Posted on January 17th, 2020 by Anna Redding

Sitting on the sofa, people around you, watching TV, relaxing. Yet, something feels “off”, not right but you can’t put your finger on what it is. Nothing “bad” is happening, nothing untoward is going on, but there’s this gnawing feeling in your tummy.
Welcome to “traumatic aloneness”.

There’s feeling lonely, there’s feeling alone and then there’s traumatic aloneness. Nowadays we often use the word “traumatic” to tell others that something really bad or really distressing happened. However, this is not actually what it means. In psychological terms, a traumatic event is one which is overwhelming, fear inducing, life threatening, unexpected, unpredictable and extreme. The sheer magnitude of the event often means our normal coping strategies are not enough. To say you have “trauma” is the emotional response we feel as a result of this event. Trauma impacts our daily lives, often for a long time after the event, it changes our very biology, our thoughts and beliefs about the world and others. Most people know about PTSD, but what I’m talking about here is something that runs deep, goes to the very core of you and stays there, festering and can pop up when you least expect it. It is confusing and distressing if you don’t know what it is and it is hard (but not impossible) to resolve.

This usually, in my experience comes from childhood trauma and particularly when the perpetrator(s) is the primary caregiver. This makes sense when we look at attachment; as babies and children, we learn about ourselves, our self-worth, who we are, relationships and connecting from the people who care for us. Ultimately, the mother figure or primary caregiver is vital here. We see ourselves through the lens of how they look at us. If we see warmth, love, patience, if our needs are met (what we call attuned), we learn that we are OK, we learn who we are, that we deserve the things we are receiving, we learn how to connect to others. This goes on to form the imprint of our later relationships, which are more likely to be healthy, trusting but we also learn that we can be alone and that this is OK, we’re OK. But what happens if we see something else? Detachment, anger, impatience? Or if our mother/father/caregiver doesn’t know what we need, or can’t give us what we need (perhaps they are anxious, depressed, avoidant or have their own traumas), in other words they’re not attune? Or worse…they are not there at all. Enter traumatic aloneness.

In childhood trauma, our fight flight responses are futile; we can’t run we won’t survive, we can’t fight we’re too little. We are completely alone in our trauma, both when it is happening and when it isn’t. We can’t tell anyone (often you don’t know what is happening is wrong or unhelpful) because what happens if we tell? We are abandoned, or beaten, or rejected, or not believed…we’d be alone. That is too scary for a child to contemplate. Psychodynamic theorist Gerald Adler attributed an early failure in nurturing to the experience of annihilation. He contended that the absence of a primary positive soothing introject/caregiver creates an insatiable emptiness that impedes the development of a stable, healthy sense of self.

So, amongst other repercussions, the alone child grows up to be an alone adult. Even when surrounded by people. Not only do they often believe that they are not worthy of love or affection they may be in relationships that repeat the childhood experience. Closeness as a child might have come with conditions and so as an adult they may push it away. These things can lead people to feel lonely and alone. Traumatic aloneness has an added layer, it’s a hole that was supposed to be filled when we were babies with the things we needed to feel loved and important. It is a hole that can now never be filled. So, you might be sitting on the sofa, with a sensation that might be interpreted as hunger, but food doesn’t fix it. Alcohol doesn’t fix it, being with friends doesn’t fix it, even a hug doesn’t fix it. It comes from a young place, a place from long ago and it hurts. To be healed it needs to be recognised, listened to and nurtured. Trauma therapy can go some way to repair it and ease the pain, but the hole although smaller, might always be there. However, we can learn to recognise it, soothe it, hold it and nurture it. We can learn to have connections and closeness with others.