Lonely vs. Alone

The root of loneliness isn’t the absence of people. Loneliness is a lack of connection with one’s self. For some, being alone is rejuvenating; others feel lonely even in a crowd. The difference between enjoying solitude and feeling isolated is based on how you relate with yourself. Do you know and respect who you are — or are you more concerned with how other people see you?

People compelled to seek acceptance from the world around them don’t know how to give it to themselves. They believe approval must be earned. Even when they succeed, their own worthiness is precarious — vulnerable to forces beyond their control.

Loneliness is also a form of grief when death, divorce and other traumatic life circumstances separate us from loved ones. The focus of this article addresses the chronic loneliness that accompanies mental health issues such as addiction, depression and codependent behavior.

Chronic loneliness is an internal feeling — not an external circumstance. It’s about not feeling seen and/or valued as a person worthy of love. Being alone is not painful. It’s the story about why and how you’re alone that creates suffering. Loneliness, like all emotions, is the consequence of thought. In order to heal loneliness, you need to understand what creates it.

What creates loneliness?

The belief that something is wrong with us creates loneliness. We’re telling ourselves a story that who we are isn’t good enough — our unique version of humanity is worthy of rejection. Often this leads us to reject others before they can reject us. Or to pretend to be something other than who we are. Either way, we’re hiding in fear of our own opinion.

Connection in any relationship (including and especially with one’s self) requires acknowledgement. We feel a sense of connection when another person validates how confusing life is, how frightening death is, how painful relationships can be, how disabling anxiety is, how miserable and monotonous everyday life can be, or how scary and even embarrassing it feels to grow old. It feels good to be seen — to know we’re not alone. Or crazy. When we don’t feel heard, or when we fail to listen and empathize for someone else, the relationship breaks down.

The damage to the relationship with ourself occurs when we believe that we “should” or “shouldn’t” be the way we are. It’s rejection, pure and simple. We compare ourselves to an ideal that we aren’t living up to. Who we are right nowisn’t good enough. That hurts — yes, we are hurting our own feelings. Can you imagine if your partner said they will love you — as soon as you lose weight, get the job or look younger? Yet we place conditions even more trivial on our self-love all the time. If we were able to read a script of our internal dialogue, the source of our insecurity would be obvious. Our inside voice is a bully.

Hiding From Ourselves

We try to cover for our perceived inadequacies by telling stories about who we are (and what we’re doing) that aren’t true. Not because we are liars. Because we are ashamed of the gap between our own expectations and reality. We present a one-dimensional façade and edit for awkwardness. But deep inside we feel the deception: the image we project is not authentic. The time and effort we spend being who we think we’re supposed to be further separates us from who we really are.

In search of validation, we adjust our projection according to the reactions of other people. We try to become who they think we are. It’s a lot of work — everyone’s opinions are in constant flux. What’s good enough today won’t likely be sufficient tomorrow. Somebody’s going to move the bar. Relationships fall apart under the strain. No one can pretend 24/7. At some point we see beyond the mask. They see beyond ours. Even more terrifying, they stop reflecting the image of ourselves we want to accept. We don’t like who they are; we don’t like who we are according to them. When no one wants to buy any more bullshit, the party is over.

Even seemingly healthy relationships cannot substitute for the basic need for intimacy with ourselves. We may not recognize loneliness for what it is if our connections appear solid on the surface. Loneliness often manifests as a dull ache and vague discomfort — a lack of fulfillment. The feeling can be denied or ignored; the stories kept subconscious. High-functioning, busy and extroverted people may attempt to treat loneliness with external distractions (people, substances and/or behaviors). They notice feelings of depression when the chaos recedes but they don’t sit still long enough to make the connection. So they stay busy. The loneliness grows.

How do we heal our loneliness?

Loneliness can feel like a deep, bottomless void. It’s not. There’s nothing wrong with you — you are not inherently unlovable. Loneliness is just an emotion. Emotions are signals from the body. Positive emotions are signs that your needs are being met. Negative emotions are signs that something needs your attention — you need your attention. It’s fairly easy to create a relationship with yourself — even if you’ve never had one. If reading this article has exposed a raw desire to have an intimate connection with yourself, don’t fret. Smile and accept the invitation.

Step #1: Acknowledge it. Loneliness reflects an unmet need — to establish and strengthen our relationship with our self. Why do we avoid this? Because we fear there will be too much pain in our subconscious stories. But the fear of the pain is usually worse than the reality. Our stories can be mined for wisdom. We’re so conditioned to “flinch” and run the other way. Stop flinching. Stop running. Just focus on how you feel. Have compassion for yourself. Loneliness feels heart-wrenching, but the physical sensation itself is usually bearable. Observe the sensation and acknowledge the pain. You’re stronger than you think.

Step #2: Empathize with yourself. Humans need validation. Empathize with yourself the same way you would a friend who is lonely. By observing your loneliness instead of ignoring it, you’re healing it. Say to yourself, “I see you. I feel your pain. You are not alone. I’m here. I’ll stay with you.” And then stay.

Step #3: Skip the pity party. Don’t entertain the thoughts about people or circumstances that have let you down. Don’t think about how you deserve to be alone because you screwed up or something is wrong with you. Don’t judge yourself for being lonely as though you’re better than that. You’re not. You’re human. Stay out of the story. Remain in the present. Just breathe — don’t think. You don’t have to figure anything out. It doesn’t matter why or who or how. The antidote to loneliness is a connection with yourself.

Step #4: Make regular time and space for emotional hygiene. Solid relationships require regular investments of time, energy and respect. You can’t expect to have a thriving partnership with someone who neglects and ignores you. Be consistent. Allow yourself to cry. Or scream. Sing, rock, sway, moan. Punch a pillow. Write in a journal. Or just be still. Numbness is a feeling too. In the beginning, it may feel overwhelming because there’s a lot to process. You’re inner voice has a lot to say. Set a time limit to avoid plunging into a black hole. It’s okay to work in increments. But the more you practice feeling your feelings and exploring your inner world, the easier it gets. It won’t always feel so foreign! This process is as essential as going to the bathroom. Think of emotional hygiene as flushing the toilet. Do it regularly so the system doesn’t get backed up.

Step #5: Identify your unmet needs. Often loneliness stems from some combination of need for connection, variety, certainty, contribution, growth and significance. Consider how you have been attempting to get these needs met. What expectations have you placed on friends, family, career and activities? Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. If the people and situations you’ve chosen to meet your needs don’t have the capacity, explore other options. Accept the reality, process your disappointment and take responsibility for your own needs.

Loneliness is an emotion that signals an unmet need. It should not be ignored. Humans have a basic need to belong — to matter, to grow and to feel needed. These feelings are rooted in self-awareness and identity. If we cannot acknowledge, validate and care for ourselves, we cannot expect anyone else to understand who we are and what we need. Authentic relationships are built on a strong connection to self.

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You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs–and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. Win/win for the patriarchy! I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help professional women see that sobriety is a superpower, not a disease. 

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