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Loneliness, Shame, and Anguish


Health and wellbeing

Loneliness, Shame, and Anguish

The assumption that anguish is the affect experienced when you are lonely is plausible, since loneliness can lead you believe that you are depressed, and a prolonged lonely state can result in depression. Yet the notion that shame is involved in lonely states may seem rather incongruous. So I will explain.

Imagine hoping to be in the company of others, but instead finding yourself alone and thinking there is no one you can call. Or envision being a child arriving at a playground, anticipating showing a friend a new toy, only to encounter a lack of interest on the part of the friend who wants to play with someone else. In such situations, the affect of shame is activated that results in the occurrence of loneliness, since shame is felt as disengagement, as a letdown, a disappointment, or as a frustration; not what you might ordinarily expect in the experience of shame (Catherall, 2012). Beginning in early childhood, shame is activated whenever an anticipated outcome—the expectation of excitement or enjoyment—is impeded and leaves one crestfallen (Tomkins, 1963). In addition to the disruption of positive affect that triggers shame, the interpersonal connection that is vital to humans, when broken, will activate the shame response. Kaufman (2004), for example, refers to the critical event that activates shame as “breaking the interpersonal bridge” (p. 33).

As noted in a previous post regarding loneliness, it’s understandable why people who are lonely might think they are unwanted, unloved, undesirable, insignificant, despairing, insecure, or abandoned. Such cognitive attributions falsely account for a disrupted connection and are a manifestation of shame and anguish that can lead you to attack yourself. Worse yet, loneliness can motivate a maladaptive attempt to restore connection with someone who cannot or will not provide you with the bond required to regain your sense of yourself. When a relationship dissolves, for example, your loneliness may lead you to seek re-engagement with the other person, only to result in activating further shame and anguish.

The “attack self” response is not the only reaction to shame that lonely people find themselves using. Other responses to shame, according to Nathanson (1992), include attacking the other, withdrawal (hiding your feelings from others), and avoidance (hiding your feelings from yourself). Desperately seeking comfort, you might blame others for the shame you experience when you are lonely. In a feeble attempt at self-protection, you might withdraw from contact with others—the same connection that is desperately needed in order to repair and restore a sense of self. Avoidance responses may involve the use of alcohol, substances, food, casual sex, or other ways to disavow shame as well as anguish.

What do you have to consider if you want to learn from a state of loneliness? As noted in a previous blog post, “Shame is a teacher often drawing us within ourselves to think deeply about the self” (Nathanson, 1992, p. 211). If you are able to examine your response to shame you may be able to emerge with insight regarding yourself, your relationships, and the disruption of your positive feelings in your interactions with others. Similarly, the “depressiveness of loneliness,” according to epistemologist Gary David, Ph.D. (2013, personal communication), “may be recognized as a call both to learn and to allow a change to happen. The anguish can be seen as a crucible in forging a renewed sense of self, since loneliness is one attempt to stabilize the self-image.”

For information about my current book, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website:


Catherall, D. (2012). Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples through the Lens of Affect. New York: Routledge.

Kaufman, G. (2004). The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. New York: Springer.

Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.

Nathanson, D. (2011). Conversations: Donald Nathanson, On Sivan Tomkins’s Affect Theory. Behavior Online.

Tomkins, S.S. (1963). Affect, Imagery Consciousness, 2: The Negative Affects. New York: Springer.

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Dr. Mary Lamia is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens in her Marin County private practice. She is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Extending psychological knowledge to the public has been her endeavor for thirty years. Dr. Lamia’s opinion has been sought in hundreds of television, radio, and print media interviews and discussions, and for nearly a decade she hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations. Her books include: Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings: and, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others.

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