"It is in order to escape from loneliness that we want to be together, we want to be entertained, to have distractions of every kind: gurus, religious ceremonies, prayers, or the latest novels. Being inwardly lonely we become mere spectators in life; and we can be the players only when we understand loneliness and go beyond it...So, when the pain of loneliness comes upon, you, confront it, look at it without any thought of running away. If you run away you will never understand it, and it will always be there waiting for you around the corner. Whereas, if you can understand loneliness and go beyond it, then you will find there is no need to escape, no urge to be gratified or entertained, for your mind will know a richness that is incorruptible and cannot be destroyed." - Jiddu Krishnamurti, Think on These Things
This month I would like to explore an issue that I hear about regularly from my clients on the therapy couch: loneliness. Take note of your initial reaction to hearing the word loneliness. The word itself can sound ominous or intense. Do you start to feel anxious or sad? Does your body tense up? Cue in sad music and video footage of a person sitting alone on a rock, head down, pondering the meaning of life.
While you may feel alone in your experience of loneliness (pun intended), many people struggle with feeling lonely. In fact, almost all of my clients (single clients, coupled clients, clients who have recently moved to a new city, clients with loads of friends, clients who experience more difficulty forming friendships) have struggled with feeling lonely at some point in their lives.
My most memorable experience with loneliness came in my first year of graduate school. I had decided to accept a nine-month internship in Boulder, Colorado, a small city or large college town (whichever way you see it) nestled in the mountains just 30 minutes outside of Denver. I was excited to embark on this new adventure in a new city. I didn't know anyone in Boulder aside from a couple of older peers from my graduate school, but felt assured I'd make friends easily as I'd never had trouble in that department before. Knowing that my internship working with emotionally disturbed elementary-aged children and their families would most likely be challenging, I had decided that the best move would be to live on my own rather than take the risk of ending up in a less than desireable roommate situation.
The first week I moved to Boulder, I coudn't get enough of the astounding views around me! Mountains everywhere, the bluest sky I'd ever seen, people smiling and exercising everywhere all of the time. College students basked in the sun and walked in groups to various campus events. Families lunched on sunny streets in perfect weather conditions. I felt certain I'd made the best decision of my life to move to Boulder for the next nine months.
It turns out that Boulder is incredibly cold in the fall, winter and spring. In fact, that glorious sunshine I was so mesmerized with disappeared within weeks of my relocation and was quickly replaced with wind chill (temperatures often dropping below 0 degrees), grey skies, rain, and snow. As my internship started, I became burdened with the stress of learning how to become a therapist while simultaneously working with challenging clinical cases. Most days I would leave work feeling drained, depressed, anxious and utterly alone. I began to isolate myself, turning down social opportunities as frequently as they were made available to me, and developed a solid fear of forming new attachments. My logic became "What's the point? I have to leave in a few months anyways." I basically gave up on giving Boulder a chance and gave up on giving myself a chance to enjoy the experience in any sort of authentic way.
When I look back on my time in Boulder with the gift of experience and some wisdom, I see a few definitive ways I could have made my time more enjoyable and less lonely. While one aspect of coping with loneliness involves pushing past our fears in order to form possible connections, another aspect asks us to be patient and inactive: to accept that loneliness is merely a state of being that we can learn from when we lean into it. I'd like to share some advice for both paths that you can take in understanding your loneliness here.
1. If you are new to a city, think about living with a roommate or roommates. Sometimes just the mere presence of another person can make you feel less alone. Plus, who knows, maybe you will form a new friendship!
2. Join an organization or volunteer. Join a recreational sports team. Chances are that if you get involved in an organization that you care about, you'll meet people who share things in common with you.
3. Get out in public. Frequent your local coffee shop, cafe or music spot and talk to people! Become a regular. Sometimes it can take a while to get comfortable forming connections. This is a great way to see what's going on in your community.
4. Take a class. You'll meet people and learn something new which is never a bad thing.
5. Remember that everybody experiences loneliness from time to time. It's a part of the human condition. Strengthen the relationship with yourself/spend quality time with yourself. You are never alone when you have yourself.
6. Spend time in nature. I feel like this is pretty much a remedy for most things but certainly for loneliness. Something about being still in nature helps us see that there is an entire world outside of our heads, outside of us.
7. Sit with the loneliness rather than avoid it. Remind yourself that it is merely a sensation that is temporary. It will pass. Write about your loneliness to try and understand it.
8. Listen to a guided mediation for coping with loneliness. Meditate on your own or go to a yoga class. Often you will find that your perspective might change and you might feel more open and less afraid after.
9. Have compassion for yourself! Loneliness can feel powerful when we give it power. Remember that you can't always change the situation you are in but you can shift your perspective and perhaps your behaviors. If you notice that you are isolating, challenge yourself to put yourself out there and try something new. Perhaps your lesson is more about inviting the loneliness in and being less afraid of time spent alone. Either way, compassion is key for personal growth and change.