A loyal reader asked me recently about loneliness, and I tossed off a quick response: “… in general, I don’t think of loneliness as one of my key issues.”
Predictably, within a few hours of sending that e-mail, I began to rethink: I think loneliness is, in many ways, central for me.
Let me tell you a story:
Recently, fresh on the tail of a little mini-rejection (as I’ve written, I’m exquisitely sensitive to rejection, and capable of massive emotional convulsions following even the most inconsequential instance of rejection), I found myself contemplating acting out sexually – going to a bar to try to pick up a woman (something I’ve never, in my life, done), going to a strip club, paying for a massage/handjob. The rejection was small, but it triggered a fairly profound sense of alone-ness in me.
Here’s what’s strange: each of my proposed reactions to feeling alone, in its way, would transform my free-floating sense of solitude and loneliness into concrete, indisputable rejection. (That’s the beauty of paying for sex: it delivers an orgasm even at the same moment it delivers a sense of rejection – she wouldn’t be getting me off if I weren’t paying her, she doesn’t want to be doing this.)
Why would I do this? Why would I choose to “medicate” loneliness and rejection with more rejection and loneliness, with more acute rejection and loneliness, exacerbated by a layering on of shame?
And it dawned on me: that’s the point. The shame is the point. It’s painful for me to feel rejection in and of itself; shame allows me to tell myself a story that justifies my rejection.
If I’ve been rejected – however, by whomever – it feels annihilating to me, yes, but it’s also confusing. WHY? WHY WAS I REJECTED?
My narcissism and my empathy interact in the following way: I am gifted – perhaps preternaturally so – at understanding, in a bodily, felt sense, what it is that you’re feeling. UNLESS what you’re feeling implicates me sexually. If it implicates me sexually, I have a giant blind spot, and can’t for the life of me get inside your head. SO, if you reject me, I find myself wondering, “Why?”
I’m good looking.
I’m confident. (Well, you readers see all the ways I’m not, but they’re not generally on display in public.)
So why would anyone reject me? I genuinely find this hard to understand. (Never mind that the person doing the rejecting may be doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with me. Or that I might be a unidexter seeking the role of Tarzan, for all I know.)
And so, in the absence of an understanding, I conjure one: I create a scenario in which I’m “rejected” in a very familiar way, by a woman who gratifies my sexual hunger while accepting my money as evidence that I’m not desirable, that I’m shameful, that I’m bad.
This is a big part of why 12-step programs make such a big deal about phone calls: they encourage program participants not to rely on themselves, but rather, to seek help. Because when we rely on ourselves, particularly in the face of loneliness, this is the kind of insane shit we do.
I’m a bit old-fashioned in some of the ways I think, but trust me when I say, “I’m pretty sure this is me acting to protect my mother from my own rage.”