfect ass / act like a good little girl, everyone will like me!" ..and other fallacies that contribute to lonliness and may relate to esteem or approval issues.

  4. Emily may not necessarily be lonely. She is, by choice, alone. And there is a difference. If she would research her condition, or perhaps seek some psychiatric counselling, she would know that she very likely has either an Avoidant personality disorder, which may be “treatable” if she desires, or more likely, another relatively more rare personality disorder- a Schizoid. Its not dangerous- its not schizophrenia though she may be at increased risk of it. Most schizoids do not seek “treatment” as they are content with their lives. They are not leaders, or followers, merely choosing to go their own way. They prefer their own company, are often capable of incredible feats of endurance, usually love books and reading, nature, and highly value privacy and solitude above all else. Close intimate relationships, especially sexual, are not for them. Some may be at risk of developing addictions, but are usually law abiding. Family and “friends” may encourage them to seek counselling, but they seldom do, as they feel it is an intrusion in their lives and group sessions would be threatening. They are able to hold jobs, are often very good at what they do, are self supporting, but usually seek work that is not team oriented, with as few social contacts as possible.

    We live in a culture that suspects people who are alone, by choice. And not without reason- the lone gunman, the quiet neighbor who turns out to be something horrible, that crazy cat lady. Eccentricity is suspect by the herd. The expectations to be “social”, to have intimate relations, many close friends, and be actively engaged in the culture can be overwhelming to many, and especially to those that just prefer to be alone. Often, schizoids can be engaging people, whom others wish to be close to, but who keep people for the most part at arms length. They more often have close contact only with immediate family members, though often do not feel close even to family. They may have flat emotional responses, are unaffected by either praise or criticism, and hold opinions or views different from the majority on most things. They often have active imaginations. They do not seek fame or popularity, so will not be seen in the roles of actors, athletes, leaders. They are non competitive with others. They go their own way.

    If Emily would research Schizoid Personality Disorder, even the Wiki definition, she may discover something about herself- she would understand that she’s not crazy, not going mad, not losing her mind. Its not a dark thing to be kept secret or to be ashamed of and nothing to be depressed about. If she does have SPD, she’ll will learn that there is no medication, and no real treatment, but she may just realize also that she can be happy, productive and fulfilled, in her own way, on her own terms. Alone, but not lonely.

    • This describes my personality perfectly. It is only recently, as I have entered my thirties and escaped from the forced togetherness of school, university and early adulthood that I have recognised my singularity. I didn't know there was a name for what I felt, thanks for the information. I still think the book sounds interesting and might give it a read.

      • There may be a link to Elaine Aron's work in attempting to define a personality trait. Check out her HSP self-test at

      • Going through life with singularity doesn't seem to me to be a 'condition', but more the reality of just the way it is, and has ever been for all single-bodied creatures. Dare I say that it's normal? As humans have a conscious choice, it is from there that each person decides how much to engage or not to engage others. I hate that people beat themselves up over what I consider the normal starting point for anyone. When that A-Ha moment hit me post high school, it was then that I realized that 'to be or not to be lonely' was entirely up to ME.

    • Or there may be something more annoying going on:

      Food for thought in any case, especially that she spends a portion of the book discussing just this. Perhaps you were premature to suggest she do research? Enjoy!

    • Wow Bill,
      you pegged me, my grandmother, my sister and Greta Garbo perfectly! Glad to finally learn there is a (label) for this personality type. My great grandmother was related to Gabo's father. She was from southern Sweden as he originally was too. Family name was Gustafsson.
      I'm now convinced that this personality characteristic is inhereited. It also seems to occur more in people of northern European ancestry than other groups. Intense individuality and genuine mistrust of strangers. We are loners by our nature and our choice. Relationships often feel obtrusive and interferrig.
      It's really true. We "want to be alone"! I recommend Barry Paris' biography entitled Garbo. It was a fantastic eye opener for me.

    • It doesn't sound like Emily is Schizoid. It sounds like she is someone who always desired personal connections with other people, but despite her previously active social life, she didn't feel that she had found them. It sounds like she felt alone even when she was in a crowd, which can be much worse than feeling alone when you are actually alone, so she pushed people away. Until of course she found someone she really connected with.

    • Read the book. She has done an incredible amount of research into her condition.

  5. Interesting Bill. I thought I was just really weird. But you just described me.

  6. so lonely jimmy argued with himself, 'am ready and open to make friends with anyone who cares to say hello or glances in my direction hoping they would invite me for a chit chat or a homemade din din', 'if there is a cat or dog on the lose i will instantly become engaged in their loneliness and we will both revel in joy finding the long lost friend that was waiting in the neighborhood running between my shadows on warm sunny days'…but depression was only a symptom of the success i dreamt of as a young ambitious entrepreneur and then middle aged and then this salt and pepper age, dreams that once were so vivid in creating had now passed and i had let go of my persona as someone who would make a better world and encourage the hopeless and feed the hungry and provide shelter in my worldwide homes for people in transition…but i thought as i sat down alone with my boiled egg with whole wheat toasted bagel it would happen maybe tomorrow and all this would be on my mind again…oh if i could scream without raising alarm !

    • You can still work towards making the world a better place, whatever that means, feed the hungry, provide shelter and encourage the hopeless- its never too late. And cats and dogs are not lonely- they're just cats and dogs. Lonely is a human trait, and it's in the mind. You can be alone without being lonely. You're above the animals- you have free will.- you're not just a boiled egg. Resolve to get the help you need, either counsel or chemical, spend some time in the sunlight, and get on with it.

  7. Bill: Sounds like you're talking about me. BTW, have you ever looked right into a dog's eyes? They do get lonely and sad, as I've done and felt their sadness.

  8. Do I ever know that feeling. I hear people talk about best friends but have never had the experience. It is not that I don't fit in but I never really want to follow the crowd. It took me 50 years to accept it but I'm comfortable with it now. So I smile less for others and more for me, my children and my dog. By the way my dog has more friends than me and she does miss them when they don't come to visit her.

    • My dog has been one of my best friends for 14 years. Do cross-species count? I think they do here in mammal world; so I would count yourself as officially having categorically had one.

  9. How about a little reverse diagnosis here Bill. You display a consummate lack of basic or skillful empathy. Indicate that 'feelings' don't matter and attempt to intellectualize difficulties and emotional challenges that beset or befall others. Instead of acknowledgement, understanding or even a meager attempt at validation you choose malapropos to 'blame' the victim, marginalize, categorize and further 'victimize' the suffering person or patient due to a lack of emotive connectivity with the individual you are assessing. This behavior is very telling of someone who overcompensates mentally (intellectually) for their own significant deficiencies most especially in the areas of nurturance, emotional maturity, humility, and a 'grown up' self awareness, but heretofore prefers denial, minimization, generalization, self absorption, and even a smattering of omnipotent arrogance. Of course you find it difficult to comprehend her pain, as narcissists and sociopaths only feel shallowly, and for themselves. Don't feel too offended Bill that you're a narcissist, at least your number one in your world.

  10. it sounds like she is defining a new condition that would be put in the anxiety/deppression categories .the experts should consider this ..a condition is considered a problem if it interferes with your life …. if you live alone and are happy that cetainly isn't a problem …if you FEEL alone (sad) and you are amongst people that sounds like a legitimate condition if it prevents you from doing the things you want to do … ps on pbs this weekend they were showing the documentary "alone in the wilderness" about a US mainlander who chose to move to alaska to live alone in the wilderness

  11. it’s curious to me that the author wants to separate severe loneliness from depression. i would like to read her book to understand why. A little while back I finished psychologist John Caccioppo’s book “Loneliness”, which explores evolutionary reasons for why this emotion exists and elaborates on it’s effects on the brain. Cacioppo links loneliness and depression, indicating that extended periods of the former often lead to the latter simply because of how we’re built as social beings, even those of us who are less social than most. For now, the doctor’s assertion seems more sound to me that Ms. White’s.

    @SRM– While I’m certainly not in the place where I can diagnose anyone with narcissism, I’m glad that I’m not the only reader who found Bill’s response to be off-putting–and this is coming from a person who is also often alone by choice. It is possible to love solitude and still feel lonely. Folks who need a lot of “me time” still also need people and periods of close connection. It can be very difficult to find a balance between one’s solitary nature and one’s desire to connect deeply with a few people. When someone is telling you something is a problem, try listening to them and acknowledging them, don’t tell the person they don’t know how they feel.

  12. there is an anxiety disorder for the fear of being alone, sounds like it's related to that ..i imagine the experts in pcychaitry would have to determine if "loneliness" is an identifiable condition

  13. She needs a dog.

  14. It seems to me that she started feeling better when she found a compatible mate. Even seagulls mourn when they don't have a mate. To want a mate is an undeniable instinct, whether one decides to reproduce or not. Today's society and marketplace, however, has enabled many to live completely alone but still easily able to meet their singular physical needs without needing to engage others combined efforts to ensure their own survival. Historically, humans were required to seek out the company of others to aid in meeting those basic needs of ready water, food cultivation and gathering, clothing, and heated shelter. I feel that we still carry that strong survival based genetic instinct to group together, but when that necessity has largely been eliminated and replaced with today's professional lifestyle, we become pulled in both directions and some intellectual confusion ensues. The need for companionship was largely filled in the historical many hands make light work settings, (see today's fellowship) but I believe even they probably felt lonely instinctually unless they fulfilled the strong need for a deeper intimacy with a mate. After all, we are mammals at our core.

  15. Loneliness in only contagious if you let yourself get affected. And yes, loneliness is sometimes over-rated.

  16. Many people forget that time is the best healer. I hope they realize that it's never too late.

  17. Very touching and I very much enjoyed while reading it.