Have you ever been lonely in a crowd? Have you ever been perfectly content all alone?
Loneliness is a complex mental and emotional phenomenon that has at its base a powerful emotion that has survival value for children. All of us have experienced some degree of abandonment, if only for a short time, and remember the painful and scary feeling that goes along with it.
Whenever we are reminded of this feeling or anticipate it in the future, we get a twinge of abandonment distress that we experience as loneliness. This can happen among a crowd of friends or even after making love. It can be pretty confusing and can put you off your game if you don’t know what’s going on.
Here are some tips for recognizing loneliness for what it is and dealing with it in the healthiest ways.
- Realize that loneliness is a feeling, not a fact. When you are feeling lonely, it is because something has triggered a memory of that feeling, not because you are in fact, isolated and alone. The brain is designed to pay attention to pain and danger, and that includes painful scary feelings; therefore loneliness gets our attention. But then the brain tries to make sense of the feeling. Why am I feeling this way? Is it because nobody loves me? Because I am a loser? Because they are all mean? Theories about why you are feeling lonely can become confused with facts. Then it becomes a bigger problem so just realize that you are having this feeling and accept it without over reacting.
- Reach out because loneliness is painful and can confuse you into thinking that you are a loser, an outcast. You might react by withdrawing into yourself, your thoughts, and your lonely feelings and this is not helpful. At its best, anticipation of loneliness might motivate us to reach out and cultivate friendships, which is the healthiest thing to do if you are sad and alone. When you are a child, and your sadness causes you to cry, you may evoke a comforting response from others. If you’re an adult, not so much.
Notice your self deflating thoughts. We often create self centered stories to explain our feelings when we are young, it is not unusual for children to assume that there is something wrong with them if they are not happy. If they are lonely and sad, children may assume other people don’t like them when this is rarely the case. Victims of bullying may well have fans and friends, but they often aren’t aware of it because the shame and loneliness get more attention. Habitual assumptions about social status continue into adulthood and if you are looking for evidence that the world sucks, you can always find it.
Make a plan to fight the mental and emotional habits of loneliness. If you realize you are dealing with an emotional habit, you can make a plan to deal with loneliness. Since healthy interaction with friends is good, make some effort to reach out to others, to initiate conversation and face time even when your loneliness and depression are telling you not to. Yes, it is work, but it is worthwhile, just like exercising is worthwhile even when you are feeling tired or lazy.
Focus on the needs and feelings of others, the less attention on your lonely thoughts and feelings. I can walk down the street thinking about myself, my loneliness and the hopelessness of it all, staring at the sidewalk and sighing to myself. Or I can walk down the street grateful for the diversity of people I get to share the sidewalk with, silently wishing them good health and good fortune, and smiling at each person I meet. The latter is more fun, even though I sometimes have to remind myself to do it on purpose.
Find others like you. Now days there are more tools than ever before to find out where the knitters, hikers or kiteboarders are congregating so that you can get together with those who share your interests. This makes it much easier to identify groups with which you will have something in common, a natural basis for beginning a friendship.
Always show up when meeting up with others. You don’t have to run for president of the knitters society at your first meeting. But you do have to show up. I have been telling others to practice yoga for 20 years and promising I would do it myself for just as long, but except for the occasional coincidental yoga offering at a retreat, I didn’t take the trouble of finding a class I could attend regularly until a month ago. Now I am enjoying it and it wasn’t that hard. I have put a reminder in my phone to resign from the procrastinator’s society.
Be curious, but don’t expect perfection or applause. Each time you show up is an experiment, a micro adventure in social bonding. If you are curious about and interested in others, they will be attracted to you because you are giving them attention. So you will get attention in return. Curiosity about others also takes your focus away from those painful feelings that tend to make you hide and sulk.
Kindness goes a long way. “There’s nobody here but us chickens.” This is one of my favorite lines from The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas. Underneath the impressive facades of the high fliers are the same set of emotions we all are born with. Celebrities suffer from stage fright and depression too. You have the power to offer loving kindness and generosity of spirit to all you come into contact with. It isn’t instinctual to be kind to strangers or people who scare you. But it is a choice. It is a choice that Jesus and Ghandi used intentionally. And in the long run it is a winning choice. The alternative, being mean or stingy with those you don’t know well, can get you a reputation as a Scrooge.
Be persistent even if a particular group does seem to be a dead end for you, try another. AA and AlAnon recommend that everyone try six different groups to find one that suits you best. If you are persistent, challenging the assumptions and feelings that tell you to give up and resign yourself to a life of loneliness, and showing up and being curious and kind to others and more and more groups, the odds are in your favor.
And once you have a friend or two, nourish those friendships with time and attention. Don’t be too cautious about whether you are giving more than you are getting at first. If you make more friends and some of them are takers, you can choose to spend more time with the friends who reward your friendship.
With Love & Light