“Why don’t other people struggle with loneliness the way I struggle with it? Everyone else is happy and knows how to do this, but I don’t.”
Inevitably, regardless of the stated reason for coming to therapy, my clients will make this statement with certainty. The grass is greener over there and filled with feelings of acceptance and companionship and love. And over here, clearly there’s something wrong with me.
Of course this is not true. There wouldn’t be articles about loneliness if you were the only one feeling this way. But, we conveniently forget that everyone is struggling with the same difficult feelings.
Now that we’ve cleared up that point, we can move on to the question of what to do about it.
Actually—we can’t leave that first point yet. We need to be curious about the fact that we created and believed that idea: There’s something wrong with me and everyone else is fine.
How does that make us feel if we believe that statement? Badly. Very badly. And we believe there is something wrong with us to warrant feeling badly about ourselves.
Our greatest bad habit as Westerners, as far as I can tell from over 10,000 hours of sitting and talking with people about their lives and struggles, is that we are constantly beating ourselves up. Criticizing ourselves, coaching ourselves with a harsh, aggressive tone almost 24/7. Even when we’re asleep we’re pointing out our flaws to ourselves and rousing a bad feeling.
So if we look a little closer at that lonely feeling, it is not just “I don’t have the companionship and sense of being seen and liked by others.” It’s actually far worse—we don’t have the kind companion who understands us within ourselves!
So long as we believe that the bad feeling, the lonely feeling, is legitimate and has an origin in “there must be something wrong with me that I am alone,” we will never resolve the feeling.
The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, when teaching psychotherapists how to work with mind from the point of view of Buddhism, would speak of the projector and the projection. He emphasized the point that if we don’t stop fixating on the projection—the story of why I’m so lonely—and instead look at the projector—the “me” who is creating this bad feeling and the belief that rouses the feeling—then we will never be cured.
We all focus on the story (projection) that the feeling (projector) rouses. There’s the lonely/bad feeling, and then there’s the story: I can’t be appreciated and understood by my partner (or insert any person here). Rarely do we stop and look at the feeling that’s generating this story.
Conquering our loneliness requires bravery. Here’s where we need to get practical and think about change as a practice. We are going to interrupt a habitual pattern and do something different.
We have to be willing to:
Stop being focused on the story and feel the feelings of loneliness and badness.
Suspend our 100 percent certainty that there is something fundamentally wrong with us that would make it so we feel lonely.
Cultivate some reason why we deserve a little protection from the constant inner talk that is putting us down.
When the lonely or bad feeling comes up, interrupt its flow with this more accurate information.
How do we do this? The easiest way is to start by thinking of a child. I have found that, while we all will have strong ambivalence around why we don’t deserve kindness and care, it’s almost impossible for us to find a reason why a child doesn’t deserve those things.
Here is a practice to help conquer our loneliness:
Stop reading and ask yourself to find that lonely or bad feeling as a felt experience in your body.
It’s usually not far from our awareness if we stop and attend to it. If need be, think of a recent experience when you felt misunderstood or alone.
Now think of a kid you like, or one you know or see regularly. Imagine that this child has that feeling. If you were the adult in the room and could see that child was feeling this way, would you say with an aggressive tone, “Clearly they did something wrong and deserve to feel this way.” Of course not!
But this is exactly what we say to ourselves. So our third step is to notice that protective feeling and mental certainly we have that the child will not be helped by judgment and aggression in response to their pain. Try to notice where that certainty is as a feeling in your body.
Practice saying to yourself, “This certainty I have that this child deserves protection and kindness, I have to remember to apply to myself when I have these feelings. And to do so without bias. It is to be a non-negotiable response that’s practiced.”
Conquering loneliness has little to do with whether we have friends or not—we all know the feeling of loneliness even when we’re surrounded by others.
It has everything to do with examining and ultimately rejecting the bad feeling within us, and its companion belief that we somehow deserve aggression and being kept from companionship and community.
Author: Natalie Baker
Editor: Emily Bartran