It starts during childhood. When you arrive in a new school, or each time you sit by yourself to eat lunch.
It continues in your adult life when you say you are single or divorced.
You can feel that sense of discomfort creeping from deep inside.
Science tells us about the danger of loneliness for our well-being, health, and life span. But rarely mentioned is the extra element that can make someone totally shut down: shame.
Shame is an important parameter to consider, because it’s the one that will get you stuck in loneliness.
Think about it. When feeling lonely…
How easy it is to let others know?
How comfortable is it to ask for help?
How confident do you feel when you show up at the party by yourself?
Do you sit alone in a restaurant or café ?
When you say “table for one” what emotions arise?
For centuries, being banned from the group was the most dangerous life event regarding our survival. It’s deeply ingrained in our nervous system. With aloneness comes several demons: weakness, poverty, starvation, rape, and the one that brings the deepest fear—death.
That’s how we feel when we are alone and we didn’t choose it: anxious, fearful, and dead inside. And when you live in that space it can make others uncomfortable. Because one day they could be in that fragile spot too.
And the more people feel insecure about something, the more they will point at what deeply scares them—just to give themselves a reminder that they are not in the same situation. It’s reassuring for them to voice that they are not in the same boat. Depending upon how strongly the threat feels real in their life or not, they’ll oscillate between noticing and shaming.
The shaming can start in kindergarten. Some kids shame kids who have no friends and get a sense of power from doing so.
Single people often hear they are “too something” or “not enough of omething.” And, that’s why they don’t have a partner. Their qualities are questioned at times, until they feel shame. And then they think they have to justify themselves. It’s somehow comforting to find a flaw that explains why they ended up alone.
If you observe people stuck in an obviously unhappy relationship, they rarely hear comments. Firstly, because they are two (it’s less easy to “attack” a pair). And secondly, being in a relationship is still considered more “normal” or “the right thing.”
I experienced it both: being single and being in a poor relationship. Yep! And there have been so many times where I felt uncomfortable or even like a proper failure in the first situation, because of comments made in public. When in a poor relationship, my friends who cared would ask me how I was doing, but I didn’t experience those intrusive questions all the time. Why is that?
Why is asking that about a relationship considered private, but asking about us being by ourselves is not? To me both situations are equally intimate.
To be honest, I have felt more lonely in some relationships that were truly and obviously unsatisfying, than I’ve ever felt alone. But I never got the same attention or sensation of being wronged.
Making poor choices in the name of love is forgiven. Standing strong by yourself because you have standards is rarely encouraged.
And the result of society mirroring to you that you are failing, can cause damages running deeper than you might realize.
When we already feel fragile and lonely, the amount of negative comments and questions have disastrous consequences. At some point it unbalances our sense of self. We internalize it as shame.
To process an emotion or a difficult sensation, we need to find a way to own it or release it. Shame is one of the most difficult ones to own and to send out into the world. It’s profound and it’s the one that makes us want to hide. How can we share and express our feelings about the exact thing we don’t want others to see?
Exposure is what feels overwhelming for our nervous system. So we keep it inside and the vicious circle starts.
We want to be vigilant about the insidious impulses and behaviors shame about loneliness generates. We want to catch ourselves when it leads us to unconsciously disconnect from others and perpetuate what we don’t want—being isolated.
To not take this dangerous road, here are the elements to look at:
1. How you carry yourself
You can feel the body posture that comes with shame. Whatever shapes it takes, it makes you smaller. Your breath is more shallow. Your voice is not that loud.
With this body posture you will have a tendency to look down as well. If you take a walk, check if your eyes are looking more at the floor or around you.
You simply start to disappear. You become invisible.
2. Your self-talk
Watch your internal dialogue. It’s totally okay to acknowledge your emotions, to feel sad, angry, or frustrated with the situation.
But check that shame stuck inside doesn’t transform into a self-attack. Your mind always wants to give a disappointing situation a “why.” If your “why” becomes that you are not good enough, it’s better to correct it and speak to yourself as you would to a dear friend.
3. Loneliness is your new identity.
This is the tricky bit.
You are becoming the part of you, which doesn’t want to be seen—the one that feels lonely.
You are taking on that identity like a coat. Feeling lonely is not a temporary state anymore. You are the person feeling lonely and you let it define you.
When you become that persona, you act in your life as if it will last forever. You develop habits that keep you busy in order to not feel the loneliness. There’s nothing wrong with that…to a certain extent.
But if you don’t want to feel lonely, you may want to project yourself in the future with people around you, or see yourself in a relationship.
4. The addiction to working on yourself
I have seen it again and again, and I have done it myself. These are times where we want to focus on our self-development to change, grow, or become a better person.
But sometimes we forget one essential skill: relating.
I’ve met a lot of teachers who spend their lives working on themselves with the best intentions at heart. But they are still overwhelmed when they are surrounded by people who don’t engage in the same self-development work. Because they have nothing else to talk about but yoga, therapy, or any other modality that draws your attention inward.
If your attention is inward all the time, it will be difficult to engage with others, which is what you want to do to connect and relate.
I see it with my clients. Focusing on yourself too much can lead to this constant quest of what “you have to fix next.” That doesn’t always serve you.
So you may want to take workshops or sessions that offer tools that you can use in your everyday life when you interact with others.
5. The pressure on self-love
I hear this a lot in spiritual communities: “to be loved you have to love yourself first.”
Self-love is a great muscle to develop, as long as it includes self-acceptance.
Because you know what? You can love, belong, and be loved even when you feel like sh*t! Whaaatttt?
Yes! Otherwise love stories and friendships would have stopped happening during wars, when people lose their jobs or get sick, when mental health gets unbalanced, or when depression kicks in. It didn’t. And it won’t.
Being with others doesn’t require perfection, it requires connection. So when you feel alone, find a balance in your mind between the time and energy you spend focusing on yourself and focusing on others.
Focusing on others can be through your work and how it can be of benefit. It can be engaging more with people when you shop. It can be talking more to your neighbors. Saying yes to every invitation even when you feel like retreating. Living with a flatmate even if it’s out of your comfort zone. Participating in some online group chats. Volunteering. Dressing up even when you stay home, and having some tea/drinks/bites ready for eventual visits. Basically looking for opportunities to give your attention out and share your space.
And if you feel you have spiraled down so much that you don’t know where to start, ask for help.
Remember, you are naturally wired for connection. You might have forgotten, but it’s always there.
And please contribute to end the shaming of loneliness. If anyone is putting you on the spot for being by yourself and you feel you have to justify yourself, do not reply.
Put them on the spot so that they have to justify themselves.
Ask them one (or all) of these questions:
Why do you want to know this?
Do you think you know me enough to ask such a private question?
Do you realize it’s an intimate question?
You’ll reverse the dynamic and take back the power.
The one who who has been intrusive is the one who should give explanations.