I’m a contemplative guy. I think a lot about, well, nearly everything. I think about thinking and then…well I think about that. It’s safe to say that there are few topics I have not given at least some passing thought to. Sometimes though, a question is asked that causes me to pause and realize I need to pay more attention to a concept. Today was that day.
A reader posed the questions: ‘Are we predispositioned to feel lonely? Is it a natural state? Is it instilled in us from birth?’
Normally I would try and immediately answer back, but the new me only tells the truth, and to be honest I didn’t know the answer, even after thinking about it for some time. It led me to dig deeper and ask the fundamental questions: What exactly is loneliness and where does it come from? Why are people lonely? How can we best face it?
First let’s be clear. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Solitude and isolation are different. Loneliness is a subjective experience; if a person thinks they are lonely, then they are lonely. People can be lonely while in solitude or in the middle of a crowd. A person can be alone and not be lonely. It is a feeling, like sadness or joy, not a state of being. Solitude, isolation and being alone are objective states of being.
I kept reading, thinking and writing definitions to try and arrive at the essence of loneliness…
Loneliness is an emotional state in which a person typically experiences a powerful feeling of emptiness.
Loneliness is more than just wanting company or wanting to do something with another person.
Loneliness is a feeling of being cut off, disconnected and/or alienated from other people.
Loneliness is the longing for connection.
That’s it. That’s the definition I like.
Contemplation of loneliness is not new of course. People have written and thought about the concept for thousands of years. Much of our philosophy, literature and entertainment address the topic. Existentialist philosophy views loneliness as essential to being human. Each of us comes into the world and eventually realizes that we are a separate person, alone. We travel through life alone and ultimately we die alone.
Acknowledging and accepting this on a conscious level, and learning how to live our lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is the human condition. Thus we all have some degree of existential loneliness. In this respect it is a ‘natural state’.
Nobody can truly understand what it is to be you; not your parents, best friend, therapist or lover. No one can experience the world in the same way you can. No one can fully understand your pain, joy, sorrow, despair, fear, guilt or shame.
Our existence is defined by the conflict between knowing these things to be true, and refusing to accept them.
We cannot completely present our feelings, ideas or experiences to others exactly as they are to us, and there is suffering in this; a painful reality that ultimately we are alone in this private world of our mind.
“To feel lonely is to join the rest of humanity in acknowledging the painful reality that we are somehow fundamentally separated from each other, never to be fully understood.”*
That is loneliness.
It is one of the paradoxes of human existence. We try to satisfy a need that can never be fully realized.
Humanity created language, art, music and writing in part to try and get as close to connecting with one another as we can. We do get close at times but something is always missing. It is ephemeral, fleeting. Sometimes we get a glimpse at what this connection may feel like but it is never complete.
I felt this once at a concert. The singer was so in the present moment, so vulnerable and emotionally exposed, that I felt connection; true connection like I could actually know exactly what they were feeling, what raw emotions were being expressed. I could not have felt loneliness in that moment even if I tried to. I felt like I belonged right there in that moment; there was nowhere else I could have been. But it quickly passed, and I returned to my usual sense of self. **
So why do we all experience different degrees of loneliness? Why are we not all mired in loneliness and depression from this existential hand grenade? Why does loneliness follow some and haunt their consciousness?
The short answer is, nobody knows. There has been surprisingly little research on the topic of loneliness, but what little literature is available suggests there are both genetic and environmental factors (Shocking, I know).
Studies in behavioral genetics indicate that our DNA has a large role in our predisposition to loneliness, and this shouldn’t surprise. Many of our predispositions to emotional states have a genetic component: depression, happiness, anxiety, etc.
There are also developmental theories pointing to different attachment styles that predispose to loneliness. According to this model we all develop an attachment style in how we relate to others which is due in part to the type and quality of relationships we have with our various caregivers. These carry over into adulthood and model how we interact with others, especially intimately. Secure attachment styles are generally less lonely, whereas avoidant and anxious/ambivalent are more predisposed to loneliness. This is a gross oversimplification, but makes sense on an intuitive level.
It has also been shown the less we trust others, the more we suffer from loneliness. This also is probably related to our attachment style. Did we trust our caregivers? Is loneliness in this sense based on fear of being abandoned or neglected? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone knows for sure. What I do know is that it doesn’t matter. Attachment style, childhood relationships, genetics – it’s all water under the bridge. It may be useful and interesting to contemplate, but only through the lens of moving forward.
Loneliness has also been described as social pain — a psychological mechanism meant to alert us to our isolation and motivate us to seek social connections. We are social creatures and throughout most of history we have been dependent on social cooperation and attachment for survival. It makes sense this drive would have evolved in us.
It has been compared to hunger by some. When we are hungry we seek food to satisfy our need, when we are lonely we seek connection. It is much more complicated though. When we are hungry it is easy to satisfy this need for food, assuming food is available. In contrast, even though we know connection is needed to cure loneliness, many lonely people cannot attain the necessary connection to satisfy their need. If only it were that simple.
Connection is not food, something easy to acquire and consume. It requires knowing how to establish and maintain satisfying relationships which for some people can be very difficult to do. I think of chronic loneliness as a person sitting before a table with a great feast in front of them, but with food that neither nourishes nor satisfies. Any calorie can satisfy hunger. Loneliness is more fickle. It is not as quantitative. The food must be the right texture, satisfy the senses, and be nourishing and easily used by the body.
Hunger can be fed by a bag of beans and rice, loneliness is a more discriminating diner.
This leads lonely people to feel empty or hollow inside. Being hungry could be described using similar terms.
Connection must be meaningful, not just present.
So what does this all mean?
We are all alone in the way that we are separate from the world, but loneliness is a subjective experience. Our own unique blend of nature (genetics) and nurture (early childhood experience) defines our loneliness set point.
This set point defines the level of connection that will satisfy our need.
Our current life situation will determine how far we stray from that set point. There will be times where we crave more connection, and other times where we prefer to be alone in our thoughts. Solitude and isolation are objective states, neither good nor bad.The million dollar question is ‘can we change that set point?’
We can’t control our genetics, and we can’t change the past. We can have insight into our feelings though and we can change how we interact and interpret the future.
There are plenty of articles with marginal but safe advice like “think more positive, join some social groups, get a pet, volunteer somewhere”, but many of the suggestions I see do not treat loneliness, but eliminate being alone. Sometimes this will work, but there is only some correlation with being alone and experiencing loneliness.
Loneliness is something deeper that must be faced head on. Covering up loneliness by avoiding being alone will only delay our understanding and potential healing.
We must accept the feeling of loneliness, not like it but accept it. Feelings are automatic. We can’t control them, but we can control how we respond to them. By accepting the loneliness we can look beneath it to the true cause.
Loneliness is the longing for connection, but realizing that no matter how much we want to, we can’t connect fully with another person. No one can truly understand us as well as we understand ourselves.
But why is this connection so essential?
Digging even deeper, I believe the need for connection with another is rooted the fact that we believe we are not worthy, not good enough on some level. We have to validate these feelings with another person because we feel they are somehow better or more authoritative than us. Maybe if we could fully connect we would discover that this is not true.
If we accept our loneliness, have compassion for ourselves and step outside of the “trance of unworthiness”*** we can begin to emerge and realize that we are enough. We are worthy. By connecting fully with ourselves maybe that ache, that hunger of loneliness is bearable. And when we have faced ourselves, and know that we are enough, then we can reach out to others and find true connection and true belonging.
Try feeding your loneliness with compassion, love and self-acceptance.
In other words, maybe the best thing is to accept the loneliness and make space for it, as we do for all our feelings when we are being mindful. See what lies beneath.
Make no mistake, it will not be easy. It will not be comfortable. It may even be a painful journey.
I’ve been thinking about depression, isolation, fear, solitude, grief and they are all profoundly different from loneliness.
Loneliness seems somehow worse because we know what we need to fix it – connection – we just can’t get it.
We need to look within ourselves first. If we can connect with our true, authentic selves I believe all else falls into place. If we keep going deeper and deeper, exploring the feelings behind the loneliness, we can begin to accept, understand, and heal.
Consider that the pain of never being able to fully connect is also what defines us as unique separate beings. The loneliness is your own. You are special and unique because no one can have your exact emotional response to the world. No one can see the world like you do. Sometimes this is incredibly sad. But at the same time it can be quite beautiful in the way a movie or a song can evoke sadness, but also show us beauty that would otherwise go unnoticed.
After some discussion the person who asked me the original questions came to this:
“It’s ok to feel lonely sometimes. We are human and to feel is to live. Loneliness is a feeling just like any other; happiness, joy etc. If we don’t feel lonely sometimes, how would we feel when we are happy and joyous?”
I’m not sure I can add much to that.
We cannot feel connection if we never feel what it is to be lonely.
My thoughts are incomplete. I’ve struggled with these ideas and concepts. I will leave you with some quotes of greater thinkers than myself:
The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people — not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.
Being alive means being in a body, and being in a body means being separated from all other bodies. And being separated means being alone. This is true of every creature, and it is true of man more than any other creature. He is not only alone; he also knows that he is alone he is aware of what he is. Therefore, he asks the question of his aloneness. He asks why he is alone and how he can overcome his being alone. He cannot stand it; but cannot escape it either. It is his destiny to be alone and to be aware of it…It is man’s greatness that he is centered within himself. He is separated from his world, and able to look at it. Only because this is so, he can know the world, and love and transform it. Only he who is alone can claim to be a man. This is the greatness, and this is the burden, of man.
The wisdom of our language has grasped these two sides of a man’s being alone. It has created the word loneliness in order to emphasize the pain of being alone, and it has created the word solitude in order to emphasize the glory of being alone. In daily life, these words are not always distinguished; but we should do it consistently, thus deepening by these very words the understanding of our human predicament. Loneliness can be conquered alone by those who can bear solitude. Let us dare to have solitude—to face the eternal, to find others, to see ourselves.
Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can.
Shams al-Din Hafiz
**Kind of…This may make for an amusing blog post someday.
***Tara Brach uses this term in her book Radical Acceptance which I highly recommend.