There are all kinds of reasons why we might feel lonely. From philosophical explorations of loneliness as an essential part of being human, to political critiques of modern alienation, toxic individualism, and unjust systems of marginalisation and exclusion, a number of explanatory frameworks offer causative stories which don’t fixate on individual failure and worth. Nevertheless, people who feel lonely frequently feel shame; as one young person put it in research with the Co-op foundation, ‘to be seen as lonely is to be seen as though there’s something wrong with you.’
In a 2022 article in Feminist Theory, the cultural and social geographer Eleanor Wilkinson notes that ‘while loneliness is now understood as widespread, there is still a sense that one should not admit to feeling lonely, as to be lonely is to have failed.’ Wilkinson’s evocation of ‘failure’, and the young person’s repeated use of ‘to be seen’, each draw a direct line to shame, that is, to loneliness as a marker of spoiled identity. Identifying as lonely is exposing and fraught with danger, not just because loneliness is a culturally devalued and shamed experience, but because it is impossible for the person disclosing loneliness to exert full control over how that admission lands.
While it might be impractical to disentangle shame entirely from experiences of illness, difficult emotions, and other kinds of suffering, we also have to acknowledge that these associations are neither natural nor inevitable. In the case of loneliness, connotations of social and emotional failure have been built directly into the idea, particularly through past narratives on selfishness, unlikeability, and the problem personality. ‘Admitting’ to loneliness – itself a charged and revealing term – can help write unintended, unjust, and shaming scripts about how worthy we are of love; but these scripts do come from somewhere, and are consequently subject to historical excavation and questioning.
Pulling at one particular strand in mid-twentieth century discourses on loneliness, we can see repeated attempts to differentiate between the lonely by circumstance and lonely by temperament, in ways which recall shaming conversations on the deserving and undeserving poor. These sentiments travelled freely between different sites for articulating what loneliness is (or was). As a particularly extreme example, the journalist and author of adventure novels, Andrew Soutar, wrote in the Derby Daily Telegraph in 1929 about the ‘dirge about loneliness’ that he perceived in contemporary culture and society. In an almost uniquely unsympathetic screed, Soutar described the ‘lonely men and women, sobbing out their hearts in lonely corners, isolated, pariahs, unwanteds, alien to the spirit of friendship, incapable of making friends’: ‘Loneliness be hanged! Show me the man or woman who is dying of loneliness and I will show you a sufferer from the greatest evil that can afflict a race – the evil of self-pity.’ Three years later, an article written for the Daily Mail by the poet Edith Sitwell contrasted the loneliness ‘brought upon us by no fault of our own’ with the consequences of being ‘too selfish to gather any human beings near the fires of our heart.’
Beyond the caustic comments of interwar cultural commentators, parallel narratives on the selfishness of the lonely had considerable traction in essays on loneliness by Gregory Zilboorg and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, both of which became much-cited, foundational texts. They were also threaded throughout post-war attempts to reckon with loneliness as a social problem.
Speaking to a reformist organisation, the Women’s Group on Public Welfare, in 1955, the self-help author Evelyn Home argued that ‘it should be made clear from the outset that the lonely person is fundamentally very unlovable… loneliness is solitude thrust upon us and solitude is not thrust upon any lovable person.’ A member of the group’s committee later wrote about a refractory core of ‘problem people’… who will only have social life on their own terms, who even shrink from or snub neighbourly advances… [who] will not pay the price in effort and tolerance.’
Similarly, the National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds sent out guidance on loneliness in towns to their regional branches in 1958; under the subheading ‘misfits’, the guidance noted that ‘in many cases people are not liked because of faults of character… the ill-adjusted, the troublesome, the bores, the gauche and the not-so-likeable.’ Loneliness, in turn, made many people ‘bitter, queer, or arrogant’.
These narratives demarcated a shaming moral economy of loneliness, in which the deserving lonely, while theoretically present, became increasingly difficult to identify. When narratives on loneliness locate causative power in personal traits and failings, this form of unwanted knowledge works backwards on its subjects, further colouring the experience with shame. One of the reasons this is so pernicious is that many of the attitudes and behaviours that lonely people have been shamed for might better be understood as complex mechanisms of active shame, anticipated shame, shame-avoidance, and attempts to save face. Historicising loneliness and shame – and placing the two experiences in closer proximity with one another – can help draw out these contradictions, informing scholarship and practice which addresses the shame of loneliness head on.
The themes of this blog are expanded in far greater detail in a 2023 talk for the Shame and Medical History seminar series, watchable here, and in an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Psychosocial Studies.
Fred Cooper, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter. Fred co-authored the book Covid-19 and Shame: Political Emotions and Public Health in the UK (Bloomsbury Academic 2023), with Shame and Medicine Project Team members Arthur Rose and Luna Dolezal.
References and further reading:
Co-op Foundation, ‘All our emotions are important: Breaking the silence about youth loneliness’ (2019). https://www.coopfoundation.org.uk/youth/all-our-emotions-research/
Luna Dolezal, ‘The Horizons of Chronic Shame’, Human Studies, vol. 45 (2022), pp. 739–759. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-022-09645-3
Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, ‘Loneliness’, Interpersonal and Biological Processes, Vol. 22 (1959). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00332747.1959.11023153
Evelyn Home, Speech to the Annual General Meeting of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare (1955). London: Papers of the Women’s Forum and its Predecessors (London School of Economics Archive), 5WFM/D/34.
E.J.D. Morrison, Memorandum: Conditions which may give rise to loneliness (1955). London: Papers of the Women’s Forum and its Predecessors (London School of Economics Archive), 5WFM/D/34.
National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds, ‘Loneliness in Towns: What can we do?’, Social Studies Plan (1959).
Edith Sitwell, ‘The poverty of loneliness’, The Daily Mail (May 28th, 1932).
Andrew Soutar, ‘This dirge about loneliness’, The Derby Daily Telegraph (Nov. 6th, 1929).
Eleanor Wilkinson, ‘Loneliness is a feminist issue’, Feminist Theory, 23:1 (2022), pp. 23–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/14647001211062739
Gregory Zilboorg, ‘Loneliness’, The Atlantic (January, 1938). https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1938/01/loneliness/652016/
11th December 2023