Modern loneliness…we’re never alone, but we’re always depressed. - Lauv, Modern Loneliness
Maybe this artist is a little overzealous in his use of the word “always”. But the sentiment he conveys is probably familiar in some way. With so many opportunities to make contact with one another (phone, social media, etc.), we’ve been sold the idea that connection should be easier than ever before. Commercials for iPads show beaming families sitting down to “virtual” dinners, with their loved one’s smiling faces illuminated on the tablets propped up on tablecloths. Working from home has become easier than ever before in many workspaces, giving some families even more opportunities for more quality time. And ads for Facebook’s Metaverse promises a fully mobile way to live life together which amazes some of us and generally terrifies the rest of us.
And yet, many of us can still feel so isolated and alone. I don’t think I’m the only person who has experienced sitting right next to a loved one and simultaneously felt a million miles away. In fact, the research shows a trend toward earlier deaths due to suicide, drug overdose, and organ diseases in the US and Canada. Many of these cases show a theme of chronic disconnection - a loneliness that cuts deep and seldom heals when left to its own devices.
While it can be tempting to quickly cast blame on a particular generation, political movement, or mass consumerism, I’d like to invite us to go deeper for a minute and look at the problem through what counsellors refer to as an “attachment lens”.
Attachment: Not Just For the Young People
Attachment is a naturally occurring process that is shaped throughout human lifespan which involves bonding in social and relational ways. Simply put, it is an absolutely essential part of the maturing process. The first bonds we make take place in infancy with our parents and caregivers, and the strength of these bonds are tested almost immediately as we cannot possibly care for ourselves. Our survival will literally depend on the ability to communicate our needs to our caregivers, for those signals to be understood, and for our needs properly met.
This process of reaching out for connection and help can be referred to as a “bid”. Unfortunately for parents, our bids for connection in early childhood are limited to crying and various forms of screaming. It’s not much, but it’s the best we can do at the time. As we grow, our bids for connection will become more sophisticated. We learn to point at what we want, we nod “yes” or shake our head “no”, and even learn to say a few words.
All of this we know. But a common misunderstanding in the public sphere is what happens to this need for close attachment over the course of the lifespan. While it was once believed that this need to attach was only present during the first few years of life, groundbreaking research has revealed that the need for close emotional attachment never goes away. That’s right. Doesn’t matter if you ride a tricycle, a bus, a toyota, or a lamborghini - from the cradle to the grave, humans need close attachment.
We are literally wired for connection with other people. And if we don’t get it in the ways it matters most, we will start to feel alone, unloved, or depressed.
What Does Attachment Look Like?
If building a close attachment were as simple as just communicating, our problems would automatically be solved by giving everyone in the world an iPad and some wifi. But as we already discussed, contact does not always equal secure attachment. So… what’s missing then?
The difficult truth is that we are disconnected from emotional intimacy and shared authenticity. Attachment research shows us that the essential elements of a secure attachment include Accessibility (Will you be available if I need you?), Responsiveness (Can you respond to me in a moment of distress?), and Emotional engagement (Will you be emotionally present and engage with me in ways that are warm, caring, and loving?). These factors can be distilled to the acronym A.R.E., which is sometimes used in the shorthand “ARE you there for me?” This is essentially what we are asking from our loved ones when we make a bid for connection. Yes, even us dudes.
“Love is a safety cue which soothes the threatened brain. Secure bonds offer us relief from anxiety. With them, we are able to face life with grace and confidence.” - Sue Johnson
As we said before, bids for connection are pretty obvious to spot in a child, but they become more subtle, sophisticated, and could be outwardly confusing to others in adulthood. Some bids could be more obvious - a text asking to hang out, a phone call to “catch up”, a request for a hug, etc. Others are more subtle - interrupting the flow of conversation to tell a story, showing up uninvited, giving unwanted advice, complaining, gossiping, teasing, etc.
While some of these bids for connection may not be effective or appreciated by others, the underlying goal of them - to find connection - is something we all need. When these bids for connection go unanswered and intimacy still eludes us, we will often turn to substitutes. These substitutes might feel good in the short term and help us numb out our pain of disconnection, but there may be consequences in the long-term. This could include over-using substances, obsessing over video games or online chats, excessive viewing of pornography, or binging Netflix. I’m not here to debate the morality of any of these endeavors, nor am I condemning anyone who does. I simply want to make the case that an overuse of these substitutes often signals a sense of disconnection in one’s life.
If any of this feels familiar so far, please know that you are not alone. The good news is that connection can be cultivated like a skill. A skill that technology may have dulled, but a skill nonetheless! Here are a few steps to keep in mind.
1. Value authenticity in your life
Attachment research shows that even though we deeply need close connection, we also need to feel authentic in who we are. Connection to ourselves is a massively overlooked part of the equation. It becomes extremely difficult to connect with other people when we don’t have full access to how we really feel or what we really want. (If you want a quick, excellent summary of the tension between authenticity and attachment, you can watch this video by the brilliant Dr. Gabor Mate.)
If you’ve never been given the chance to be your truest self, you can always start with the simple step of trying to understand your gut feelings, and trusting that they are both real and valid.
2. Consider what “bids” you are sending out
As discussed before, bids for connection can take many forms. It may be helpful to observe yourself from the perspective of a curious third party. How is it you reach out to others when you need connection? You could even consider the question “Are my bids for connection helping others turn towards me? Or am I unconsciously pushing them away?”
The point of this exercise isn’t to condemn or judge yourself, but to merely consider different perspectives and work toward a creative solution. Would there be some new way you reach out for connection that might be better received? As we know from the research, connection can be actively shaped, which means it’s never too late to learn.
One tried and true method of connecting with others could be learning to be curious about others and ask them meaningful questions - things that you would truly like to know. People love to talk about things that are important to them, and perhaps you could find something to connect over if you took time to be curious. Even if you don't, you give others a gift by letting them express themselves.
3. Therapy is an excellent place to practice
If I challenged you to lift a certain amount of weight, more than you’ve ever lifted before, you probably wouldn’t immediately walk up to the bar and yank it upwards as hard as you can. Someone would probably be calling an ambulance. Instead, you would probably go to a gym where you could learn the proper form, practice the technique, and pace your progress with manageable goals.
To develop the skill of meaningful connection, you may need something similar - a way to practice. A good therapist will offer you a warm, supportive environment from which you can explore these areas of your life. They may also be able to offer constructive feedback on how you communicate. It may seem odd, but there aren't many opportunities in "real life" to discuss your feelings in the moment you feel them. In therapy, it's ok to talk about what is uncomfortable - it may be more connecting than you realize.
Brignone, E., George, D. R., Sinoway, L., Katz, C., Sauder, C., Murray, A., Gladden, R., & Kraschnewski, J. L. (2020). Trends in the diagnosis of diseases of despair in the United States, 2009–2018: A retrospective cohort study. BMJ Open, 10(10). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-037679
Johnson, S.M. (2013). Soothing the Threatened Brain. YouTube. Retrieved September 1, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2J6B00d-8lw.
Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (Eft) with individuals, couples, and families. The Guilford Press.
Mate, Gabor. (2019). Authenticity vs. Attachment. YouTube. Retrieved September 1, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW3-ut8vqYs.
Maté, Gabor. (2019). When the body says no: The cost of Hidden Stress. Vermilion.
Probst, C., & Rehm, J. (2018). Alcohol use, opioid overdose and socioeconomic status in Canada: A threat to life expectancy?. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne, 190(44), E1294–E1295. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.180806