Let’s try this again. Yesterday’s L is for post was an aberration. No other way to explain it.
Loneliness is such a difficult emotion. When we are feeling lonely, we are probably also experiencing so many other emotions at the same time: depression, anxiety, shame, frustration, for starters. And, behind all of these feelings is probably fear: fear of being judged, fear that we will never find our people, fear of rejection.
With all of these emotions swirling around inside of us and with a perceived lack of support, we often are reluctant to take the steps that are necessary for connection. When we are depressed and anxious our natural inclinations are to curl up further, to retreat more deeply into ourselves. We may even reject overtures of kindness as “pity asks” if we allow ourselves to believe what our emotions are telling us.
Loneliness is particularly difficult because as humans we are wired to be in connection with others, and yet we are also oriented to danger, evolutionarily speaking. We are constantly scanning our environment, looking for danger. This predilection is what kept us alive and kept the gene pool advancing. But this tendency to look for danger resides in our reptilian brain and kicks in without us even knowing, and it keeps us from reaching toward others.
How do we get out of the place of loneliness then? How can we trust that our friends are genuine and not just reaching out to us because they feel sorry for us? I once had a therapist ask me if I really believed that all of my friends were in cahoots to take me on as a “project.” She asked me if I truly believed that they only called and invited me places because they had agreed that no one else would if they didn’t.
The good news is, we don’t only have our reptilian brain, but also our pre-frontal cortex which is where logic and reason reside. Emotions are powerful, but so are our developed brains. I didn’t have to think very long to realize that was a very unlikely scenario. Did I trust my friends, she asked? What did I know about them? Did this strike me as even a remote possibility? Of course not. My friends don’t have time for such projects, nor the inclination to trick someone into feeling loved. The very thought struck me as absurd. And that’s the thing about emotions—they are generally based on a faulty belief, i.e. “I’m lonely because no one likes me.”
When we are confronted with these unpleasant emotions we can develop tools for coping. First, allow yourself to have the feeling. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, emotions come and go. If we can expand our ability to sit with them and to recognize that nothing terrible will happen if we allow ourselves to fully feel our loneliness, we develop resilience. And we learn that we don’t have to be afraid. The feeling might not be as bad as we imagined.
Next, access what you know. List your friends and all of the people in your life that like you. Coworkers, classmates, teachers, family members, book club members, running buddies. Your spouse. Let the names wash over you, feel the love.
Take action. Pick up the phone, send an email, go for a walk and wave at your neighbors (from at least six feet away and wear a mask). Write a letter. Put up reminders around the house that you are loved. Chances are good that your reaching out will touch someone else who might be feeling similarly. If we can remember that we are more alike than different, we will feel more connected. I know that taking action can be difficult, but trust me when I say that not taking action will not alleviate your loneliness. You have to put yourself among your people to find them, and sometimes you have to do it over and over and over again.
We don’t have to be ruled by our emotions, but neither do we need to fear them. Let yourself feel them, get acquainted, and then take charge. I’ll write more about learning how to recognize emotions and how to work with them in my next blog, M is for Mindfulness, so stay tuned. And for anyone who read my initial and awful L is for post, my most sincere apologies. I let my emotions run away with me.