Loneliness, Emptiness, Anxiety in Modern Society

Loneliness, emptiness, and anxiety – these are the main complaints American existential psychologist Rollo May encountered over and over from his patients. In 1953, May published Man’s Search for Himself, in which he explores these problems – that are perhaps more relevant than ever in our modern age.

When society can no longer give us a clear picture of our values and standards, of what we are and what we ought to be, we are then thrown back on the search for ourselves. This is one of the few blessings of living in an age of anxiety. To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose oneself.

“[T]o venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of oneself.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death


Evening on Karl Johan Street – Edvard Munch

May observed that many people feel a sense of emptiness in their lives. They have no definite experience of their own desires or wants, and have painful feelings of powerlessness. People may well know what they should do – to study, get a job, fall in love, marry and raise a family – but it is soon evident, even to them, that they are describing what others expect of them, rather what they themselves want. As one person put it, “I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.”

The poet T.S. Eliot’s prophetic words describes the spirit of the age:

“We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion.”

T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems: The Hollow Men

Some may say that this feeling of emptiness represents living in a time of uncertainty and turmoil. So, how can one attain inner integration in a disintegrated world? May believes that the question of which age we live in is irrelevant. This is a perennial problem, and no society can perform for the individual or relieve him from his task of self-realisation, and from the obstacles that are in his way, and no traumatic world situation can rob the individual of the privilege of making the final decision with regard to himself. Each person must come to his own consciousness of himself, and he does this on a level which transcends the particular age he lives in.

It is not unusual to blame the times we live in for our problems, instead of inquiring whether something may not well be severely out of joint within ourselves. To be mentally sound, man must constantly be struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal.

It is often the case that those that feel empty and hollow are the more sensitive and gifted members of society, in contrast to the “well-adjusted” citizen who is able for the time being to cover up his underlying conflicts. There is a sense of accomplishment that comes with fulfilling external goals. However, as one continues to progress externally, there comes a time where one suddenly hits a wall. This is where there most important task of one’s life begins, namely, the search for oneself.

The clearest picture of the empty life is the modern man who moves through a routine, mechanical existence year after year, almost as if he didn’t really live his life, but rather is dragged by it.

It is a curious commentary on people’s fear of time that if much time passes without their being aware of it, they assume they had a “good time”. A good time is thus defined as escaping boredom. It is as though the goal were to be as little alive as possible, as though life is an unprofitable episode that disturbs an otherwise blessed state of non-existence. When we are bored we tend to go to sleep – that is, to blot out consciousness, and become as nearly “extinct” as possible.

The monotonous path of the hollow man is easily followed most of the time, however, one day, the ‘why’ arises. The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the repressed emotions turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities. In Jungian terms, it feeds the shadow, the unconscious dark side of one’s personality – until it becomes big enough to take control over one’s life, as an autonomous entity.

The experience of emptiness comes from our feeling that we are powerless to do anything effective about our lives or the world we live in. In such a case, one soon gives up wanting and feeling and becomes apathetic, as a self-defence mechanism. When a person continually faces dangers he is powerless to overcome, his final line of defence is at last to avoid even feeling the dangers.


Night Shadows – Edward Hopper

Emptiness goes together with loneliness. May writes:

“Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, and so they don’t find themselves at all.”

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

When someone, for instance, breaks off a relationship, they will often say that they feel “emptied”. The loss of the other leaves an inner yawning void, causing alienation.

When a person does not know with any inner conviction what he wants or what he feels, he becomes aware of the fact that the conventional desires and goals he has been taught to follow no longer bring him any security or give him any sense of direction.

The feeling of loneliness arises from the great emphasis on being socially accepted. We always have to prove we are a “social success”, and people do their best to be well-liked. And if a person is alone very much of the time, people tend to think that there’s something wrong with him, for it is inconceivable to them that he would choose to be alone.

Silence is lonely and frightening. The spectre of loneliness hovers outside like the fog drifting in from the sea. Death is the symbol of ultimate separation, aloneness, and isolation from other human beings. Pascal wrote that:

“I have often concluded that all men’s unhappiness comes from a single fact, namely that men can’t stay quietly in one room.”

 Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Man needs relations with other people in order to orient himself. When he is alone, he is afraid that he will lose his experience of being a self, because he is constituted by a collection of mirrors representing the expectations of other people.

We replace our deep emotional experiences with superficial talk, and we tend, thus, to become emptier and lonelier. If people contemplate being alone for a long period of time, without anyone to talk to or any device to eject noise into the air, people are generally afraid that they would be at “loose ends”, would lose the boundaries for themselves, would have nothing by which to orient themselves. In other words, people are afraid that if they lose their dependence on others, they would lose the sense of their own existence. In its extreme form, it is the fear of psychosis.

While loneliness is destructive, solitude is constructive. It is only by balancing social life with temporary solitude that one is thrown back to the search of oneself, and this is what many have neglected to develop.

Social acceptance and being liked has so much power because it holds the feelings of loneliness at bay. A person is surrounded with comfortable warmth; he is merged in the group. He is reabsorbed, as though in the extreme psychoanalytic symbol, he were to go back into the womb. We are wired to belong to a group where we feel valued by our contributions to it. The person temporarily loses his loneliness, but it is at the price of giving up his own existence as an individual, renouncing the one thing which would get him constructively over the loneliness in the long run, namely, the developing of his own inner self, and using this as a basis for meaningful relations with others. Thus one can be surrounded by a group of people and yet feel completely alone, because one is alienated from oneself. Such a person indulges in short-term comfort, for long-term discomfort. Feasting is prior to, the more fundamental fasting.


Self Portrait in Mirror – Léon Spilliaert

Emptiness and loneliness are two phases of the same experience of anxiety.When a nation is prey to economic poverty and is psychologically and spiritually empty, totalitarianism comes in to fill the vacuum, and people run to sell their freedom in order to get rid of the anxiety which is too great for them to bear any longer.

May gives us two types of anxiety: normal anxiety, and neurotic anxiety. To explain the first type, he gives us the following example:

“If you are walking across a highway and see a car speeding toward you, your heart beats faster, you focus your eyes on the distance between the car and you, and how far you have to go to get to the safe side of the road, and you hurry across. You felt fear, and it energised you to rush to safety. But if, when you start to hurry across the road, you are surprised by cars coming down the far lane from the opposite direction, you suddenly are caught in the middle of the road not knowing which way to turn. Your heart pounds faster, but now, in contrast to the experience of fear above, you feel panicky, and your vision may be suddenly blurred. You have an impulse—which, let us hopefully assume, you control—to run blindly in any direction. After the cars have sped by, you may be aware of a slight faintness and a feeling of hollowness in the pit of the stomach. This is anxiety.”

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

Normal anxiety is a basic confusion and bewilderment about where one is going. In fear we know what threatens us and our perceptions become sharper to overcome the danger. In anxiety, however, we are threatened without knowing what steps to take to meet the danger. And instead of becoming sharper, our perceptions generally become blurred or vague.

Anxiety may occur in slight or great intensity. People have been known to leap out of a lifeboat and drown rather than face the greater agony of continual doubt and uncertainty, never knowing whether they will be rescued or not. A person experiencing anxiety is like a pilot in the transatlantic flight who has passed the point of no return, who does not have fuel enough to go back, but must push on regardless of storms or other dangers.

Anxiety is the human being’s basic reaction to a danger to his existence, or to some value he identifies with his existence. It strikes us at the very core of our selves.May tells us that in its full-blown intensity, anxiety is the most painful emotion to which the human animal is heir, the threat of death being the most common symbol for anxiety. However, most of us in our civilised era aren’t constantly threatened with death. The great bulk of our anxietycomes when some value we hold essential to our existence as selves is threatened. Since the dominant values for most people in our society are being liked, accepted, and approved of, much anxiety in our day comes from the threat of not being liked, being lonely, or ostracised.

Every human being experiences normal anxiety in many different ways as he develops and confronts the trials and tribulations of life. However, while normal anxiety is proportionate to the real threat of the danger situation, neurotic anxiety, on the other hand, is disproportionate to the real danger. The person feels threatened, but it is as though by a ghost. In this state, people often remark that they feel as though as they were in a daze. Anxiety tends to destroy our consciousness of ourselves. It disorients us, wipes out temporarily our clear knowledge of what and who we are, and blurs our view of reality around us. This bewilderment—as to who we are and what we should do—is the most painful thing about anxiety.

Authoritarianism (the neurotic form of authority) becomes increasingly explicit, not particularly because so many people believe in it, but because they feel themselves individually powerless and anxious. The loss of the centre of values goes hand in hand with the rise of collectivist movements. We need to oppose totalitarianism and other tendencies toward dehumanisation on one hand, and to recover our experience of selfhood on the other.

Anxiety, like fever, is a sign that an inner struggle is in progress. It is evident that a psychological or spiritual battle is going on. As the fever is a symptom of the battle between the bodily powers and the infecting germs, so anxiety is evidence of a battle between our strength of selfhood. Just as anxiety destroys our self-awareness, so awareness of ourselves can destroy anxiety.

Self-awareness is bound to progress through a state of sickness. The only way out of escaping anxiety, therefore, seems to be to go through with it.

Our task, then, is to strengthen our consciousness of ourselves, to find centres of strength within ourselves which will enable us to stand despite the confusion and bewilderment around us.

Rediscovering Selfhood

Two Drinkers – Honoré Daumier

Before rediscovering selfhood, we should first start by asking: what is this sense of selfhood we seek?

As the foetus in the womb, the infant has been part of the “original we” with its mother, and continues as part of the psychological “we” in early infancy. Between the ages of one and three, however, there appears in the human being the most radical and important emergence so far in evolution, namely, consciousness of himself. With the ego, the child begins to see himself as an “I”, and becomes aware of his freedom within the context of the relationship with his parents. However, he may feel terribly powerless in comparison with the great and strong adults around him, and fear living without the protection of his parents.

As the child grows up, the ego – his sense of identity –  enables him to imagine himself in someone else’s place, and ask how he would feel and what he would do if he were this other person. These capacities are the rudiments of our ability to love our neighbour, to have ethical sensitivity, to devote ourselves to ideals, and to die for them if need be.  To fulfil these potentialities is to gain a sense of selfhood. We are also beings able to stand outside the present, learn from the past and plan for the future. Man’s consciousness of himself is the source of his highest qualities. But these gifts come only at a high price, the price of anxiety and inward crises. The human being must build and develop a healthy ethical awareness in order to increase his sense of personal worth, responsibility, and freedom.

The biblical story of Adam and Eve pictures how ethical insight and self-awareness are born at the same time. This creation myth speaks a classic truth to generation after generation of people not because it refers to a particular historical event, but because it portrays some deep inward experience shared by everyone.

When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, they had no anxiety and no guilt: they did not know they were naked. In this state they had no struggles with living, no psychological conflict within themselves, and no spiritual conflict with God. But when Eve is tempted by a serpent to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree and gives some to Adam, they were at once aware of their nakedness, and experienced anxiety and guilt. This story is a way of describing what happens in every human being’s development: the emergence of self-awareness in infancy. Before that time, the individual lived in the Garden of Eden, a symbol of the period of existence in the archetypal womb – he lived in original wholeness. However, anxiety and guilt feelings are not too great a price to pay for the venture of self-knowledge, and the task of becoming who one truly is. It is a fall “upward”.

Two twin girls gave a vivid illustration of how important it is for someone to have a sense of selfhood. Their parents dressed them alike, but one of them would always want to wear a different kind of dress from her sister, she would even, if necessary, wear an older and less pretty dress. The girl expressed her desire to be seen as a different person. It cannot be explained by saying the child wanted attention; for she would have gotten more attention if she had dressed as a twin. It shows, rather, her demand to be a person in her own right, to have personal identity – a need which was more important to her even than attention or prestige.

This is the goal of every human being – to have a sense of identity. Every organism has one and only one central need in life, to fulfil its own potentialities. But the human being’s task in fulfilling his nature is more difficult, for he must do it in self-consciousness.

Conflicts of childhood come from adults who are struggling to overcome what in their past lives originally blocked them in their development. Almost every adult is, in greater or lesser degree, still struggling on the long journey to achieve selfhood on the basis of the patterns which were set in his early experiences in the family.

For instance, May tells the case of a young man who got no real enjoyment from human companionship, and even though he was intellectually competent and successful, he had feelings of anxiety and recurrent depressions. It was his habit to always stand outside of himself, looking at himself, being concerned with how well he was doing something. In other words, he was an observer of himself, and to treat oneself as an object is to be a stranger to oneself. His parents had been overprotective of him, they would brag about his achievements in school to relatives, and take pride in his brightness. But, they rarely expressed real appreciation directly to him. Thus, he was unable to develop a feeling of his own worth.

When a baby is born, he becomes a physical individual when the umbilical cord is severed at his birth, but unless the psychological umbilical cord is also in due time cut as one grows up, one remains like a toddler tied to a stake in his parents’ front yard. One can go no further than the length of one’s rope. This blocks development, and the surrendered freedom for growth turns inward and festers in resentment and anger. These are the people who, though they may seem to get along tolerably well within the range of the toddler’s rope, are greatly upset when they have to take responsibility and venture into unknown territory. No wonder many people repress unconscious conflicts and try all their lives to run from the anxiety, they symbolically desire to return to the womb.

No one moves on into responsible selfhood if he remains chiefly the reflection of the social context around him. Conformity is the great destroyer of selfhood, where being well-liked is seen as the ticket to salvation. May writes:

“The opposite to courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

We are created by each other, but we also possess our capacity to experience, and create ourselves. To the extent that we do fulfil our potentialities as persons, we experience the profoundest joy to which the human being is heir. Joy, rather than happiness, is the goal of life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings. This is the inner sanctum where each person must stand alone.

To begin the journey of self-realisation, one must rediscover one’s feelings, wants, and relation to the unconscious aspects of oneself.

Many people only have a general acquaintance with what they feel – they do not feel directly, but only give ideas about their feelings. What is important is to ask oneself how one feels in an honest manner. The experience that it is “I”, who is actively feeling with a heightened aliveness.

The body is the first core of our personal identity which we develop and explore as infants. But many of us neglect our bodies, until we fall ill, as if the body is telling us, “when will you listen to me?” May proposes that illnesses be not taken as periodic accidents which occur to our body, but as nature’s means of re-educating the person.

Awareness of one’s feelings and developing a healthy relationship to our body lays the groundwork for the next step: knowing what one wants. Children are quite clear in expressing their needs, but as we grow older – we becomes less and less clear. The amazing thing is how few people know what they want. They only know what they should want and what people expect of them.

However, we shouldn’t worry too much when we don’t know what we want, because our unconscious knows. It is up to us to listen to it or to ignore it. All through the ages, people have regarded their dreams as sources of wisdom, guidance, and insight. It is a significant portion of the self, when we are cut off from the unconscious, it puts us in the position of trying to drive a chariot with four or five horses pulling off in different directions. Even the unskilled person, if he takes the attitude that what his dreams tell him is not simply to be rejected as silly, may get occasional useful guidance from his dreams – providing insights and solutions to his problems that he is unconscious of. Instead of asking what the unconscious requires of us, we should rather ask what it can teach us about human life, in our particular time and with our problems.  

May intends to show us that the more self-awareness a person has, the more alive he is. A heightened awareness saves us from two errors. The first is passivism – not being concerned with self-awareness and letting the deterministic forces take control of one’s life, which leads to psychological projection and neurosis. Fate leads the willing, and drags along the unwilling. It is us, with the help of the ego, that must make the unconscious conscious. The other error is activism, that is, using activity as a substitute for self-awareness. Many people keep busy all the time as a way of covering up anxiety; their activism is a way of running from themselves. They get a pseudo and temporary sense of aliveness by being in a hurry. Aliveness often means the capacity not to act, to be creatively idle – which may be more difficult for most modern people than to do something. To be idle requires a strong sense of personal identity. It brings new appreciation for being something rather than merely doing something.

A strong sense of selfhood must not be confused with self-inflation, which is a sign of inner emptiness; a show of pride is one of the most common covers for anxiety. Similarly, self-condemnation provides a substitute for self-worth which helps to drown the bitter ache of worthlessness. It prevents one from an open and honest confrontation of one’s problems, and makes for a pseudo-humility rather than the honest humility of one who seeks to face his situation realistically. It is as though the person were saying to himself, “I must be important that I am so worth condemning.” Thus, much self-condemnation is a cloak for pride.

In ancient Athens when a politician was trying to get the votes of the working class by appearing very humble in a tattered coat with big holes in it, Socrates unmasked his hypocrisy by exclaiming, “Your vanity shows forth from every hole in your coat.”


Nebuchadnezzar – William Blake

Self-awareness leads to freedom. May writes:

“Freedom is man’s capacity to take a hand in his own development. It is our capacity to mould ourselves.”

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

The less self-awareness a person has, the more he is unfree. When people come for psychotherapeutic help, they generally complain that they are “driven” in any number of ways: they have sudden anxieties or are blocked in studying or working without any appropriate reason. They are unfree, bound and pushed by unconscious patterns. They are totally detached from themselves.

However, freedom leads to anxiety. Dostoevsky portrays this in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Christ comes back to earth and is taken to prison by the Grand Inquisitor. He tells Christ that his mistake was that in place of rigid laws, he placed on man the burden of having with free heart to decide for himself what is good and what is evil, and this fearful burden of free choice is too much for men. People want to be treated as children and be led by authority. Therefore, the church places restrictions to save people from the great anxiety and terrible agony of making a free decision for themselves. It saves them from, the dizziness of freedom, as Kierkegaard puts it.

Psychologically, within the person there is a fear of moving ahead. There is the courageous side of man, and the servile side which prefers comfort to freedom, security to one’s own growth. Morbid dependency is not simply failure to grow up: it is a dynamic pattern which represents a flight from anxiety. A form of parasitism in which one organism is unable to live except as it clings to another.

An unfree person eventually becomes hateful and resentful. As if someone would say, “You have conquered me, but I reserve the right to hate you.” The person has kept in his hatred an inner citadel, a last vestige of dignity and pride – even though outwardly conditions deny him the essential rights of the human being. This is also seen in the fact that totalitarian governments must provide for their people some object for the hatred which is generated by the government’s having taken away their freedom – otherwise people would revolt.

One is typically taught not to admit one’s hatred – and as a consequence it is repressed. Perhaps the reason that resentment continues to be such a common, chronic and corrosive emotion in our age is that hatred has been so generally repressed. In therapy, if a person is unable to admit or bring out the source of his hatred and resentment, prognosis is less good. Hatred and resentment temporarily preserve the person’s inner freedom, but sooner or later one must transform destructive emotions into constructive ones.

Freedom is not rebellion. To rebel is to give a delusive sense of being really independent. Since the rebel gets his sense of direction and vitality from attacking others, he does not have to develop standards of his own. Rebellion acts as a substitute for the more difficult process of struggling through one’s own autonomy, to the state where one can lay new foundations on which to build. Freedom is never the opposite to responsibility.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t all determined by the fact that we are thrown into the world into a particular family, country, economic situation, sex, and time and place in history. In fact, there are many ways in which we are psychologically determined, particularly by unconscious tendencies. We are a dynamic project that has to be completed in view of the world, and to the extent that we deal with it, we make it ours. This can be done by taking responsibility for who we are at our core and by the circumstance in which we were born into, acknowledging our limitations and the freedom we have as individuals who are always projecting towards a goal. This attitude of aliveness is important to fulfil one’s destiny. The person who is devoted to freedom does not waste time fighting reality, instead he extols reality.


Prometheus Brings Fire – Heinrich Friedrich Füger

In an age of anxiety, herd mentality and personal isolation, courage is a sine qua non. Courage is the capacity to meet the anxiety which arises as one achieves freedom. At every step in one’s life, one moves from the familiar into the unfamiliar. Courage is nothing but an affirmative answer to the shocks of existence. People lack courage because of their fear of being subjected to social isolation, that is, being laughed at, or rejected. If one sinks back into the crowd, he does not risk these dangers.

From the ancient story of Prometheus, who was punished by the Gods for bringing fire to humanity, it has been recognised that to create requires courage. Every act of genuine creativity means achieving a higher level of self-awareness and personal freedom, which involves considerable inner conflict.

Courage is required not only in a person’s occasional crucial decision for his own freedom, but in the little hour-to-hour decisions which place the bricks in the structure of his building of himself into a responsible and free person.


Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion – John Martin

A person who becomes very sick can either give up, rebel, or see it as an avenue for self-knowledge. It is often the case that in confronting one’s mortality, people suddenly realise what is truly important in their lives. Death shatters all our superficial concerns, and throws us back to the search for ourselves, to our purpose and meaning in life. Many times, those who survive are enriched and strengthened by the experience – and some may even be thankful. We are all sleepwalkers in life until some inexplicable or life-threatening experience, which can activate our thinking about death, awakens us from our deep slumber.

“Up from the ground sprang I

And hailed the earth with such a cry

As is not heard save from a man

Who has been dead, and lives again.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay, Renascence

In extreme cases such as being condemned to death, one can still in his freedom choose how one will relate to these facts – such as Socrates’ decision to drink the hemlock rather than compromise and preserve his life. To die for one’s freedom (quite contrary to any simple doctrine of self-preservation) implies some profound things about human nature and human existence.

Dying makes more crucial for us the fact that while we are not dead at the moment, we some time will be: so why not choose something at least interesting in the meantime?

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

Ecclesiastes 9:10

The psychological death of one’s old self is followed by a heightened awareness of life, with new insights. The responsibility for one’s life takes on a whole new meaning. The person accepts life not as a burden placed upon him, but as something he has chosen himself. For this person now exists as a result of a decision he himself has made. The other thing which happens is that one accepts discipline not because it is commanded, but because one has chosen with greater freedom what one wants to do with one’s life, and discipline is necessary for the sake of the values one wishes to achieve.

Unless the individual’s own inner motives are made the starting place, no discussion of values will make much real difference. As Nietzsche put it, “man is the great valuator”, and only as he himself actively chooses and affirms his values, can or will he take responsibility for his actions.

When one has become convinced of his beliefs “on his own pulse” and in his own experience, rather than through abstract principles or through being told, one gains confidence in what one says. Out of the heart are the issues of life. The wholeness of the man whose external actions are at one with his inner motives is one who is pure in heart. No one has known God who has not known himself – fly to the soul, the secret place of the Most High.

“It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact the he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live.”

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

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Loneliness, Emptiness, Anxiety in Modern Society

Loneliness, emptiness, and anxiety – these are the main complaints American existential psychologist Rollo May encountered over and over from his patients.

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In Pursuit of Meaning. I hope to help as many people as possible who seek to enrich their lives with value and meaning. That is the ultimate purpose of Eternalised.

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