Lonely? How to deal with loneliness

Do you feel lonely? I want to talk about loneliness this week because I’ve had several clients ask me how to tackle it.

Loneliness is a normal human emotion and it doesn’t have to be a problem for you, but if you label loneliness as ‘bad’, it increases your suffering and often generates further unwelcome feelings like shame, inadequacy and unworthiness. You can learn how to manage loneliness as part of becoming your own best friend.

I’m going through some loneliness myself at the moment, because I’m working hard on and in my growing business and I’m choosing not to prioritise my social life. I’m happy to admit that growth can be uncomfortable and I have to coach myself to be the person who can succeed at the next level. Often, I’m working alone at my desk in a cycle of trial and error, knowing that I may be wrong a lot but that discomfort, failure and sometimes loneliness are the price of success. So, I’m putting on my pioneer britches, adjusting my thinking and going for it.

I’m partly telling you this so you can see that I do this coaching work on myself. I self-coach every day and share my models with other coaches, to process whatever comes up for me. I’m very happy about this, as it accelerates my growth and expands my world. I worry a lot less than I used to and I’m much more light-hearted and productive. I’m choosing to do what I love, not because it’s easy, but for the reward I get from working with my wonderful clients.

Anyway, back to loneliness – let’s take a look together at what it is, why we feel it and what we can do about it

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is just a feeling, a sensation in the body. It arises when we think a thought that causes us to ‘notice’ that we are alone and that we feel the need for supportive company. Literally it’s “sadness because one has no friends or company”

As social animals we have an inbuilt aversion to loneliness – it’s a survival instinct. We need to belong to the herd for our emotional well-being as much as for the practical survival benefits. Expulsion from the herd implies that we are weak, sick or undesirable. If we are alone, we feel vulnerable and want to return.

When you sense loneliness arising then, it’s no surprise if you react by denying it or pushing it away. But if you look at loneliness as a normal human emotion that we’re all going to experience at times, you can choose to acknowledge it as real and appropriate. Like any other emotion, it can come and go, unless you suppress it, which prolongs and intensifies it. Sometimes loneliness can show you what you’re missing – like loved ones back home when you’re away.

In her teachings Pema Chodron talks about the Buddhist view on 6 kinds of loneliness and suggests “We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that”. I agree.

When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

Pema Chodron, Six Kinds of Loneliness

Modern loneliness and disconnection

In modern life, the opportunities to separate from people are few. You most likely – like me – live in big city and have access to more people online than you could ever reach out to, so that when you feel lonely, you’re probably actually surrounded by people.  You’re lonely because you’re not necessarily interacting with the people you see around you, or your interactions are superficial and don’t protect or sustain you. Then you feel unseen and unheard – disconnected, in fact. The interesting thing is that we create our loneliness with our response to that – with our thoughts – and unsatisfactory connections actually stimulate our thoughts and feelings of disconnection.

You might feel lonely in this moment because you don’t have a partner or family around, or have lost a partner or family member, had a fight with someone close to you or just that you are away from your home support base. However, it may also be that you are socially withdrawn for some reason.

Loneliness can come up more frequently or insistently for people who are depressed or anxious, as the response to either of these can be to hide away, feeling that you’re not good company, too tired or irritable to deal with people or not worth being around. If this is you, you might feel misunderstood or think that you can’t fit in with others. You may lack any sense of belonging. Social isolation can be addressed by building up your skills and confidence to self-support. Of course, hiding away can spiral in to prolonged isolation, as you are left alone with your escalating and uncontested negative thoughts about yourself. If you feel you are severely depressed or anxious, you may wish to seek clinical help before coaching.

What’s the problem with loneliness?

Being lonely is not a problem until you make it one. However, if your thoughts about being alone lead you to feelings of loneliness, and such thoughts become chronic then there is not just mental suffering but a scientifically proven negative health effect.

Whilst it’s true that deep human connections nourish us and positively impact our health, we can also harness the power of our own mind on our well-being and help ourselves. We can literally choose to think ourselves better. Loneliness is not BEING alone, it’s THINKING that we are alone and that it’s not OK.

How NOT to deal with loneliness

We cause ourselves pain by stuffing down our loneliness – disowning it. Often when loneliness comes up we decide to use something to distract us – commonly food, but it could be anything – Netflix, social media, having a nap, work, drinking, listening to podcasts, shopping, learning. We over-consume something to ‘make us feel better’. Then we’re adding to our loneliness the shame and guilt of over-consumption AND we feel the loneliness more keenly.

How to deal with loneliness

If you feel lonely, try not to resist the feeling but notice what thought triggered it. Get to know your thoughts and beliefs, because these are the stories that you tell yourself that perpetuate your lonely feelings.

Quietly attend to the sensations in your body when you feel lonely. Where in your body do you feel it? What temperature is it? Do you feel tension? Pain? What’s the vibration? Does it have a colour? Is it dense or diffuse? If these questions seem odd to you, with practice asking them your body will still yield answers. Give it a try and get to know yourself.

Once you can feel the loneliness in your body, simply allow it to be there. Feelings naturally pass in a minute or two left to their own devices. They can’t hurt you.

Often, we are afraid of our feelings because we think they will last for ever, overwhelm us or turn in to depression or rage – so we suppress them – but you know this isn’t true. Furthermore, suppressing negative emotions is inseparable from suppressing positive emotions, you don’t get to pick and choose. Often, we learn as children to resist emotions we can’t handle, but this doesn’t serve us in adult life. Be curious about why you need to suppress loneliness – when you feel it coming can you say “So what?” and let it roll through?

Living with loneliness (or any emotion)

Here are the steps you can take when loneliness is coming up, if you’ve tried to allow it and you encounter internal resistance:

    Stop doing anything for a moment
    Be aware of the loneliness – it’s not you, it’s an emotion you are experiencing and it can’t hurt you
    Notice the desire to fight or use willpower to suppress the lonely feeling, but sit with the desire without reacting to it
    Be compassionate – extend kindness to your suffering self
    Breathe, relax and gently feel the loneliness as sensations in your body – just observing without judgment
    Notice the thoughts that come up as the lonely feeling arises and write them down
    Commit to changing your thought. By choosing a new thought about loneliness – something neutral and accepting – you release loneliness to flow through you and dissipate. This last step is how you will feel better

With practice you can change your old habitual way of responding to loneliness, which comes from a belief or ‘thought habit’ cultivated through fear. You can form a new positive belief about loneliness that supports a more positive feeling and result for you.

Studies show that most emotions last no longer than 90 seconds unless we attach stories to them. You have a feeling of being lonely—and this will pass through you quickly unless you make up a story about how you’re lonely because you’re unlovable and worthless and nobody will ever love you and you’re going to be alone forever. When you attach to the story, you suffer needlessly and the suffering can linger for years. But you don’t have to choose to suffer this way. Your soul can find peace, comfort, and stillness even in the most difficult times if you’re able to view your negative emotions from this witness position.

Lissa Rankin MD, author of The Fear Cure

Being your own best friend

When you’re learning to emotionally support yourself – happy days! You’re learning to be your own best friend. Each of us as an adult is responsible for meeting our own emotional needs in this life. No-one else can truly see and meet them and nor can we expect them to. You create your feelings with your thoughts, so YOU have control. All your relationships with others will improve once you choose to meet your own emotional needs and no longer ‘need’ anything from others but can love them freely without agenda. This is the subject of a future post, but I mention it here because learning to support yourself through your loneliness by thinking differently about it is part of becoming your own best friend.

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