Loneliness creates a deep psychological wound, one that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe that those around us care much less than they actually do. It make us really afraid to reach out, because why set yourself up for rejection and heartache when your heart is already aching more than you can stand? I was in the grips of real loneliness back then, but I was surrounded by people all day, so it never occurred to me. But loneliness is defined purely subjectively. It depends solely on whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you. And I did.
There is a lot of research on loneliness, and all of it is horrifying. Loneliness won’t just make you miserable, it will kill you. I’m not kidding. Chronic loneliness increases your likelihood of an early death by 14%. Loneliness causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol. It even suppresses the functioning of your immune system, making you vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses and diseases. In fact, scientists have concluded that taken together, chronic loneliness poses as significant a risk for your long term health and longevity as cigarette smoking.
Now cigarette packs come with warnings saying, “This could kill you.” But loneliness doesn’t. And that’s why it’s so important that we prioritize our psychological health, that we practice emotional hygiene. Because you can’t treat a psychological wound if you don’t even know you’re injured. Loneliness isn’t the only psychological wound that distorts our perceptions and misleads us.
Failure does that as well. I once visited a day care center, where I saw three toddlers play with identical plastic toys. You had to slide the red button, and a cute doggie would pop out. One little girl tried pulling the purple button, then pushing it, and then she just sat back and looked at the box, with her lower lip trembling. The little boy next to her watched this happen, then turned to his box and burst into tears without even touching it.
Meanwhile, another little girl tried everything she could think of until she slid the red button, the cute doggie popped out, and she squealed with delight. So three toddlers with identical plastic toys, but with very different reactions to failure. The first two toddlers were perfectly capable of sliding a red button. The only thing that prevented them from succeeding was their mind tricked them into believing they could not. Now, adults get tricked this way as well all the time. In fact, we all have a default set of feelings and beliefs that gets triggered whenever we encounter frustrations and setbacks.
Are you aware of how your mind reacts to failure? You need to be. Because if your mind tries to convince you you’re incapable of something and you believe it, then like those two toddlers, you’ll begin to feel helpless and you’ll stop trying too soon, or you won’t even try at all. And then you’ll be even more convinced you can’t succeed. You see, that’s why so many people function below their actual potential. Because somewhere along the way, sometimes a single failure convinced them that they couldn’t succeed, and they believed it.
Once we become convinced of something, it’s very difficult to change our mind. I learned that lesson the hard way when I was a teenager with my brother. We were driving with friends down a dark road at night, when a police car stopped us. There had been a robbery in the area and they were looking for suspects. The officer approached the car, and he shined his flashlight on the driver, then on my brother in the front seat, and then on me. And his eyes opened wide and he said, “Where have I seen your face before?” And I said, “In the front seat.” But that made no sense to him whatsoever. So now he thought I was on drugs. So he drags me out of the car, he searches me, he marches me over to the police car, and only when he verified I didn’t have a police record, could I show him I had a twin in the front seat. But even as we were driving away, you could see by the look on his face he was convinced that I was getting away with something.
Our mind is hard to change once we become convinced. So it might be very natural to feel demoralized and defeated after you fail. But you cannot allow yourself to become convinced you can’t succeed. You have to fight feelings of helplessness. You have to gain control over the situation. And you have to break this kind of negative cycle before it begins.
Our minds and our feelings, they’re not the trustworthy friends we thought they were. They are more like a really moody friend, who can be totally supportive one minute, and really unpleasant the next. I once worked with this woman who after 20 years of marriage and an extremely ugly divorce, was finally ready for her first date. She had met this guy online, and he seemed nice and he seemed successful, and most importantly, he seemed really into her. So she was very excited, she bought a new dress, and they met at an upscale New York City bar for a drink. 10 minutes into the date, the man stands up and says, “I’m not interested,” and walks out.
Rejection is extremely painful. The woman was so hurt she couldn’t move. All she could do was call a friend. Here’s what the friend said: “Well, what do you expect? You have big hips, you have nothing interesting to say, why would a handsome, successful man like that ever go out with a loser like you?” Shocking, right, that a friend could be so cruel? But it would be much less shocking if I told you it wasn’t the friend who said that. It’s what the woman said to herself. And that’s something we all do, especially after a rejection. We all start thinking of all our faults and all our shortcomings, what we wish we were, what we wish we weren’t, we call ourselves names. Maybe not as harshly, but we all do it. And it’s interesting that we do, because our self-esteem is already hurting. Why would we want to go and damage it even further? We wouldn’t make a physical injury worse on purpose. You wouldn’t get a cut on your arm and decide, “Oh, I know! I’m going to take a knife and see how much deeper I can make it.”