“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
— Albert Schweitzer, French philosopher and physician
Motivational speaker and best-selling author Steve Goodier has told the story of an older lady sitting alone on a park bench outside a seniors complex when a man about her age walked over and sat down next to her.
“Are you a new resident here?” she asked.
“New to the home,” replied the man. “But I’ve lived in this town before.”
“I’ve lived here for years,” said the woman. “I don’t recall seeing you.”
“That’s because I’ve been in prison for the past 20 years.”
“My goodness,” replied the woman. “What did you do?”
“I was convicted of killing my wife,” he confessed.
“Oh, I see,” the startled woman exclaimed.
“For what it’s worth, I didn’t do it.”
Silence hung between the couple. Both watched the pigeons bobbing up and down on the sidewalk looking for handouts. After a couple minutes, the women ventured a question.
“So,” she hesitated, “you’re single then?”
We all feel lonely at times and we’ve all looked for way to appease that loneliness — to release ourselves from its grip. And we all know how loneliness feels: a deep emptiness and longing that seems to emanate from deep within and colours everything we experience.
Loneliness comes in many forms and varying degrees. We may simply have a vague feeling that something is missing, or feel a deep and profound sense of deprivation. There’s the type of loneliness we feel if far removed (geographically) from those we love, or the agonizing type of loneliness we experience when someone we care deeply about has died. We might also feel emotionally isolated from people when we have difficulty relating to or connecting with them.
Let me say that loneliness and being alone are not the same. Each of us seeks solitude at times when we choose purposefully to be alone. I enjoy being alone, especially when I’m writing. For me, it’s a time to deeply ponder my views and form (I hope) well-considered opinions. When I feel lonely, I usually feel alone, apart and sad. Again, all of us feel lonely at times. That’s completely natural. It’s when we feel trapped by our loneliness that it becomes an issue.
Low self-esteem can have a dramatic effect on our feeling of loneliness. If we don’t feel worthy, we probably don’t feel we have much to share — nothing of value to bring to the table. This can make it tough to build new relationships or maintain existing ones. Retreating into ourselves might seem to be a better option than embarrassing ourselves or feeling worthless.
For many people, loneliness is a passive state.
These people do little about their loneliness beyond hoping that it will eventually — like winter — go away on its own. Sometimes loneliness will lift naturally, but when it doesn’t, we need to own this state-of-being and take action.
Here are three reasons why passively enduring loneliness is seldom a good idea:
— If you’re already feeling unworthy, non-participating is only going to make things worse.
—When you’re feeling down and out, your internal communication is likely to be negative.
— When you retreat from the world, it’s easy to get stuck in a repetitive cycle of fear and rejection. Fear creates anxiety which further erodes self-esteem.
If you want to break out of a state of loneliness, here are a few things you can do:
— Admit you’re lonely. As with most things in life we wish to change, acceptance is the first step. Write about it in a journal. This is a favourite of mine. When you write about it, you may discover your feelings of loneliness are also connected to feelings of sadness, anger, frustration or betrayal.
— Never discount the role pride can play in loneliness. Is there an unresolved issue that you’ve been avoiding? An unfulfilled or unavowed expectation? An unspoken apology? As you begin to see the connections you’ll begin to see ways to move through the maze.
— Reach out to others. If you’re missing family members or friends who live a great distance away, call them on the phone, write them a letter, compose an email or Skype using a webcam. If they’re within driving distance, plan a weekend road trip. If you’re missing someone who has died, try speaking to an understanding friend. If the friend knew the individual who died, you can express your grief and share your memories. Find things to smile and laugh about.
— Notice self-defeating thoughts. This suggestion ties directly to self-esteem and awareness. You may be unconsciously feeding your loneliness by indulging in negative thoughts and self-talk. What is it that you’re saying to yourself? What is it that you’ve chosen to believe as true about yourself and the current situation? The better your self-esteem, the more able you’ll be to do some serious self-assessment and more willing to own the causes and outcomes.
I appreciate this observation, also from Goodier, who writes, “Have you noticed that in English the word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’? In order to listen deeply, we must be silent — alone. And in our quiet aloneness, we can hear what can be heard no other way.”
I remember reading once that loneliness gives us time to listen to who we are. Perhaps, during time of loneliness, we are best able to reflect on what’s important to us, ponder what’s missing in our life and discern what beliefs or expectations have gone unfulfilled.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.