Making Friends with Loneliness
By Melissa Kirk
Loneliness and I have a strange and long-standing relationship. No matter how socially active I am, no matter how fast I’m running around filling my hours with friends, projects, chores, and daily tasks, loneliness is always there behind me, like a little kid holding onto my shirttails. It likes to come to the forefront on grey weekend days when I have no real plans, or when something has happened to disconnect me from friends or family. It likes to feed on my self-doubt and my insecurities about my connections with others, the feeling that if people knew the real me, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me. Sometimes, loneliness and I will lie in bed together on those weekend mornings, sharing coffee companionably, like lovers.
The difference between being alone and being lonely is an important one. Loneliness makes us feel something is wrong. Simply being alone and not lonely doesn’t. When I’m lonely, I feel a pressure to be elsewhere, to feel better about myself by having people around me. My ego wants to be stroked. Specifically I want friends around me, people who know me well. We all know that feeling of being lonelier in a crowd of strangers than we would be if we were actually alone. Loneliness makes us want to seek out companionship and support. Perhaps loneliness is rooted in that ancient feeling of the hunted, that being alone makes us vulnerable to attack
As a 41-year-old woman who lives alone and has no kids, loneliness takes on a very particular cast. If I let it, it will whisper to me that something is terribly wrong with me because I’m not in a long-term relationship, don’t have a lot of close friends. It will remind me of the times I’ve tried to connect and been rejected; it will tell me that other people can’t be trusted. It’s almost as if loneliness, in these instances, is feeling lonely itself and wants to make sure I stay to keep it company.
But is there really anything wrong with loneliness? Can we make friends with it?
As with all emotional states, loneliness lets us know something about ourselves. In this case, it lets us know that we crave connection, and that other people are important to us. If we listen closely, loneliness will even let us know what sort of connection we crave. For myself, it’s deeper connection, rather than surface conversations that never get to the heart of things. I can feel incredibly lonely talking with someone when I can’t seem to find a way to go deeper with them. So the message loneliness has for me is to seek deeper connections with people.
About a month ago, I returned from Burning Man. Prior to leaving for my trip, I was so busy I could barely see straight. I was getting ready for the trip, hanging out with friends, excitedly planning and anticipating the experience. After I returned, things slowed down socially, as I knew they would, and I felt lonely again. I’ve been spending the last month or so getting to know loneliness again, realizing that the intensity of loneliness is directly related to the intensity of connection I’ve experienced. So, sitting here at my kitchen table on a grey Sunday, feeling lonely, I realize that loneliness is also telling me that I have felt strong connection with others.
Loneliness is the flip side of feeling connected. As with joy and sorrow, we can’t feel one without the other. If we can’t feel loneliness, we may very well not feel connection, either. Can we sit with loneliness the way we sit with the dusk, knowing that we can’t have sunny days without also having dark nights? Can we develop a comfortable relationship with loneliness, understand what it’s trying to tell us, and not act on the urge to make it go away at any cost? Try it the next time you feel lonely. Invite it in for a bit, even if just for a moment. Ask it what it wants to tell you. And listen to the answer.
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