I wasn’t born a lonely person.
In fact, from what my parents tell me, I’ve been a mischievous, chatty little girl who just wouldn’t shut up.
As a child, I recall my grandfather being my best friend whom I would randomly call and confide in. He was also my sleepover buddy, play date, and supplier of unlimited candies that my parents would have never allowed me to have.
It was everything a child could ever wish for. To be seen, heard, validated, and loved. This, in turn, helped me grow into a curious, loving, and happy child.
But somewhere along the way, this deep connection and openness toward people slowly started to diminish. I became withdrawn, shy, and introverted. The feeling of withdrawal has gradually encased me. It became a profound part of my identity and slowly took over my adolescence until it transformed me into the person who I am today: someone with a deep feeling of isolation.
Psychology Today defines loneliness as “the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.” The article also suggests that it is possible for people to still experience loneliness even while being surrounded by close friends and family and coworkers.
This has always been true in my case.
As someone who has read every self-help book and psychology theory in the hope of healing myself from a long battle with depression and complex trauma, I understand the power our minds have on manipulating our psyches to amplify certain emotions that we then feel in our visceral bodies and perceive as truths.
Research also suggests that people who are lonely tend to pick up on negative environmental cues more profoundly and, therefore, on signs of potential rejection. This then feeds into the engrained, long-held belief that the reason we’re lonely is because we get rejected, and because we get rejected, there’s no point in ever reaching out to try to soothe the pain of our loneliness.
I confess that I’m still one of those people.
My loneliness mostly stems from years of repression by a culture that looked down on multicultural individuals with rejection and disdain. In a previous article that I wrote, I explored the idea of unbelonging from the narrative of a person who did not fit into society’s defined box of culture, race, identity, nationality, or political borders.
I was ruthlessly shamed for looking different, as if I could ever have had a say in my parents’ decision to marry and conceive a racially mixed child. I was made to feel ugly for the very reasons I did not choose. This has affected every major decision I have ever made, from selecting potential life partners to avoiding social interactions where I’d potentially be ridiculed based on my identity.
Where I grew up, there’s an ingrained negative stereotype against Asian-looking people, even while I mostly grew up holding a Middle Eastern identity, in the same way, some white Americans might look at Hispanics with contempt.
This shame has fed into every fiber of my soul, festering it with a pulsating sense of inferiority—to the point where I actually despised leaving the house to see people. I learned to shrink myself and live half the life I deserved by favoring isolation over potential pain.
I built walls and an intellectual identity based on the books I’ve read. I dissociated from reality and escaped into the lives of the characters I read about, delving into their problems and dramas and embracing them as if they were my own.
In psychology, this incredible coping mechanism is known as dissociation. It occurs when our psyches shut down as a way to prevent us from feeling the intensity of our painful emotions that we may not have easily survived.
Our coping mechanisms may have once helped us survive our pain. But to continue growing into the authentic people we envision ourselves to be, connect with others, build healthy relationships based on mutual trust and nurturance, we must learn how to put down our worn-out armours.
It is no secret that we live at a universal crossroad where, thanks to social media, social justice movements, and people who have become more vocal, many of us are unpacking our history of generational trauma. But the shame of trauma isolates, and we can feel alone in doing all the work.
Throughout my journey, I found myself oscillating between two extremes: the feeling of craving intimacy and wanting to be alone. Over the years, slowly but surely, I have built healthier coping mechanisms to deal with the intensity of my loneliness when the feeling of isolation arises.
But aside from the trauma that some of us had to endure and learn to unpack, I also believe that our modern world is becoming lonelier by default.
This article published in The Guardian five years ago explores some of the potential reasons why we’re becoming lonelier. Having interviewed people from different age groups and backgrounds, it attributes one of reasons to the way our communities have shifted from small villages to huge cities over the past decades. It suggests that as we continue to move around for training, university, jobs, or life opportunities, we end up surrounded by people in large cities, leaving us feeling rootless and, eventually, extremely isolated.
Add that to a long history of trauma, childhood abandonment, or abuse—which are all isolating experiences in and of themselves, and you create a surefire recipe for loneliness that is extremely difficult to untangle.
This was also true in my case. I recently moved from the Middle East to Toronto back in September. Whenever people ask me why I decided to move after spending 31 years of living in my comfort zone, I respond by saying, “Well, it was never a comfort zone; it was a place where I could never belong.” But I can’t say that I belong here either—at least not yet.
According to this study, “Our need to belong is so deeply rooted in our psyche that any threat of rejection conjures reactions that are similar to those of physical pain.” It is also steeped in our biological evolution, as our ancestors were able to reproduce and survive only by establishing social bonds.
So even while I might wake up at 5 a.m. every single day to meditate, read, get my heart rate up, prepare a healthy breakfast, and spend considerable time in solitude reflecting on my life’s existential crisis without becoming too codependent on people, I know it can never be enough.
I felt the sharp pain of my loneliness, which was amplified by my steep history of childhood abandonment, during the second wave of COVID-19. I would wake up to a dark, wet, cold, and long winter that would amplify the intense loneliness I already was feeling inside. Even while I managed to sit with it, I still would have rathered to go on silent walks with someone else.
I doubt that the Buddha would be happy to hear that. I also believe that there’s nothing heroic in glorifying loneliness, regardless of what spiritual texts might misinterpret.
Most of us who experienced abandonment in our childhood, and even some who haven’t, lack the adequate skills to reach out when we’re experiencing distress. After all, it’s not like our society celebrates vulnerability but instead, it places value on hyper-individualism, speediness, and dusting our painful feelings under the rug.
The exponential rise in mental health, especially among millennials, has also hindered our capacity to form meaningful and long-lasting relationships, which is a crucial antidote for curing loneliness. According to Neuroscientist and pioneer of the Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges, in order for us to bond as evolved mammalians, we need to be in a parasympathetic nervous system state—in other words, in a relaxed state. And as we might already know, this isn’t the case in most people grappling with mental health who tend to shift between being hyperaroused or hypoaroused.
Perhaps, this also explains the correlation between the rise in mental health, substance abuse, and the subsequent rise in loneliness among people.
The way we interact has also shifted over the past decade, which isn’t anything new considering how many of us have favored the online world over real-life interactions.
We now turn to the internet to soothe our feelings of isolation and social anxiety. But according to this one article, “Excessive Internet use also increases feelings of loneliness because it disconnects us from the real world. Research shows that lonely people use the Internet to ‘feel totally absorbed online,’ a state that inevitably subtracts time and energy that could otherwise be spent on social activities and building more fulfilling offline friendships.”
We’re all grappling with the pain of our dissatisfied upbringing and reversing our cultural conditioning that has poorly equipped us to deal with our emotions in an ever-changing world. So where does that leave us?
Do we all isolate ourselves in our room, hiding between the four corners of our wall or under our blanket, because our nervous system is too tired from facing the brokenness of the outer world? I mean sure, we can. I’ve done it so many times before.
We can wrap ourselves in our warm little cocoons, or we can go out into the world despite the sharp pain of loneliness that stabs at our wounds.
I’ve lived a whole life where I was ashamed of two fundamental things: who I am as a person, and the shame and loneliness that I felt as a result of who I was. But I grew extremely sick of living the bullsh*t of that life.
One thing that inspired me along my journey is this beautiful quote by Anaïs Nin:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”
This radical shift in the way I saw the world allowed me to journey to so many wonderful places on my own, and to eventually leave the life that isolated me behind to start a new one at an unfamiliar territory.
It is terrifying and lonely and painful at times to be here and to do all the work on my own. But at the same time, it is liberating to know that despite the terrified little girl who lives inside me—the one who peeks at the enormity of the outer world, I have accomplished something on my own.
If we apply the same way of thinking to the growing loneliness epidemic in our society, we realize that there are definite glimmers of hope.
There’s an enormous and wonderful network of communities that volunteer to talk to lonely people on the phone, organize parties and outings for them, befriend them, or simply help them mingle with other lonely people like them.
When we’re absorbed in the chaos of the digital world, it’s easy to feel disheartened and miserable about all the problems we see in the real world. But from someone who experienced firsthand the pitfalls of living a lonely life, I believe we must never underestimate the impact of our compassionate and kind words and actions.
Most of the brokenness we see in the world, whether in someone’s decision to end their own life or a political party massacring another group, stems from relational problems—or lack thereof. When we’re unable to relate to the world around us, we shut down, isolate, dissociate, and eventually allow mold to replace our compassion and empathy.
I do not have a cure for my loneliness or the loneliness of other people either. But I do believe that no matter how lonely we might think we are, there’s always something we could offer someone. But it is difficult when we’re absorbed in our own negative self-talk and sense of isolation. So sometimes, it might help to turn our gaze outward—despite the pulsating pain we still hold, feel, and recognize.
We do not have to fully cure ourselves to offer our world something…
One of the most beautiful quotes I have ever read was by the evolutionary, incredible, and late Stephen Hawking, who was my great inspiration whenever I was craving a reality check:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
But for loneliness to turn into something genuine, we must simultaneously learn how to grow comfortable in our own loneliness, yet not too comfortable that it isolates us from the rest of the world.
I’ll conclude with this beautifully orchestrated song that reminds me of the state of human beings whenever I overthink loneliness, which is based on a true story that happened to Lauren Evans, the artist in the song, while walking the busy streets of Amsterdam.
We do not need to accumulate more connections or to look for happiness in the next cool person we meet. We need to become more deliberate and intentional with the connections we create or already have.
We need to touch ourselves and other human beings better.