success stories

Posted Friday January 17, 2003

"Sister Mary Ann"

A Story of Loneliness

Taken from the Case Studies at St. Luke Institute

Sister Mary Ann is a 55-year-old woman religious who decides to seek some counseling because she is feeling flat and not her usual engaged and interested self. She realizes she feels alone more often lately, even when she is with others in community or in her ministry. "It seems as if there is no one out there for me," she laments.

When asked about any changes in her life, Sr. Mary Ann speaks of her mother's death eighteen months ago. She was close to her mother and is grateful for the opportunity to be with her in the last weeks of her life. She speaks of the difficulty of grieving and talking about the loss of her mother, since "my siblings don't seem to miss Mom as much as I do." She feels a bit awkward sharing in community because the death occurred while she lived in another house and she does not want to bother the sisters with whom she lives. She relates she is watching more TV than ever before and finds it difficult to pray.

Sr. Mary Ann also speaks about leaving her teaching ministry last year as a desired and challenging change. She says "I am gradually finding my way as a hospital chaplain and I feel I can make good use of my gifts here." She is beginning to realize that she works more alone now and that she misses the social interaction and atmosphere of the school where she taught. She does not understand nor like how she feels right now and she senses a return to an anxiousness and lack of self-confidence that she has not felt in years.

Hidden Loneliness

As Sr. Mary Ann talks about where she is right now, it becomes clearer that she is mildly depressed. In addition, she is coping with loneliness and a mix of feelings that follows change, loss, and isolation. There are many possible reasons and contributing factors to why someone feels lonely: the loss of relationships, a sense of not being needed by others or of being different from others, recent moves, being misunderstood, and intimacy needs not being met. Also, the cultural value of self-reliance, difficulty in self-disclosing, especially limitations and vulnerabilities, some lowering of self-esteem and a feeling of separation from God, can contribute to a sense of loneliness. All these can make one more prone to depressed feelings. In addition, fear, anger, emptiness, helplessness, restlessness, and self criticalness are frequently experienced when one is lonely. Loneliness is not one feeling; it is a complex reality.

What to do?

To do something about her loneliness, Sr. Mary Ann needs to recognize and name that she is lonely and then identify what are the unique causes of her loneliness. Different causes suggest different ways of handling her loneliness. Since she is not feeling hopeless nor blaming her feelings on something or someone, she does not need to change these attributions which would ordinarily block attempts to change.

Making connections with others with whom she can be mutual and can enjoy social activities is a major behavioral change that can help reduce loneliness. Friendship within one's religious community, as well as with persons outside the community, can be a means to undercut some of the deepest roots of loneliness. Learning that sharing honestly, including one's vulnerability, can abate loneliness and open the door for love and healing will help address some of the isolation. To her surprise and joy she may find that there are significant persons who want to be more intimate. In addition, her loneliness is prompting her to reach out to others. Loneliness may be inviting her to discover that she is a lovable and loving human being.

Many religious today, as Sr. Mary Ann, desire to live richer relational lives, which include mutual support, self-disclosure and shared vulnerability. These types of relationships involve the possibility of rejection and put one at risk for the pain from lack of mutuality, infidelity, separation, loneliness and death. However, the gains can far outweigh the possible losses.

In order to succeed in promoting healthy connections rather than a lonely life, persons may need to reduce the emotional trauma they associate with rejection. Every person must learn to accept rejection because not every relationship works out or lasts forever. Not everyone will like you nor will you like everyone else. Because lonely people tend to feel more readily that they are being evaluated, they worry more about what impression they are making, causing them to be more uptight and less easy or fun to be with. Lonely people are also prone to see rejections as "proof" that they have not measured up, thus tending to alienate them further. This is a good example of how thinking may impact/cause loneliness. There are many common, irrational, problem-causing ideas or assumptions which interfere with healthy connecting with others. To identify these automatic, self-defeating thoughts and then question if they are true and do some experimenting with other perspectives can be very helpful in alleviating cognitive barriers. Finally, facing loneliness is also a spiritual task. As people recognize their aloneness, they struggle to make meaning of their lives and to find stability, something or someone more stable than ourselves. Some try to keep themselves occupied with things, work, social activities, TV and movies in order to avoid recognizing aloneness. Others turn to God for reassurance. Persons who believe in a compassionate God who watches, listens, cares and loves them, feel reassured they are not alone and are able to better cope with loneliness.

Fran Omodio, CSJ, LCSW-C is a Continuing Care Therapist at Saint Luke Institute.