Loneliness: A Universally Non-Universal Experience

I’m starting this post a little differently that my other posts; I’m going to write a word below, and before you continue reading the rest of the post, I’d like to ask you to take a few moments to reflect on what this word means to you. What feelings does it evoke? What situations or circumstances does it bring to mind? Do you feel it anywhere in your body?

Please pause to reflect on this word and these questions before moving on; you may even want to journal for a few minutes or express your reflections through drawings, artwork, or song. Or maybe you just want to think about it or meditate on it – that’s okay, too. Do whatever you need to take care of yourself.

The word is:

Loneliness.

(Pause for reflection.)

… … …

Welcome back! Thank you for indulging my little counseling-psych-inspired activity – I’ll explain why I asked you to do this at the end (and if you haven’t done it because you decided to skip on past it and just read my post, I would encourage you to go back and do it; you will get more out of this post personally that way). I will also add, please feel free to journal or jot down or otherwise express or personally respond to this post throughout your read if you feel so moved.

With the coronavirus sweeping the world and begging us to stay inside and socially distanced, ‘loneliness’ has been a recurring sentiment. I have battled loneliness for many years, and our current societal circumstances have magnified my own loneliness and the loneliness of many others around the world.

I’d like to start by saying that if you are experiencing any kind of loneliness right now, your feelings are real and valid. Loneliness is a hard emotion, and none of us are alone in our feelings of loneliness.

Yet, I also acknowledge that that sentiment doesn’t always make us feel better – at least, I know that it often doesn’t make me feel better. If anything, it makes me feel worse. It makes me question why I even feel lonely in the first place if there are so many other people who are also lonely. Shouldn’t that make me feel less alone?

I’ve spent the past several weeks sitting with my own feelings of loneliness and observing what makes me feel better and what doesn’t, and being present with what is actually underneath those feelings I am experiencing.

Because, I think, the reason statements like, “You are not alone in your loneliness,” actually magnify our feelings is because there is much more to our personal experiences of loneliness than we are often aware of.

… … …

I feel lonely.

“How can you feel lonely? Don’t you live with other people?”

I feel lonely.

“I know it’s tough right now, but just know that you are not alone.”

I feel lonely.

“Don’t worry, you’ll make friends soon enough. You just have to hold on a little longer.”

I feel lonely.

“You have friends and family who love you – why isn’t that enough?”

I feel lonely.

“I totally get what you’re going through. I’m in the same boat.”

That last statement is something I recently experienced in conversation with a best friend of mine (who has given me permission to include her in this post). We are both single women who want more than anything to be in healthy, happy marriages, and we often express this sentiment to each other. Yet, when we were talking the other day, she said this to me, and it had the effect of making me feel worse, not better, despite the fact that she is my most trusted and supportive friend.

In fact, most of the above-listed statements usually make me feel worse.

Why is that? When I hear people say these things to me, and when I say them to others, we do so with the best of intentions, but the impact is that I feel further isolated.

I wondered why this was – why is it when someone tells me that they understand and might even be in the same boat, I feel lonelier, angrier, more frustrated, more hopeless?

… … …

Going to school for counseling psychology blew my mind.

When I was in school learning to become a therapist, we were taught to ask questions, be curious, and avoid making assumptions about what our clients are going through. If a client comes in because they are struggling with depression, we ask them what ‘depression’ means to them. We ask what ‘anxiety’ looks like for them, or who ‘God’ is to them, or what makes life ‘satisfying’ to them. We are taught never to assume we know what something means to them because our worldviews and perceptions of life are all vastly different.

Active listening is key.

In school, we were taught to listen far more than talk – it’s not our job to give advice to clients, but to listen and ask questions to help them find the path to healing within themselves.

Active listening is key.

We were taught that there is a difference between ‘intent’ versus ‘impact’ – just because I say something with good intentions doesn’t mean that it’s going to have a positive impact on someone. Despite my best of intentions, I must humbly own the impact of my actions on others. It also means that I must be brave enough to ask myself, “Was my intention to genuinely support them, or was my intention to make myself feel good and helpful by offering support?” There is a difference.

Active listening is key.

How many times did I need to learn it in school before the lightbulb turned on?

… … …

I don’t want to be a therapist. I learned that very quickly, confirming the intuitive knowledge that I already had before starting my practicum (internship) work in school; however, the skills I gained in sitting as a therapist are applicable to real life in my everyday relationships. They have helped me become a more compassionate and empathic human, and they have helped me better observe my own experiences and human nature because I finally learned the importance of listening more than talking.

When I express feelings of loneliness, I am often met with responses of the greatest intentions, but despite the lovely intentions, the impact is that I feel worse.

I believe this is because we often don’t take the time to be curious about others’ experiences of loneliness – I’m still guilty of this, myself!

We all know loneliness – of that, I am certain – but our experience of loneliness doesn’t look anything like anyone else’s experiences of it.

Why do I believe this?

We are all beautifully unique humans, with different personalities, different families and friends, different hobbies and passions, different homes, different goals and desires, different experiences, different circumstances, and different identities. How can we possibly all experience loneliness the same way?

My best friend and I want the same thing – a romantic partnership – but we are in different circumstances. I have had very few dating experiences, and I feel like my options are severely restricted right now; I wish I could actually meet people and date and have the opportunity to make choices based on options that are there. My friend, on the other hand, is feeling lonely having just broken up with a dating partner. I can’t speak for her experience of loneliness, but when she expressed to me that she understands my loneliness and is in the same boat, my first response was, “No, you’re not.”

… … …

I am struggling with loneliness, and my best friend is struggling with loneliness, but they are not the same loneliness. And you know what? That’s okay.

She and I had a deep discussion about our stories. As we tried to relate to each other, we felt worse; but when we finally acknowledged that we were having different experiences, she and I both agree that we felt much better and less alone.

When I express that I am feeling lonely, what I want is for someone to listen and validate my experience, not tell me that they understand it. Loneliness for me is an isolation of my deepest self from the rest of the world – it is the feeling that I am not understood and seen as deeply as my soul longs to be understood and seen. When someone tells me that they understand my experience, this actually has the impact of further reinforcing that the person sitting in front of me doesn’t actually see me, and I feel further isolated.

Right now, my loneliness is related to my experience as a single woman and my desire to find a partner who can meet that need for deep understanding that no one else can. As life moves forward, my feelings of loneliness will change, or they may go away entirely for a period of time. But I know that I will continue to experience it throughout my life.

I don’t need someone to try to ‘make’ me feel less lonely by relating to me; I just need someone to hear my story and experience, to sit with me for just a short while in my loneliness, so that I know that even though the person sitting across from me might not fully see my loneliness for what it is, there is at least someone there who cares enough to hear me.

… … …

Remember when I asked you to reflect on what ‘loneliness’ means to you? Does it match my meaning of loneliness? I can almost guarantee that it doesn’t – and, as I said about my best friend earlier, that’s okay.

‘Loneliness’ is a universally non-universal experience. We all have different relationships with loneliness, and there are going to be different circumstances that will help or hinder it. It’s not our job to ‘make’ anyone’s loneliness better, but we can approach them as best we can with kindness, empathy, and compassion. Remember to listen more than talk.

I hope this inspires you to think about your own loneliness and hard experiences – you are not alone in your loneliness, but your experience of it is uniquely yours.

With love and gratitude,

Kate





(Cover photo credit: Aaron Burden from Unsplash)

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