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October 31, 2020

The Real Definition of Loneliness & How to Cope with It.

As I pushed the buggy around the concrete path on the edge of the park for the umpteenth time during lockdown, my gaze drifted from my son’s smiling face to the central green where groups of friends and families sat in their “bubbles” chatting, smiling, and snacking.

The magpies hopped and flew about in pairs, and a band of squirrels hung out. A few cotton wool clouds gathered in the blue summery sky. The sun shone warmly, yet my heart ached with a yearning to feel like I, too, belonged to one of these groups.

I felt myself envying the magpies and the squirrels. I was sharply reminded of being on my own. I felt the sadness and the yearning to feel that I, too, belonged.

This was my recent experience of loneliness, but what does loneliness feel like to you?

Loneliness means different things to different people. Feeling anxious, bored, envious, sad, depressed, or other feelings might be our experience of loneliness.

Yearning for company is how I define it. Having feelings of envy, shame, and downheartedness, and craving to belong to someone or to a group.

It’s not solitude. Enjoying being alone is solitude. We feel complete and connected even though we are alone. We delight in our presence. As we walk around the park, we feel together with the flowers, the trees, and the breeze, connected to the here and now of the moment.

It’s not existential loneliness either. Existentialists, such as Kierkegaard and Sartre, talked about the ultimate aloneness of each individual’s existence. We enter the world alone, and we go out of the world alone. We face each of our experiences alone, even if we have others by our side, since we are separate beings and have our own will and unique way of understanding and responding to the world. It is inevitable that we will feel this type of lonely sometimes; however, it’s possible to feel less lonely generally. As Sartre says, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”

Here are five ways to start feeling less lonely:

1. Don’t shame yourself. 

I shame myself in the park when my critical voice kicks in like a rabid monkey jumping up and down on my back as it beats its paws. It hisses, “You’re the only one on your own. There’s something wrong with you because everyone else has got someone and has been chosen by someone, but you’ll always be on your own.”

It goes on, “You’re doomed and different in a bad way.” It taunts me with fantasy scenes of everyone in the whole wide world (apart from me) gathered around family dinners, tête-à-tête with their lover under the duvet, or laughing uproariously in a pub garden with a group of old friends.

My heart sinks heavily, my eyes lower, my mouth purses, and I harden and tense my chest to protect myself from these judgements. I imagine that the park dwellers around me are also judging me. Perhaps, they can see straight into my thoughts and also recognise that I am lonely—and it’s because there’s something wrong with me. I want to leave the park and go home—to be alone.

We need to understand that loneliness is normal.

I stopped being mesmerised and mortified by my critical voice and started challenging it. I say to it now, “This is all bullsh*t, and you’ve made up this fantasy about everyone else with their perfectly not-so-lonely lives. It’s a movie! Do you actually have any concrete evidence for this?”

Gestalt Therapy field theory and systems theory assert that in any field, there is at least one other individual having exactly the same experience as we are—whether in the green of the park, at a family gathering, or another group setting.

If you need further convincing, Taoism and Buddhism assert that experience is made up of polarities. To have a day, we need to have a night. To know happiness, we need to know unhappiness. If we feel a sense of belonging, we will also, at times, feel alone. No matter how many friends and family we have, or how loved we currently are, we will also (at times) be coping with loneliness.

Dealing with loneliness during a pandemic is also common. Lots of people in this park probably feel lonely (not to mention the lonely people who didn’t even make it to the park).

My cheeks are flushed, and I’m perspiring now as I go on, “Is my critical voice telling me that I’m terribly different from others and that loneliness is my fate? What’s with the diagnosis of terminal loneliness? How can I be so exceptional that I’ve been singled out for this fate, out of all the hundreds of people in the park, the thousands of people in the borough, and the millions of people in London? That doesn’t make any sense.”

I start to assess my qualities and behaviours. Sure, there is room for progress, but they don’t fit with the critical voice’s diagnosis.

Again, loneliness is natural. We’re a group of animals. When we were hunters and gatherers, we needed to belong to a group to be protected from predators.

We need each other in order to survive. We need the warmth and nurturing of a consistent carer figure as infants in order to thrive. Unlike some species that are born ready to survive on their own, the baby human is not. From an evolutionary neurobiological perspective, feeling lonely signals that we need to draw closer to our clan in order to keep safe.

Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman who wrote the seminal Gestalt Therapy, talk about the organism and the environment. One does not exist without the other; they are interdependent. The environment being other people as well as physical surroundings.

We need to feel like we belong to a family, a partner, a political party, a football team, or some other group.

Trudging around the park battling with my critical voice, I imagined I was being judged by others as “lonely and unworthy,” and I started to feel shame. I wanted to look down—to make myself smaller. I felt like scooting off home. However, I knew if I did that, I would feel even more lonely. So instead, I forced myself to reach out and phone someone.

2. Reach out and honestly express yourself.

Pick up the phone and make a video call. Or better still, start a conversation in person. Connecting via email or social media doesn’t count. Remember the Gestalt Theory of polarities? Where one polarity exists, so does the opposite? Where there is shame and wanting to hide away, there is also wanting to express ourselves, to shine, and to be accepted as we are.

It’s a hard thing to do—to reach out when we feel shame—but if we try it, we usually feel a lot better. Our critical voice may tell us we’re “weak” for not being able to deal with our loneliness. How on earth did we pick up this negative and fanciful belief that reaching out for support is weak?

Extreme independence is often a learned response to childhood trauma. As children, we may not have gotten the support we needed, so it was safer to rely on ourselves. It feels unfamiliar and shameful to need people as adults, but as Brené Brown says, “We don’t have to do it all alone…we were never meant to.”

I confess to a friend what I’m feeling, and I immediately feel less so—they also share a little about their own loneliness. When I was a participant in therapy process groups, l witnessed this phenomenon over and over again. There is always at least one other person who feels the same. Somehow, knowing that we are not alone with our loneliness magically transforms our experience.

We may know rationally that we can’t be the only one feeling lonely; however, when we tell someone and hear about their experience, we “know” on an emotional/bodily level, and that’s when we feel better.

Honesty is important here. It’s no good picking up the phone to have a natter about the weather or the current political situation when we are silently dying inside and hoping the listener would psychically pick up on this.

What stops us from talking honestly? Yes, you guessed it: it’s our old friend—the critical voice who shames us into silence, precisely when we need to connect the most. Let’s try taking the risk and sharing our lonely feelings.

Burdening others is a common fear I hear from my clients. “My friends are busy with their own lives or problems; I don’t want to burden them,” they say. But it’s another bullsh*t excuse from the critical voice. Would we feel “burdened” if a friend rang up saying they felt lonely? I bet we wouldn’t. I’m pretty sure we’d feel touched and honoured they’d shared this with us.

“I don’t want to be pitied” is another variation. This suggests that our friends might feel a fake kind of empathy for us. The movie-making part of us imagines our friend answering the phone whilst snuggled up on a light brown sofa with their partner. We imagine they’re watching a Netflix movie as their hands reach in to the sweet popcorn box at the same time and touch. They give each other a gooey, dreamy grin before sighing as the phone rings.

Would a true friend really pity us? More likely, they would relate in some way and feel valued that we opened up to them. Perhaps, they might even admire our courage in doing so. I know I would.

3. Accept that this is it.

Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, as expressed by Jon Kabat Zinn, states that “now” is all that matters. Deepak Chopra writes, “The past is history, the future is a mystery, and this moment is a gift. That is why this moment is called ‘the present.'”

We cannot fully anticipate it or control it. But we are responsible for our now. We have chosen our now whether it is in our awareness or not. No one else has made the choices or taken the actions that have led to this moment. Bad things may have happened to us (some might not have been in our control, like a global pandemic and a lockdown), but we choose the meaning we make of them and how to respond.

We can pine for something, we can wish we are elsewhere, we can wish we are with someone else, but we are cheating ourselves of our actual lives. And, “What we resist not only persists but will grow in size,” as Carl Jung wisely said. In plain English, if we keep avoiding our here and now loneliness, it will keep on showing up. Instead, we need to batten down the fantasy escape hatches on our life and embrace what is.

This is a mind-blowing awareness. I decided to mentally embrace all my experiences, including my loneliness. This doesn’t mean my situation has changed (this has been hard due to the government and imposed restrictions), but rather than feeling like a victim, I feel my agency. I’ve become more proactive in thinking about what I could do, rather than about what I’m missing out on.

I can try and find pleasure in the small things in life. For example, baking, playing with my son, doing artsy-craftsy activities, arranging Zoom group calls with friends. I can experiment with pleasures derived from the senses, like dancing in my bedroom, putting up nice paintings, buying essential oils, getting up close to really look at and appreciate nature.

I might be alone, but I can change my experience of loneliness from one of craving company and feeling sad to one of joy. I can seek out rituals to celebrate spring and Samhain; I can light candles, express gratitude, sing (badly), and pray.

“This is it, I want this!” Suppose we say this next time we feel lonely. It feels counterintuitive, but somehow, by closing the door on the-grass-is-greener-fantasy, we connect with our own agency and creativity and transform our experience of loneliness.

4. Go looking for quarantined parts.

How do we quarantine parts of ourselves? How did we put parts of ourselves into lockdown long before the pandemic arrived? How do we isolate qualities and emotions? Do we have a secret dancer inside? A secret singer? A secret painter, explorer, or comedian? Maybe we should have a think about the stuff that gets us going, gets our creative juices flowing, and makes us feel uplifted and excited? Why are aren’t we doing more of that stuff?

Devaluing parts of ourselves is how we learned to do this. We might say, “I’m no good at singing, so I don’t sing.” Or, “I’ll do some dancing in my room once I have cleaned the dishes, done the work call, and put the clean clothes away.” In other words, it never happens.

“Work” rather than “play” prevails in the puritanical work ethic of northern Europe and the United States. Working ourselves to the bone gives us social kudos. But it also leads to stress and, sometimes, physical and mental health issues. More importantly, it leads to an unfulfilling, often lonely life.

Scrolling through social media when we have free time is as spiritually nutritious as eating a slice of limp white bread. We don’t even know what we enjoy or what floats our boat because we’ve sent those parts of us to the dungeons years ago and thrown away the keys.

Often, the very parts that vitalise us are buried under pain, hurts, resentments, envies, and anger. We buried those parts because they weren’t socially acceptable in our childhood home. “Anger is ugly” or “You should be ashamed of being jealous of your brother,” they might say at home. We learn to shut away certain emotions. The problem is that our anger is also the energy that can be transmuted into drive, physicality, and creativity. Our jealousy is entangled with our sensitivity and creativity.

The critical voice is often at play here. It’s the one that tells us we’re “indulgent” or “lazy” if we play rather than work. Or an overly anxious part pops up and tells us that playing the violin or spontaneously getting on a train to visit a new part of town will break the bank. This worried part assures us that once we have stockpiled enough money in the bank, then we can indulge in fun. The problem with that is that we may well be 10 feet under by then.

Taking the handcuffs off those part of ourselves: the energetic part, the spontaneous part, the playful part, the boisterous part, the artistic or musical part (to name but a few), and allowing them to express themselves changes our relationship to loneliness. We find more joy, energy, and inspiration in our everyday life. We may be alone, but there is less sadness, yearning, and boredom.

Think of our epitaph. Do we want it to say, “An overworked, underplayed, quasi-existence; never really happy, and never really sad” or “Loved hard, made the most of life, experienced daily joy, made the most of their talents, and led a meaningful life?”

I feel my energy rise already. Let’s start unleashing those parts that help us feel energised and complete. I invite you to experiment with prioritising those parts for a week or so and notice how you feel.

Reclaim our projections. As we walk lonely around the park, we might yearn for a fantasy romantic partner, job, or car that will fill the gap in our lives. What will they add? Joy? Excitement? Love? Affection? If we consider the Buddhist/Taoist concept that “this is it,” we realise how this fantasy is an escape hatch to avoid the now. It’s a way of being unavailable to ourselves.

So how about we reclaim those qualities and parts we imagine someone or something else will bring? Let’s find our joy, our creativity, our humour, our musicality. We may not be in touch with them, but do we have the motivation to go looking for them?

The critical voice may get in the way, telling us we’re not gifted, we can’t sing, or we’re too fat. To hell with the critical voice. This is not about proving anything or achieving anything other than feeling whole and satisfied.

Jon Kabat Zin describes a meditation practice in Wherever You Go, There You Are. He asks us, as we meditate, to imagine putting out the welcome mat to our inner king, queen, giant, witch, warrior, wild man, wild woman, dwarf, crone, warrior, healer, and trickster within. By witnessing them, we eventually integrate them.

As winter brings rising pandemic infection rates and government-imposed restrictions, may it also bring the gift of figuring out how to get over our loneliness.

If you need some help with this, or fancy joining a weekly online process group, let’s chat, and I’d be happy to accompany you.



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