The dictionary defines loneliness as sadness because one has no friends or company, however, that definition doesn’t remotely articulate the black hole of pain and dread that we can experience when we are feeling lonely. Not to mention it is often something we feel when we are with friends, family and lovers. Research conducted in 2012 surprisingly shows that the loneliest people tend to live with other people or be married and they do not suffer from clinical depression according to Dr. Carla Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco. We know that being socially isolated leads to loneliness, but so does being in relationships that are not emotionally rewarding.
People of all ages experience loneliness and it can have surprising and harmful effects on your health. Loneliness has been known to raise levels of inflammation and stress, which can negatively impact other health concerns like depression, arthritis and heart disease. It can also impact your sleep cycles and immune system, so you might be more prone to illness. We also know that loneliness impacts certain groups of people like the elderly so profoundly that it increased the risk of worsening disability and death. Yet, research also tells us loneliness peaks in adolescence and young adults’ experience loneliness just as severely as older populations. Loneliness can be hard to understand and it can be challenging to handle when you are experiencing it.
If I am honest, I have experienced fairly extreme loneliness since my early teens. I did not have the emotional maturity at the time to understand what I was feeling. I chose to not feel it, by covering it up and attempting to soothe it with other things like food. I think I have truly allowed myself to feel my loneliness this year for the first time, to really sit with it and at times I thought it was going to swallow me up. This loneliness has seemed bigger than any other painful thing (physical, emotional or mental) I have experienced before.
I am grateful that I have a relationship with a therapist who holds space for me and allows me a venue to explore these dark, murky feelings, but it has been really hard to be honest about it even with her. It seems too immense to even explain and I found I was also feeling deep shame for not being able to find my way out of it. It was almost as if I felt guilty or ungrateful because I am not a person who is socially isolated…I have a family and friends who love me. Yet that love wasn’t and isn’t enough to quell these feelings that had me on my knees.
Loneliness isn’t something we openly talk about. It can feel like you are in the only person in the world experiencing it and it is hard to look around and see people seemingly happy in their lives and relationships when you feel invisible, small and insignificant. When we experience loneliness it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are hypervigilant about social threat and rejection. It triggers a response in us, that perpetuates the feelings of isolation and negativity. The more we experience these negative responses in the world around us, the easier it is to cling to the story that we are not worthy of love or companionship or good things. It feels as if we have been proven right.
There is shame in wanting something we don’t have, when it feels outside of our control and we have no way to fix it. It is hard not to take it personally when you are the only person you know who isn’t in a relationship or who spends most of their time alone, not by choice. It can be challenging to sit with the feelings of not being chosen. These feelings of unworthiness and rejection cause you to point the finger at yourself and think, “what is wrong with me?” Because we don’t often talk honestly about loneliness, we end up isolating more, hiding our true feelings, and avoiding others by withdrawing which unfortunately leads to more feelings of shame.
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I thought for a long time that this chasm of pain would subside if I could find a way to love myself and see myself as valuable. I worked really hard to evolve and grow through therapy and a commitment to Radical Self Love, but knowing I am worthy of love has not altered that pain that loneliness brings. Actually, sometimes it makes my pain deeper – something must be really wrong with me if I still haven’t found someone to embrace me in love. Why isn’t anyone genuinely interested in caring for me, when I am a good person with a lot of love to give.
Caleb Luna writes about how to survive as a singled person who lacks the benefits of a romantic partnership like intimacy, care, financial, physical and interpersonal support. He discusses how we were once able to have many of our needs met by friends, but as the people around us commit to partners, our needs fall by the wayside. He brings up so many important points about how we often feel we are not a priority if we are not involved in a romantic partnership and that we all need reciprocal investment and care in order to survive.
I find myself craving someone to ask about my day and go grocery shopping with, someone to touch me on a regular basis (especially in caring, non-sexual ways) and someone who is there to comfort me on bad days. A couple of weeks ago, after an extremely difficult day at work, I sank into a dark place knowing that I desperately needed a hug and really had no way to get one. I could have driven to a friend’s house, but was hesitant to, knowing that my emotional needs would pull her away from caring for her family.
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Tackling loneliness is not an easy task and there is no “one-size fits all” solution. I am choosing to sit in the muck of this pain, no matter how hard it is, even when it seems like it will consume me. I am also choosing to talk about it, despite how uncomfortable it makes me, to try and dissolve some of the shame I feel. Human beings crave a sense of belonging and we desire connection. We want to be seen and heard. When I don’t feel connected and I feel completely untethered, I can reach out to others, I can help someone else or I can just say Uncle and grieve. It might not change how I am feeling, but I can continue to invest in myself in radical and loving ways in the meantime.
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