Lonely vs. Alone

The root of loneliness isn’t the absence of other people but a lack of connection with yourself. When you are aware of yourself, you feel grounded and worthy. Having a strong sense of your own identify means you are never really alone, even when no one else is around. To be clear, loneliness is also a form of grief when death, divorce and other traumatic life circumstances leave us isolated. The focus of this article addresses the type of loneliness that accompanies mental health issues such as addiction, depression and codependent behavior.

Loneliness is an internal feeling—not an external circumstance. Loneliness occurs when you’re uncomfortable in your relationship with yourself. Feeling alone has little to do with being alone. Loneliness is not the result of what is (or isn’t) happening around you. It’s a reflection of what’s going on inside of you. The act of 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.

What creates loneliness?

We create loneliness when the stories about our life circumstances fail to recognize our unique peculiarities and needs as “normal” and valid. Connection in any relationship (including and especially with our self) requires honesty, acknowledgement and shared identity. We stop feeling lonely when someone else validates how confusing life is, how frightening death is, how painful relationships can be, how disabling anxiety is, how overwhelming regret can feel, how miserable and monotonous everyday life can be, how threatening unexplored potential feels, how disappointing and even embarrassing it feels to age, and how the older we get, the less we know for sure. When we fail to listen and empathize and/or to feel heard and understood, the relationship breaks down.  

The disconnect with our self occurs when we believe that we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel the way that we do. We make up stories about what we’re doing and how we feel that aren’t true in that moment—not because we are liars, but because we are ashamed of the gap between what we sense in ourselves and what is acceptable to speak of. We present a one-dimensional façade and edit for awkwardness. But the image we project is not who we are. Unfortunately, in order to identify with the image we’re projecting, we must first disconnect from our real self.

Lacking a sense of self, we evaluate and adjust our projection according to the reactions of other people. We believe our identify is located in their reflection. We become who they think we are. For this reason, relationships (especially with partners) fall apart not just because we stop liking who they are, but because we stop liking our reflection within the relationship. Also, we may not even recognize loneliness for what it is if our connections appear solid on the surface. Even seemingly healthy relationships cannot substitute for the basic need for intimacy with ourselves.

Loneliness often manifests as a dull ache and vague discomfort. The feeling can be denied or ignored; the stories kept subconscious. High-functioning, busy and extroverted people may attempt to avoid loneliness with external distractions (people, substances and/or behaviors). They notice feelings of depression when the chaos recedes but fail to attribute the emotion to the internal disconnect. They continue to search for identity (and comfort) outside of themselves. The cycle continues; the loneliness grows.

Learn how to heal loneliness.

  1. Acknowledge it. Loneliness simply reflects an unmet need–to establish and strengthen our relationship with our self. Why do we avoid this? Because there is 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. Loneliness feels heart-wrenching, but the physical sensation itself is usually bearable. Observe the sensation and acknowledge the pain. And you can handle it.
  2. Empathize with yourself. Humans need validation. Empathize with yourself the same way you would a friend. By observing your loneliness instead of ignoring it, you’re building a connection to your Higher Self. Say to yourself, “I see you. I feel your pain. You are not alone. I’m here. I’ll stay with you.”
  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’re destined to always be alone because something is wrong with you. Stay out of the story and 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 to establish a connection with yourself. Focus on that and the healing will begin.
  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. Set a time limit to avoid plunging into a black hole. It’s okay to process 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.
  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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