First, let’s define loneliness: it’s an emotion. An emotion that feels really bad. An emotion that is hardwired into our brains, because evolution says we survive better when we’re close to other people. Not close physically, because that person could be part of the opposing army. I’m talking close emotionally, a sense of shared identity and kinship.
When we feel lonely, our brain is saying, “hey, I don’t feel kinship right now. I’m not getting warm fuzzies, and you must be doing something wrong. I’m going to make you feel bad now. Go fix it please.” This can be confusing. What about our great relationship with our wonderful friend? Well, it turns out the friend lives in Singapore (or down the street), and we don’t emotionally commune on a daily basis. Our brain is telling us that this special fulfilling relationship isn’t actually doing enough fulfilling right now.
Here’s another confusing thing: loneliness can drive us further into loneliness. Imagine we’re at work, a party, or other social gathering. Maybe we’re thinking of going. But we decide we aren’t feeling up to it. We leave early. We don’t go in the first place. That feeling that drove us away? Maybe we really need some alone time. But maybe it was social anxiety…driven by loneliness.
Social anxiety often arises when we fear something new. A stranger discovering something within us that they judge negatively. An acquaintance or friend who asks us for attention we’re not prepared to give. It’s natural to feel anxious exposing ourselves to these situations. They are uncomfortable. There’s conflict and tension. Don’t we already have enough of that in our lives as it is?
Loneliness can drive social anxiety by amplifying the impact external events have on us. Of course we fear negative judgment from strangers. If we’re already feeling lonely, we start from this awful place of “not enough people like nor value me.” That extra disappointment crushes us. Even a slightly negative judgment can ruin an evening.
We also might overreact to positive judgment: “You like me, really, ME?! Oh my gosh, I love you, let’s be best friends!!” The other person won’t be sticking around too long. And once our genuine expression scares them off, we blame ourselves.
Loneliness gives us a sense of social precariousness, of treacherous footing. We struggle to find a good path forward. So, yes, we take a healthy dose of fear. We condition ourselves to avoid social interaction. It just doesn’t end well.
The thing about loneliness is it goes deep. Our storytelling brains sit on the surface trying to peer inside. What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel this way? I’m not a loser…am I? Our brains constantly try to explain away the pain. To piece together a rational narrative about our status and interactions, or lack thereof. We get trapped in hyper-analytical thought circles without useful conclusions. Stuck. And spiraling downwards.
So why is loneliness easy? Well, it’s easy in the same way that YouTube and Facebook and Netflix are easy. Many, many people have or do this thing. It creeps up on us. We slip into the habit, and before we know it, we’re seven hours in. And it’s hard to find an equally easy alternative. So we sit there for another hour. Waiting. Distracting ourselves. Hiding.
The truth is, loneliness presents tremendously frustrating obstacles. To make it simply “go away” is not easy in the slightest. And it gets even harder, even more agonizing, as we learn coping strategies that don’t get at the root of the issue. Loneliness can become the state of being we’re most familiar with, our awful new normal.
The question is: what should we do?
First, we have to acknowledge and understand our loneliness. We might feel it a lot, or a little. We might have other issues tied up in it, like social anxiety. Or we might not. One of the best ways to untangle our emotions and begin to trace their causes is to talk with someone. Not just anyone, but a special someone. Someone who will listen without inserting themselves, someone without judgment or advice. Someone who will give us emotional breathing room. Who will draw out our disparate thoughts with open-ended, genuine questions, then let us tie them together ourselves.
When we talk with an empathetic listener, we put ourselves through an intimate, vulnerable, and scary interaction. But if we find the right person, it’s truly magical. They value us, so we value us, and then we can re-build the relationships we need with others. That positive cycle has to start somewhere.
We can also try ourselves. It’s pretty challenging to do this well. If it were simple, we would have already done it. But it’s not impossible. Go ahead and try really listening to yourself. Write in a journal. Ask questions then try to answer them. When you’re struggling, dig deeper…why am I feeling that way? What’s blocking me now? The challenge is to steer yourself towards the pain.
Books, articles, podcasts, or other resources can help too. The key is to be in the right frame of mind to resonate with the content. We have to receive it, process it, and then use it. Some books, like Designing Your Life, are pretty constructive. They pose tough questions that help us walk through our challenges. Others are more advice-giving, advocating a framework or lens or story interpretation that we might find helpful or inspiring, such as Man’s Search For Meaning.
It’s important, especially with the latter content, that we are really taking the time to think through how these things relate to us. When a story or chapter sparks a thought, take time to walk around and ponder. What’s the takeaway here? Write a journal entry. How will we act on this new thought? If we aren’t able to act on it within the next week, we will find it more difficult to change our behaviors and thought patterns. For this reason, it’s helpful to work with another person who can help keep us accountable.
In the end, time is on our side. Once we’re aware of our loneliness, we will eventually understand it and confront it. But we have to get ourselves through each day. It’s not pleasant to carry loneliness with us, and to constantly stare it in the face. But we have to do this if we are to cast it aside later. We must not give up, otherwise loneliness will win. We don’t want loneliness to win, because then we lose everything. And we cannot lose everything because we matter.
You are important. You are valuable and valued. You are worthy. You have dignity. And you will be victorious.