by Keith Sonnanburg, Ph.D.
Being alone and feeling lonely are not at all the same. We are alone when no people are nearby. We feel lonely when we experience the sting of separation. Loneliness is our emotional response to a perceived lack of community; when lonely, we feel deprived of togetherness. Some feel desparately lonely when surrounded by dissimilar family members, among indifferent peers, or in a strained marriage. Loneliness does not require being alone and being alone does not guarantee loneliness.
We can be alone for a time and revel in the solitude. Finding ourselves far from the madding crowd, we can reflect without interruption. Free from scrutiny, unfettered by accountability or compromise or committee review, we can hone a skill or choose a direction.
Loneliness is a quite different experience. In loneliness we feel a deep yearning for companionship. Often that yearning is accompanied by a painful sense of unworthiness when we attribute our condition to rejection.
Humans are inherently social creatures. Belonging to groups is a survival skill that has served our species well. Perhaps this accounts for the pain we sometimes feel when isolated from others. The antidote seems obvious enough: establish connections with people. Unfortunately, at times this presents an apparently daunting task. We may be shy, anxious, depressed, ashamed, bitter, entrenched in our own avoidance patterns; consequently we remain lonely, trapped in prisons of our own creation.
There are many paths out of loneliness. Finding ways to cope with the burdens of seclusion is the first milestone. Learning and practicing effective skills of greeting, conversation and friendship are foundational. Then comes the challenge of dismantling the emotional barriers we maintain between ourselves and others. Emotions of self-regard must be transformed from condemnation and unworthiness to nurturing acceptance. To have friends, we must befriend our own selves. For some of us, this can be accomplished only in a therapeutic setting. The therapy relationship is, foremost, a safely controlled social context providing corrective emotional experiences. Understanding, coaching, and encouragement can lead us out of the confines of loneliness.
How then can we leave loneliness? Of course, there are common-sense suggestions: we can develop a hobby, volunteer, join an activity group, embark on a spiritual quest, keep busy, take risks, change how we talk to ourselves, smile more. Each of these suggestions can help, but often they are not sufficient. Social skills and emotional assurance are well-nigh impossible to attain in a social vacuum. Furthermore, we can find ourselves in a sea of people and not be ready to reach out. A change of heart is the place to start. We must discover how to be more self-loving; only then will we have love to share.