Phyllis Korkki writes about the personal and organizational costs of loneliness in the workplace (Building a Bridge to a Lonely Colleague, New York Times, January 29, 2012). She helpfully points to the role colleagues and managers can play in reaching out to lonely colleagues and creating a climate that supports connection.
This is what others can do. What about the lonely person? Our research suggests that lonely people face a peculiar dilemma. When their work draws them away from peers and out toward individuals and groups they lead, manage, coach or otherwise serve, an "I" consciousness develops in which their experience of their separateness from others predominates. In our "I" consciousness we experience ourselves as unique, as having little in common with others, we are competitive (who am I better than, worse than), we tend to be evaluative of others on surface matters (emotionality, dress, language, skin color). These feelings about ourselves and others feel solid, reflections of how things really are. So we can see how a vicious cycle develops. If this is how we experience others, then why would we want to connect with them? Being apart reinforces the "I" consciousness, and the "I" consciousness reinforces being apart. So loneliness persists.
This is what happens when we remain stuck in this person-centered paradigm: How I feel -- about myself, about them, and about our relationship -- is how it is. It takes a shift to a systems-centered paradigm to break this cycle, to understand that our experiences are a consequence of the systemic conditions we are in. (Create the threat of war, for example, and we instantly fall into a "We" consciousness in which our commonality and connectedness predominate.) Create separation and "I"-ness follows. Create shared danger and "We"-ness follows. Change the systemic condition and a different consciousness develops. This is the challenge lonely people face in combating their own loneliness. Don't take your "I" consciousness too seriously; break the vicious cycle. Not only will loneliness disappear but so will your feelings about yourself and others. As E.M. Forster states in his epigraph to Howards End: Only connect.