Why does mental illness make you so lonely?

Loneliness and mental illness often go together.  Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

It’s very common, when in psychological distress, to think you’re the only person going through it.  Now, we’re not stupid as human beings.  We all know that others suffer distress.  But the balanced appreciation of a wider view often escapes us when we are in the depths of our own problems.

An example is how we handle relationship issues.  If you have ever helped someone through a separation or divorce, you will have noticed that, for a while, that person becomes extraordinarily self-obsessed.  This is not to criticise them – it’s simply to observe what tends to happen to us when we suffer a person relational loss.

There is a cognitive basis for these periods of extraordinary self-absorption.  We search for happiness like crows searching for food.  If our happiness is taken away, we look intently and obsessively at the apparent source of that removal of happiness.  We are keen to understand why it happened.  People suffering loss will often ask themselves ‘Why? Why me?’ again and again, until all their friends are fed up with the question.  Cognitively, we are trying to work out what happened so that (a) we might reverse it, and (b) it does not happen again.  (Also, when we lose others, we lose some of our life landscape, and therefore our orientation.  This can also make us less outgoing while we repair our inner map.)

So, in suffering, our attention can become extremely narrowly focused.  You may have noticed that, when you are happy and content, your attention ranges quite widely.  It can afford to – you feel safe.  In contrast, when you are not content, you focus obsessively on tiny parts of the universe, and particularly aspects of your own personal universe.  It is common for people in mental distress to become more hypochondriac, to focus on tiny details of conversations with others, to obsess about small things that aren’t quite right…  a narrow focus predominates.

This narrow focus leads us, temporarily, to behave as though we were the only person in the world suffering from our particular problem.  Everything else needs to stop, therefore, to attend to us, or we are not interested.  (Again, I emphasise, I am not criticising, but only trying to observe what happens.)

What is the effect on our relationships with others?  Well, they tend to get worse.  Other people are often living in their own small worlds of personal interest.  If we are only interested in our narrow world, then we are unlikely to be of interest or help to others.  This is why sufferers from extreme anxiety and depression often find themselves isolated and lonely.  Not only can they not persuade others to listen to their self-focus, but friends and relatives start to reject them more because of the problems their complaints cause.  Even sociable people, when anxious, find themselves isolating their intense suffering behind a solitary shell, partly to avoid burdening others.

What are we supposed to do about this?  How, if we are in distress, can we find nurture so that we can be healthy again?  If there are limited people available who want to listen to us, what are we supposed to do about it?

Fortunately, in our modern society, there are two good sources of listening.

  • Firstly, there are people who subscribe to a philosophy of other-cherishing.  That is to say, they believe in caring for others, and escaping the narrow focus on the self.  Such people are willing to give the time to sufferers, partly because they realise that they are helping themselves to escape their own self-obsession.
  • Secondly, there are people who make it their trade, their profession, to work with others on their problems.  Many counsellors concentrate on helping clients to work through their own problems in great detail, and over significant periods of time.
Whom you choose to help you when you are mentally suffering, is up to you.  But:

  • If you rely on those with a philosophy of other-focus, then perhaps bear in mind that, eventually, you could absorb their approach, and become like them, other-focused and kind.  (Obviously this change in your behaviour can only come when you feel ready, healthy and strong enough to feel it is safe to lose your own self-absorption.)
  • If you choose to go to a counsellor or psychotherapist, then take a little time to check you are comfortable with the person you are going to.  Do you feel able to talk, to trust them with your issues?  Do you feel reasonably comfortable and secure, allowing for your current state?
You may well be feeling that you are the only one in your universe  right now.  That often goes with the territory of mental distress.  Your attention has been narrowed by your illness, to the extent that you find it hard to do anything but think or talk again and again about your own problems, in an obsessive pursuit of happiness.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy.  It’s just ironic that, as humans, unhappiness can put us into an obsessive spiral of self-attention that can make us lonely, and stop us from seeing beauty anywhere.

Counselling and psychotherapy may seem unnatural to some – a rather stilted version of a helping relationship.  Done badly, it can be like that.  But done well, it can offer a safe place to indulge our temporary self-obsession, where, if we like, we can analyse issues again and again.  Once we begin to heal, we can then widen our focus, and begin to participate in the wider world with a little more confidence.  Once we do that, we can appreciate again the power of listening, and turn into helpful carers ourselves.  No one is ever to blame – it’s just the phase we’re in.