(Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905~1980)
Loneliness is one of the scourges of humanity. It seems to affect everyone regardless of age or ethnicity. Whether you’re a Ph.D. or high school dropout, rich or poor, you’re equally vulnerable. What exactly is loneliness? It is a feeling that intimacy, understanding, friendship, and acceptance are missing from one’s life. It is a feeling of isolation or separation from others, a feeling of being all alone. We need to realize that loneliness is nothing more than a feeling. After all, you are not your arms or legs, for they are just parts of your body. Similarly, you are not your feelings, which are just parts of your psyche.
Words are a lot like cars. Both are loaded with power. Cars are used to drive home. And words are used to drive home a point. Words and cars are very useful, but when used improperly, they can harm us. There are many poor drivers and poor thinkers because we learn about cars and words from unqualified instructors, such as our parents or friends. Now, let’s get to the point. Did you ever say any of the following to yourself or others? “I am lonely.” “I am sad.” “I am angry.” If you did, that is a misuse of language that leads to harmful effects.
Here is something to think about. The words we use imprison us or set us free. For example, if I were to say, “I am lonely.” That is just like saying, “I am white.” or “I am a male.” You see, there’s nothing I can do about being white or a male. There is nothing I can do to change what I am. So, when I say, “I am lonely,” the implication is that I cannot change. In other words, I use words to imprison myself with false beliefs.
However, when I acknowledge that loneliness is a feeling by saying, “I feel lonely,” I open the door of my prison cell because feelings can and do change. Of course, as long as I continue to say, “I feel lonely. I feel lonely. I feel lonely,” nothing will change. For although I opened the door, I have chosen to remain in the cell. To completely set myself free I have to take that extra step by saying, “I feel lonely, so I’m going to do something about it.”
From a psychological view, we can say that loneliness is a yearning to be reunited with our lost self. As a young child, we were happy to be the person we were. But then our caregivers and others intervened, pointing out our faults, flaws, misdeeds, defects, blunders, and transgressions. We came to dislike who we were. So, we were torn apart from our original happy self, a person that we may continue to miss and long for. Loneliness, then, is being unhappy with oneself.
After all, how can one love someone they don’t know and don’t spend time with? What is true for others also applies to yourself. How can you love yourself, if you don’t spend time alone to get to know yourself. Being alone need not be the same as being lonely. For being alone is an opportunity for reflection, self-discovery, and growth. Follow your conscience and you will be proud of yourself and happy to be in your own company. As Wayne Dyer wrote, “You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.” Jean-Paul Sartre reversed the same idea when he wrote, “If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.” So, if you are bad company, improve yourself until you are a pleasure to be around! If low self-esteem is holding you back, don’t just whine, pick up a good book on the subject and apply its principles. If you are troubled by psychological pain you experienced in your childhood (criticism, rejection, ridicule, etc.), you can also learn how to heal your ‘wounded child.’ There are many excellent books on the subject.
Some of the many events that can trigger loneliness are: retirement, job loss, a career setback, death of a loved one, a sudden disability or serious illness, substance abuse, discrimination, estrangement, imprisonment, shyness, children leaving home, relocation, divorce or the end of a relationship, obesity, isolation, rejection caused by one’s sexuality, mental or physical abuse, real or imagined rejection, homelessness, and the absence of spiritual, religious or life-affirming beliefs.
Loneliness-triggering events for children include, criticism, corporal punishment, sexual abuse, their parent’s divorce, not enough time spent with working parents, transfer to a new school, and schoolyard bullying. Even the rich, famous, and powerful can suffer from loneliness. For example, they may be suspicious of the motivation of everyone in their lives. After all, it may be difficult to distinguish between sincere friends and ‘groupies’ that merely wish to share in their limelight.
How should we respond when a loneliness-triggering event occurs in our lives? There are only two things we can do. We can allow the event to seize control over our lives, or we can remain in control. If we choose to succumb to loneliness and wallow in self-pity, our negative attitude will drive others away, isolating us, and thereby begin the dangerous downward spiral that can lead to chronic loneliness. On the other hand, we can recognize that loneliness is a natural and inevitable experience that will defeat some and strengthen others. We can choose to join those who decide to overcome their suffering. Why not become a victor instead of a victim?
One Dozen Tips for Overcoming Loneliness
1. All right, I feel lonely and want to do something about it, so what must I do? Start by understanding a simple law of life which can help solve almost any problem. That law is: You have to give away what you wish to receive. Our actions are balls that bounce back to us. A corollary of that law is: Don’t give others what you don’t want to receive. If I punch someone, they will punch me back. If I hug someone, they will hug me back. It’s as simple as that. And that is the wisdom contained in the teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Now, let’s see what happens when we apply the above principle. I feel lonely. As I sink into the sea of loneliness, I decide to reach out. For the pain I experience reminds me how others must feel. So, I resolve to help lessen the suffering of others by becoming a volunteer or a friend. Perhaps I visit seniors, the bedridden, or those in prison. Or, I may befriend a lonely classmate, coworker, or neighbor. As I do so, what do you suppose happens? Yes, others eagerly look forward to my visits. By becoming a friend, I have gained friends. By offering support, I have won support. By healing the loneliness of others, I have healed myself.
Another corollary of the law of life mentioned above is: You will receive the most when you give the most. So, give of yourself, expecting little in return. Think of others, not yourself. Don’t be needy because that will drain the energy of others and drive them away. Don’t be needy, be a friend. And build that friendship slowly. Don’t overwhelm others with your own problems. Learn to listen to others and they will listen to you. Learn to comfort others, and you will be comforted. Practice the principle of Tennessee Williams (1914~1983), who wrote, “When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.”
2. Loneliness and aloneness are not the same. Aloneness is a state of being, while loneliness is a state of mind. We all know people who live alone and are perfectly happy. Yet, the opposite is also true. There are people who, despite their families and friends, have a gnawing feeling of loneliness that eats away at them. They feel disconnected from the world and usually suffer in silence. Loneliness is both pervasive and unavoidable. Temporarily experiencing loneliness after the death of a spouse or child is normal. But after loneliness is triggered by an event, care must be taken to begin on the road to recovery, even if it takes a year or longer to heal completely. If we do not aggressively attack it, there is the danger of getting mired in chronic loneliness.
3. Loneliness is much more than an inconvenience. Left unchecked, it can be a precursor to drug and other addictions. For the pain of loneliness may cause one to look for solace in drugs, alcohol, sex, or gambling. Addictions may numb the pain but they intensify the problem. There is also the danger of loneliness developing into anxiety and depression. One can become completely immobilized by feelings of self-pity and helplessness. Also, one may try to mask pain by oversleeping or putting in long hours at the office. Finally, the stress imposed by loneliness leads to a weakened immune system, heart disease, and other physical ailments. The moral is clear. If we’re suffering from loneliness, it’s time to decide to do something about it.
4.The purpose of loneliness is self-discovery, as was pointed out by Hermann Hesse (1877~1962) who wrote, “Loneliness is the way by which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself.” So, when we recognize the pangs of loneliness, instead of running from it, we need to ask ourselves what we can learn from it. If we have a feeling of emptiness, it is because we are not focused on a purpose for living. It isn’t necessary to go on an endless search for meaning. All we have to do is stop, reflect, examine our interests and choices, and choose a path. All paths lead to the mountaintop. As long as we are on a path, we will have a sense of direction. And all paths lead away from loneliness, for loneliness is stagnation, passivity, and inaction. So, you see, loneliness is nothing more than a call for action. When we heed that call, we move forward. But when we refuse to act, there is the danger of prolonging our loneliness. Left untreated, we begin to feel trapped and helpless. When we continue to leave it unattended, there is a chance of slipping into chronic loneliness and depression. The message is clear: when loneliness strikes, action is called for.
The strongest trees are those that grow alone. The greatest dreams are those conceived alone. Your inner wisdom can speak to you only when you are alone. Your purpose and life’s meaning will be revealed to you only when you are alone. Yes, solitude is not the hovel of a recluse, but the mansion of a master. It is a place of joy. Yet, don’t retreat to it to such an extent that you neglect others and deny yourself the blessings of friendship and companionship.
5. There’s nothing questionable about the power of questions. If you’re feeling lonely and don’t know why, that’s because you haven’t been asking questions. Take an inventory of your behavior. Are you a show-off? Domineering? Moody? A complainer? A gossiper? Unreliable? Nosy? Short-tempered? A taker that doesn’t know how to give? Would you want to be friends with someone like you? Questions provoke thought and point to solutions. How can you take corrective action unless you ask yourself what you are doing wrong? If you are still mired in loneliness, is that because you’re waiting to be rescued? (Don’t hold your breath because help isn’t on the way.) If you need a hand, you’ll find it at the end of your own arm. There are lots you can do such as join a support group to master people skills. Learning about self-esteem, assertiveness, and how to overcome shyness and win friends can be a great deal of fun and put an end to your loneliness for good. Don’t deprive others of the blessing of knowing you; be a friend!
6. Develop a positive attitude. Do this by reading inspirational material. A wonderful piece to start with is “Desiderata,” which was written in 1927 by Attorney, Max Ehrmann (1872~1945). If you follow its instructions, you will not only end loneliness, but also find your path and values in life. Here is “Desiderata” (Latin for “that which is desired”):
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
“Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
“Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
“Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”
7. Accept responsibility. Stop blaming and start taking responsibility for the choices you make. It’s time to make the right choices. You deserve to be happy. Blaming poverty, lack of education, age, illness, and other whims of fate for one’s lack of friends is pointless. The charge that our loneliness is caused by others refusing to reach out to us is equally false. If we are demanding, critical, needy, ungrateful, boastful, nosy, hurtful, spiteful, stingy, and selfish, is it any wonder that we have no friends? As Joseph Fort Newton (1880~1950) said, “People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.”
Regardless of one’s disadvantages and handicaps, there are always others that are worse off, yet successful. So, it is not our circumstances, but our attitude that decides our fate. And it is always within our power to change our attitude. So, take the steps that will pull you out of the gutter of loneliness. Blame is self-defeating. Responsibility is self-actualizing. Live by the precept, “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
8. Journaling. Need someone to talk to? Talk to yourself in a journal. Keeping a journal is cathartic. It will help purge yourself of negativity. Ask yourself questions and sit in silence until you get answers. Record the answers and apply them to your life. Example questions are: What would it be like not to be lonely? How would I act differently? What can I do to change my attitude and behavior? When will I accept responsibility for my own actions? When will I begin to take the steps I know I should take? What can I do now to begin overcoming my loneliness? Journaling is a valuable tool in regaining control over your life. There are several great books on the subject, look into it.
9. Join Groups. You can meet many people at church groups, clubs, associations, volunteer groups, and adult education classes. While there, don’t look for friends, but look for opportunities to befriend others; don’t look for someone to heal your loneliness, but look for chances to heal the loneliness of others. For it is in giving that we receive.
10. Plan in advance. When you know in advance that you will be alone, prepare by renting a hilarious video, borrowing an inspiring biography from the library, or catching up on chores you’ve been meaning to do.
11. Focus on the positive. If you don’t have any friends, look in the mirror, and what do you see? A smile or a frown? If we walk around with a chip on our shoulder, we drive people away. Conversely, if we are polite and friendly, we attract others to us. If you wish to attract birds, scatter bread crumbs, if you wish to attract friends, scatter seeds of love.
12. Exercise. Loneliness is a state of passivity. To erase it you need to be active. Get involved in an exercise program. Exercise will make you feel better by improving your health, lifting your spirits, and boosting your confidence. And while doing so, you may make new friends.
I have listed only a little more than a handful of ways to fight loneliness while there are a countless number of other things you can do. But I believe there are enough suggestions here to start your journey on a life free from loneliness. There should also be enough material to whet your appetite for more, which can be easily satisfied by the Internet, replete with countless suggestions. Additionally, I am ending with further resources you can refer to.
FREEDOM FROM LONELINESS: 52 Ways To Stop Feeling Lonely by Jennifer Page and Pam Rhodes
The Loneliness Workbook by Mary Ellen Copeland
HEALING YOUR ALONENESS: Finding Love and Wholeness Through Your Inner Child by Margaret Paul and Erika J. Chopich
Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May