Ever feel dissatisfied but struggle to understand why?
You have friends. You’re busy with school; with work. You’re active in a club, sorority, sports. You’re even dating someone right now and things are going pretty well with you two. By all accounts your life should be fulfilling, but it’s not. Something’s wrong but you can’t put your finger on it.
What if the problem is you’ve been lying to others, and to yourself? (Not any one major lie–mind you–just a few white lies. Or so you might tell yourself.)
What if you’re actually lonely?
And what if the solution to your loneliness is staring you right in the face?
What if I told you that those lies and this loneliness are somehow connected?
In March of 2018, I began working for Acacia Counseling & Wellness. For several years prior, I had been working at another clinic where I slowly began to feel similar to you. Mundane. Listless. Dissatisfied. Lonely.
On the surface, I loved that job. There were co-workers I loved like family. I had been through hell and back with multiple clients who made substantial progress — many of whom I’d been working with for multiple years. Laughter was heard daily among colleagues. On the surface, I loved it.
Yet I realized I had been lying to myself on some level. The work was no longer something I enjoyed and I had run my race well-before coming to this conclusion. There was a problem, however: I was operating on autopilot. I was lying to myself and I didn’t even realize it.
I had to make a decision and it wasn’t going to be easy.
The decision required me to speak an uncomfortable truth, to myself and to others.
It required courage.
It required vulnerability.
It required intimacy. You read that right — intimacy.
I mentioned I work at Acacia now. Acacia is a mental health clinic specializing in serving the college age population and those in academia. Shortly after meeting with my first few clients at Acacia (most of whom are students), I began to hear a refrain. Certain phrases would repeat among clients of various backgrounds stepping through the door and into my office: “I just feel so alone,” “It’s really hard to make friends,” “Dating is so difficult.” These phrases continued to remind me of Erik Erikson and his psychosocial stages of development.
In his psychosocial stages of development Erikson states that age 18-40 (i.e. early adulthood) is a stage of life defined by the struggle between Intimacy and Isolation. He posited that if a person does not succeed at the primary task of any life stage, that individual is doomed to the failure of their given stage and cannot progress to the primary task of the next stage of life. This is how you get Peter Pan syndrome.
Failure during the early adulthood stage would look like isolation, loneliness, depression, fatalism, and nihilism. This is Rick Sanchez from Rick & Morty, as evidenced by his nihilism and depression. Another example is the wicked witch of the west from The Wizard of Oz, as her fatalism and isolation would indicate.
According to Erikson, failure occurs in early adulthood when a person attempts to calculate, control, and subjugate intimacy to their own will rather than to encounter intimacy with truth/authenticity, courage, and vulnerability. In the real world, the person that fails at this stage wants a guaranteed connection with a potential romantic partner. They might, for example, play their cards right to ensure a sexual encounter, however, this does not work out so favorably in the real world. A more innocuous example might be this: you spend plenty of time with your friends, but somehow you don’t really know them. This approach distorts a person toward Isolation — the failed state of this stage.
The character Phil from the classic film Groundhog Day takes this calculated, dishonest approach toward Nancy, a lust interest. He uses information he gathered from Nancy over the previous days to ensure sex with her later. This superficial effort hindered Phil from cultivating true intimacy with Nancy. It did not foster a serious relationship. He wanted all the rewards without any of the risks.
And true intimacy is risky, isn’t it? Someone can reject you. They can say “no.”
Covering your emotions is also risky. After 9 years of doing this work I’ve observed that it actually carries more risk than intimacy. You risk becoming nihilistic like Rick Sanchez. You risk becoming fatalistic and sadistic like the wicked witch of the west. Like Peter Pan, you don’t grow up and remain stuck in a feedback loop. Like Phil, you risk multiple deaths and worse; you risk lacking meaning.
Successfully moving through early adulthood means developing a sense of commitment, love, care, safety, and intimacy. Success is developing a sense that relationships are complex, and learning to value tenderness and loving freely.
It takes courage to show vulnerability. To expose oneself to the world and the perspectives of someone who is unlike you – someone whom you might even despise: that breaks your heart.
Identify a feeling (hint: usually it’s one word – i.e. sad, happy, angry, disgusted, surprised, hurt, afraid, etc.). Walk with that feeling for a bit. Where is it taking you? What do you want to do with that feeling? Try staying with its movements. Journal about it. Often this enlightens more than it obscures.
Who needs to hear you, your feeling, your message? Seriously consider telling them. You’d be surprised what can come from that conversation. Light is better than darkness. If you’re having doubts, consult with a trusted friend, a therapist, a religious community leader, a mentor. Don’t have a mentor? Find one. Find two. Older people tend to love sharing their wisdom. You will one day be in their place wishing you could do the same.
Ask yourself: “Can I love? If it doesn’t hurt at times, am I really loving this other person?”
Put down your phone. Close your laptop. Some communications specialists speculate that roughly 70-90% of human interaction is non-verbal. We didn’t evolve to have our social needs met through a black sleek rectangle (2001: A Space Odyssey anyone?). Set it down.Take a walk. Say hi to a stranger. Give them a compliment (and mean it).
Schedule times to talk with friends. Really talk. Without alcohol, cannabis, or illicit substances. Really encounter one another soberly; with courage, vulnerability, and intimacy.
Say something that shines light onto the dark parts of yourself. Intimacy is exposing the lies in ourselves and speaking truth to them. You can’t grow and encounter true intimacy unless you choose the narrow, risk-ridden path.
For the sake of true intimacy, rejection is worth the risk of being vulnerable. Rejection in the face of your vulnerability is a bullet dodged. Acceptance in response to your vulnerability moves the world another step away from the abyss and toward truth.
And if this is all too daunting for you to do alone, consider coming in to see me (or any therapist).
My door is open. The table is ready. Let’s talk.
Author, Vas Todoriko