I read an article today in the Globe and Mail about loneliness–how technology is making us lonelier; how living in big cities is making us lonelier; and how we’re essentially at fault for our own loneliness. Everything out there seems to be focused on getting rid of these feelings of loneliness–on “being alone but not lonely,” on being more comfortable with aloneness, and on connecting socially should such evil feelings of loneliness arise.
Now, let me start by emphasizing that I dislike feelings of loneliness even more than Ricky–being the highly-sensitive person that I am, I get right anaphylactic with loneliness. Cast-Away was a complete mindf*ck for me–I was awake for nights afterward with crippling anxiety around the idea, and I still can’t look at Tom Hanks without wanting to hug him. Now, I’m aware of my aversion to loneliness, thus influencing my self-inflicted torture-I-mean-challenge of a silent retreat in a naive attempt that I might come to peace with these feelings, but neither awareness nor imaginary friends have successfully eradicated such feelings thus far.
I have evenings when things slow down and I’m on my own and I yearn for connection (and I do things like join eHarmony then go MIA on it or sign up for Meetup groups that eventually banish me for poor attendance), but I also have evenings when I’m out with friends, and they’re all in relationships or engaged or married, and I feel lonely. Even when I was in a relationship, though, I had times when we were apart and I missed him and I was lonely, but I also had times when we sat next to each other on the couch, watching a TV show that I found underwhelming, and I felt so lonely and couldn’t understand why. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be, right? I figured loneliness is bad. I thought it meant I couldn’t enjoy my own company. So I felt lonely, then I felt ashamed and anxious about feeling lonely. I interpreted it as meaning I was immature, dependent, and flawed.
So what does all this hype about the loneliness pandemic do for us? Well, one the one hand, it brings attention to the fact that loneliness is a universal phenomenon, and perhaps our virtual ways of “connecting” are not as serving as we might think. On the other hand though, there’s an implication that feeling lonely is bad, and secure, happy people don’t feel lonely. So let me attempt to bring a different perspective to loneliness–one that opens of space for the feeling, thus allowing us to see beyond it:
1. Feeling Lonely Doesn’t Mean You’re Dependent, Immature, Broken, Socially Inept, or that You’re Not Comfortable With Your Own Company:
Feeling lonely means you are a human being with an innate desire for connection. It is natural, it is evolutionary, and it is not something you “get over.” Acknowledge that your painful feelings are a product of an evolutionarily-adaptive yearning for connection, and that they can coexist with positive self-esteem and healthy relationships. One of the major pieces of learning that came from reflecting on 11 days alone with myself was that I enjoy myself very much, and giving myself permission to feel loneliness and longing doesn’t negate the positive feelings I have towards myself (Just ask Wilson. He totally agrees with me).
2. Loneliness is Transient, Just Like Everything Else. Allow It to Come and Go:
Loneliness is impermanent, just like your sadness, your anxiety, and your joy. Just like your breath, your tan, your stomach ache, that song stuck in your head, and your infatuation with James Franco, it will come and go; it is finite. Yet just as we believe we should immediately change our feelings of anxiety, depression, sadness, there is pressure to change our feelings of loneliness, because loneliness is bad. Or is it? Take a moment to read this quote–a different perspective–from my girl, Pema Chodron:
“Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”
When we’re able to make space for loneliness, it becomes less of a focus, and we can explore beyond it. When we can allow it to be there, we can live our lives alongside it, trusting that it will come and go, and we don’t get caught up in shame, anxiety, or frustration that comes along with pressuring ourselves to feel connected 24/7. Try it out. Invite it in. Be curious and compassionate with it. See what insight arises.
3.”Staying” with Feelings of Loneliness is Easier When Coupled With Self-Compassion and Self-Care:
Sitting with uncomfortable feelings of loneliness is rather challenging if you’re beating yourself up at the same time. Remember, pain x struggle=suffering. So be compassionate to yourself, practise empathy and understanding for your feelings, and help bear the pain with poignant music, a hot water bottle, or by some other (adaptively) soothing means.
4. Relationship Status Does Not Necessarily Govern Instances of Loneliness:
Back in the Heartbreak of 2011, I remember one of my best friends telling me I would realize I had actually felt lonelier in my disconnected relationship than I would feel out of it. She couldn’t have been more spot on. Almost 3 years later, I certainly have lonely moments, hours, and days, but on the whole I feel far more connected than I did when I was partnered off. So, if you find you’re looking for a relationship to negate your feelings of loneliness, consider yourself forewarned. Loneliness might move into the spare room, but it’s not moving out.
5. Loneliness is Universal–Part of the Human Condition:
Cue the broken record: We’re all in this together. It’s not just the Eleanor Rigby’s and Father Mackenzies. Ah, yes, the irony…together we’re all ultimately alone. That might sound morbid, but it doesn’t have to be. Like I explain in this article, understanding that we’re all ultimately alone takes an existential view that can actually be quite comforting. So consider reminding yourself that we’re all in this together, and paradoxically find connection and relief in understanding that you’re not alone in your loneliness.
In conclusion, while all this stuff is out there on the “Loneliness Crisis” and Being “Alone Together,” and how we’re at fault for all of it, remind yourself that loneliness is not an illness. Loneliness is not a weakness. Feeling loneliness is not a flaw, or a sign that you’re not “secure.” Loneliness is a human emotion that you will feel again and again in your life, and, like any other emotion, it is there to tell us something. If you can permit yourself to approach loneliness with a more compassionate, open attitude, you can understand more what it is that you deeply yearn for, and make steps to nurture the gaps in your life and move towards a more valued existence.
OK, if you’re still with me, let sign off with my most fav poem, a reminder to sit with all of our feelings and all of our experiences, comfortable or uncomfortable, sensical or seemingly nonsensical:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond*.
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
*Note: “A guide from beyond” does not necessarily equate to a higher power; rather, “beyond” can simply imply beyond our realm of conscious cognition.