Loneliness is part of the human condition. Everyone experiences it. It may be caused by circumstances that are easy to identify, such as moving away from family, or when good friends grow apart. It can be gnawing in the background of a relationship that on the surface seems like a dream come true. We may even feel lonelier due to our own decisions, like leaving an unhealthy, yet familiar, relationship. Loneliness can be painful, and there’s no magical remedy for it. Yet it shifts our awareness and can offer new and important insights, if we’re willing to listen.
So rather than providing tips to cure your loneliness, here are six suggestions to help you to accept it, navigate your way through it, and grow from it.
1. Resist the urge for immediate relief.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron distinguishes between “hot” and “cool” loneliness. Here “hot” is what psychologists refer to as emotionally reactive. Basically, it’s letting our loneliness drive us into acting like a hot mess. We impulsively engage in escape behaviors, like eating, drinking, sex, or shopping (to name a few common ones), to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being lonely. These behaviors offer only short-term relief, and we often regret them later. On the other hand, “cool” loneliness doesn’t mean “too cool to be lonely,” but rather having a sense of contentment and acceptance of our loneliness without an urgent need to alleviate it. Psychologists refer to this as having a high level of impulse control, using cognitive processes to observe and inquire rather than act from our distress (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). By practicing cool loneliness, we cultivate the ability to stay with ourselves even though we’re uncomfortable. This is the key to growing and developing healthy relationships with others — and with ourselves.
2. Put past experiences in perspective.
We began life totally dependent on others. We needed caregivers to provide food, water, warmth, and protection. Our bodies are hard-wired to bond for survival (Bowlby, 1971, Fisher, 2016). An orchestra of neurochemicals is activated between parent and child that help maintain a secure bond. The emotional distress of being left alone acts as an alarm and motivates us to draw others close and hold on — literally for dear life. As children, we may have felt that we needed to cling to our caregivers no matter what, or else they’d abandon us. These helpless childhood feelings can resurface when we feel lonely as adults. The attachment alarm can be set off by the departure of a romantic partner, or even a huggable roommate. Their absence can trigger our bodies to go into a sort of chemical withdrawal — which can be very painful emotionally, and have the intensity and urgency we felt as children. It can feel like we’re going to die. This is the feeling that many adults fear most about being alone. It’s important to remember we’re grow-ups now with more choices and far less dependency on others. The alarm is outdated and no longer accurate; the urgency will subside. As children, we could be abandoned, but as adults, we’re merely left: It hurts, but it’s seldom life threatening.
3. Don’t ask why, ask what.
When we find ourselves alone, it’s natural to ask: Why did this happen to me? Or, why do I feel so lonely? Believing we can prevent unpleasant things from recurring by finding out why they happened in the first place may seem like a good idea, but it can actually send us down a rabbit hole of blame and criticism — and it makes us feel worse, according to research on rumination (Kross, et al. 2005). In a sense, when we focus on “why,” we argue for our limitations and patterns of relating that aren’t working, and they become more entrenched. Research shows that asking “why,” in addition to making us feel worse, also makes us more resistant to change, while asking “what” keeps us open to discovering new information (Hixson & Swann, 1993). In a new book, Insight, Tasha Eurich illuminates some of the pitfalls of introspection and concludes, based on her research, that “making the transition from why to what can be the difference between victimhood and growth.” So instead of asking, “Why am I so lonely?” try asking, “What can I learn from this? What’s next for me?”
4. See loneliness as part of your personal growth and take (healthy) risks in life.
Big life changes are often made alone. Time in solitude leads us to realizations not apparent when we’re constantly with others. Having the capacity to be with yourself and stand for what you believe in, even if you’re lonely, is a necessary stage if you want to go from a relationship or situation that isn’t working to one that’s more compatible with your needs. There’s often a feeling of loneliness in between letting go of the familiar and reaching with faith for something new. A favorite quote (pronouns changed) from E. & M. Polster, found in David Richo’s How to be an Adult, captures the feeling of a lonely, yet exhilarating, life transition:
“The acrobat who swings from one trapeze to the next knows just when she must let go. She gauges her release exquisitely and for a moment she has nothing going for her but her own momentum. Our hearts follow her arc and we love her for risking the unsupported moment.”
By trusting yourself and knowing when to let go, you can make the change in your life you so desire to make and see your loneliness as temporary, an unsupported moment. Ironically, doing it alone for yourself from your deepest knowing may attract people to you who’ll admire and respect you for having the courage to stand for what you truly believe in.
5. Consider loneliness as normal, even ever-present, in your relationships.
We may believe that once we’ve found “the one” we’ll never be lonely again. But that’s rarely the case. We’re conditioned to look outside ourselves for happiness and to quell feelings of loneliness — but it’s not possible for others, no matter how much they love us, to completely (and continuously) satisfy us with their total presence and loving attention. As Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein points out, there’s an inherent loneliness, “the flavor of separation,” even in our closest relationships. There’s a part of ourselves that simply can’t be filled by another person, because we’re separate from them, so we’ll always have the potential to feel lonely even in close relationships. We must take care of ourselves and hold our own feelings as adults — so that we can connect with others not from desperation, but from deeply knowing and accepting ourselves and our vulnerabilities. In this way, we can actually reach out to others when we feel lonely without needing or expecting them to relieve it. This is true freedom in any relationship.
6. Remember: Everyone feels lonely.
In the book Love Hurts, Lodro Rinzler reminds us that everyone experiences loneliness. At any given moment, millions, if not billions, of people are feeling lonely: You’re never truly alone in your loneliness. Remembering this is part of the practice of self-compassion, which has a wonderful side effect of lessening feelings of isolation that can be part of loneliness (Neff, 2004). When we recognize that all suffering, including loneliness, is a shared human experience, it becomes the basis for connection in itself. Remember, we’re all in this together.
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com.
Image courtesy of Edu Grande.