Oregon, United States
In recent discussions with students, teachers, and even parents – the topic of loneliness has come up frequently. Loneliness is a feeling common to everyone… which is a bit ironic: a feeling associated with isolation is something we all share. But that’s the thing about loneliness – it’s complicated. To combat it, we need to unpack it.
Loneliness is closely related to feelings of loss. Loneliness is the feeling that we’ve lost connection, lost our role, or even our value. Loneliness is the anticipation of or recognition of these losses. It can be a powerful motivator because being alone is incredibly unhealthy. One study suggests that loneliness, living alone, and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and increases your risk of dying early by as much as 29%!
We’ve all experienced what it’s like to actually be alone, and we are usually pretty good at recognizing it in others. For example, being the new kid in school is a terrifying feeling of loneliness – made all the more pronounced because you’re actually in a crowd. That sense of being alone is so powerful that it motivates us to divert a lot of effort into finding friends, being known, and belonging. It’s often memories of what it was like before those connections that fuel our feelings of loneliness even as adults.
The phrasing of that last sentence is important because we need to bear in mind that loneliness is really a feeling, not a fact.
Most often we feel alone because something has triggered a memory of abandonment or isolation: we’re more likely struggling with a memory of being alone (and the resulting anticipation of loss) rather than actually being alone or isolated.
When we encounter feelings of loneliness, we try to make sense of them. We try to rationalize our feelings, which seems appropriate – but feelings aren’t always easily translated into logic so we can sometimes end up with faulty reasoning… for example: I feel alone so it must be because nobody cares, nobody loves me, or I’m not important enough. That gives a logical framework to the feeling, but probably not an accurate one, just an easy one.
The challenge is that while we’re trying to bring logic to bear on feelings (to make sense of them and move on), if our logic is false it allows insecurities to creep in. That’s what makes feelings of loneliness so dangerous.
Many people report feelings of loneliness during this pandemic because we’ve lost a lot of the normal ways we connect. It’s easy for our minds to race to make sense of these profound feelings and tell us that we must be unloved, uncared for, or unimportant… and that’s simply not true.
One frequent actual cause for feelings of loneliness is simple misalignment. Not everyone feels how you feel at the same time. Not everyone needs what you need (or knows what you need) at conveniently aligned times. For example, you may be in need of company but those around you are busy and distracted. We all to easily project our needs onto other people so we make assumptions that they know we need company but are too busy with other priorities. This situation is not an assessment of how valuable or important you are, it’s just misaligned circumstances.
This ties into the fact that we often put ourselves in the center of the story we’re using to interpret reality. A busy friend isn’t focused on you and intentionally ignoring you – they’re just in the middle of their own story. We aren’t the center of every story, and that’s actually a good thing! Putting yourself at the center of everyone’s story makes you create scenarios where people value you less than they really do. In actuality, I can love you sincerely without thinking of you every minute of every day… you do the same for the people you love.
With all this in mind, one powerful way to combat loneliness is to stop focusing inwards, and intentionally empathize with other people. You can use feelings of loneliness as reminders to check in on someone else – it’s a win-win scenario because you focus your attention away from dwelling on loneliness and may help someone else as well!
Reaching out can be a challenge because sometimes loneliness tricks us into wrapping ourselves in it, rather than getting out of it. It’s like finding ourselves outside in the cold – and loneliness offers us a blanket. We can put that on and stay in the cold… or we could just move inside where it’s warm.
Don’t stay in the cold. Don’t be fooled into wrapping yourself up with loneliness. Don’t wait to be reached out to: if you feel lonely, do the reaching out… even if you don’t feel like it. Remember that feelings of loneliness are not facts, they’re feelings – and feelings (good or bad) are temporary. You may not be the center of everyone’s story (which is good, that would be exhausting) but that doesn’t mean you’re not loved and valued, even if your needs sometimes misalign with other peoples’ stories. Be honest about your feelings and needs and it will help connect your story to that of others. Remember, if you’re feeling lonely – you’re not alone.