“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” ~Lau Tzu
With social distancing measures in place in response to the new coronavirus, many of us have a lot more time on our hands, while also being isolated.
This may also mean you’re feeling loneliness more intensely than you’ve experienced it before.
This is a good thing! Challenges can help us to understand ourselves on a much deeper level than we would have if we weren’t challenged—precisely because our feelings are more intense.
Loneliness is not new. It was around long before COVID-19, and it will be here long after this phase of isolation passes. So, whether you’re used to feeling lonely, or if it’s something new for you, this is an opportunity to connect to your heart and grow. But first you need to understand the true source of your loneliness.
Alone vs. Lonely
Some of us can be on our own and feel very comfortable and peaceful, while others will feel lonely when they’re by themselves. Then there are people who feel alone and lonely even when they’re with friends or surrounded by people.
There’s a big difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
Being alone is simply being on your own.
Feeling lonely is your experience, which can happen regardless of whether you’re on your own or not.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a feeling we experience when we get caught up in judgments and insecurities about ourselves or our relationships.
You might feel lonely because you feel like you have no one to talk to, or no one understands you, because you feel different to everyone else. I resonate with that!
You might feel lonely because you deeply desire to connect with other people, even if just through Skype or Zoom, but maybe it feels emotionally unsafe to do so. You’ve seen how people can treat each other, or you’ve been hurt before, so now you’re not sure if you can trust people. I’ve been there!
Maybe you want to have deep and meaningful conversations with people, but all you get is shallow everyday chit chat. Yes, that gets tiring very fast! You’re trying to connect with someone, but you feel alone because there’s no depth of connection.
I’ve often wished people would either speak from their heart or just enjoy the silence.
Maybe you’re very sensitive to other people’s energy (which is a superpower, just FYI), but the only way you currently know how to manage it and feel safe is to be on your own, even though you crave connection.
Or maybe you feel left out because the people around you all like the same things, but you don’t.
Sports, Connection, and Fitting In
From my mid-teens through to mid-twenties, when many of my friends and the people I knew were starting to drink, smoke, and party, I really did feel alone.
I loved playing sports. The one that excited me the most was ice hockey. Growing up in Australia it definitely wasn’t one of our most popular sports, but I loved it! The speed, dynamism, intensity, and flow really brought something out of me. Now that I live in Canada, it’s everywhere.
This competitive team sport brought a sense of connection that also touched my heart. The feeling of relying on each other during a game made me feel much bigger than myself. Being connected on a deeper level, knowing how everyone would move or where they’d be on the ice without having to think about it, made me feel so alive and connected.
I have very fond memories of playing and training with my teammates—the intensity of emotion during a game and then the ability to let it go afterward.
But for me there was a split. I felt this sense of connection during a match or training, but then there was a loneliness that came after. Because I didn’t care for any of the usual post-game celebrations of drinking and going out to bars or clubs. I much preferred to come home after a game and relax and watch a movie.
Knowing they were all out after a game sometimes made me feel lonely. I tried doing the drinking thing a handful of times in an attempt to fit in, but it never stuck. I just didn’t like it! So I didn’t do it.
I’d sometimes go out with friends and just drink water while they drank alcohol. But this wasn’t much better, because I didn’t like what it did to people, and I didn’t like being around the energy of drinking.
So even when I did go out, I still felt alone because I just couldn’t connect on this level.
What I really wanted after a match was my quiet time.
I was still in my early twenties when I accepted that I just preferred time on my own, but it didn’t stop that feeling of occasional loneliness.
The interesting thing about feeling lonely is that you’re not alone in feeling it. Even though it might feel like that for you, it’s a common experience that touches most people’s life at some point.
Loneliness and Disconnection
When we experience loneliness, it’s only possible because of an underlying feeling of disconnection. We often associate loneliness with being disconnected from other people, which is true, but to understand loneliness, we need to realize that it all starts with how disconnected we are from ourselves.
When I’d come home after a hockey game while my teammates went out drinking, I’d feel lonely because some part of me wanted to maintain that feeling of connection with them. Part of me wanted to be able to do what they wanted to do (go out and drink), but at the same time part of me had no desire to do it.
As long as I judged myself for not going out with them, I’d feel lonely. I wasn’t accepting myself, which created a feeling of disconnection inside me.
But as I came to accept that I was different, and I liked time on my own and a quiet night at home, the feeling of loneliness started to fade away. This self-acceptance got me out of my head and back into my heart, where I could feel a peacefulness start to emerge as I simply enjoyed my quiet night stretching or watching a movie without any self-judgment.
Being quietly present with myself, enjoying what I enjoyed, brought a feeling of connectedness inside me—the thing I thought I’d get by going out with my teammates after a game.
This wasn’t one incredible moment of realization after which I never felt lonely again. It was a gradual process. There were times when I’d come home while my friends went out, where I’d still feel that familiar loneliness return.
But I’d gained an understanding of why I felt lonely—a disconnection from myself through a lack of self-acceptance. In times when the feeling of loneliness would return, if I’d come back to being present with myself the loneliness would again fade… like a muscle that needed to be strengthened.
When I reflect on this time in my life, I always find it fascinating to realize that my friends never judged me for not wanting to go out. I was always welcome to join them. They’d accepted me for who I was. It was only me who didn’t accept me, and that was a source of disconnection and loneliness.
This doesn’t mean I became a hermit with no human interaction. Yes, I can feel very at peace on my own, but I also love connecting with people. You just won’t find me doing it in an environment where people are getting drunk.
I love having deep conversations. I love connecting and getting to know people. If I’m talking to you, I want to know who you are. I have a never-ending curiosity to understand what makes people who they are, and a sensitivity to feel others’ pain.
When we experience loneliness, there’s a wanting to feel connected and connect with others, but the disconnection inside us creates a closing in our heart, and we get caught ruminating about the thing we don’t have (connection).
The thoughts will fuel more emotional reaction and disconnection, which then create even more thoughts—a vicious cycle that can go on and on continually feeding itself.
And then when we encounter other people and have an opportunity to connect, we might not even be able to be present with them because we’re still caught up in our heads, judging ourselves and our experiences.
When we feel more present and accepting of ourselves, we can also feel a wanting to connect with others, but now there’s an openness in our heart.
Our heart is the part of us that feels connection. Connection to our self—the essence of who we truly are, beyond the dramas and stories that fill our mind—and connection to other people, animals, nature, and creation.
When we’re present and connected to our heart, we might be peacefully content on our own, or we may be inspired to go and connect with people. We don’t have to feel lonely to want to connect with people. The goal is to allow choices like these to flow from our heart.
If you’ve been through challenging or traumatic life situations that have left you feeling broken, ashamed, or otherwise disconnected from yourself, it’s possible you have a harder time connecting to your heart. That’s okay.
It’s also possible you have a hard time connecting with other people, perhaps because you’ve never felt a sense of belonging, and you live in a constant state of judgment and insecurity. That’s okay too.
If you start by creating a connection to yourself, it will be much easier to connect with others, and in the times when you’re on your own you won’t feel that same overwhelming sense of loneliness.
What can you do to connect with yourself when you’re feeling lonely?
Meditation teaches us how to find a space of quiet inside our self. A simple stillness and acceptance.
We don’t realize the heavy burden and the impact of our thoughts and self-judgments until we have a moment of inner quiet. In the quiet we can comprehend the burden we carried because by contrast it’s not there.
Over the years of teaching meditation, one of the words I’ve noticed that people often express when they start a consistent practice of meditation is “relief.” A relief from the burden they didn’t realize they were carrying.
The quiet relief brings an opening in the heart and a feeling of connection. But remember, it does take practice (like learning any other skill).
I’ve always preferred very slow and mindful holding of postures. It allows us to bring our awareness into our body through being present to our physical sensations. Remember, loneliness is a feeling with its own sensations.
Often when we experience intense emotions we disconnect from our body, because we become caught in our thoughts (fueled by the emotions), which amplifies everything. Reconnecting to our body helps us to anchor ourselves into feeling—and it’s the feeling that will help slow the thinking (and overthinking).
Connecting our body through feeling (not thinking about it or judging it) helps shift us to a place of acceptance.
Follow the feeling
Take time to just sit quietly and be present with your loneliness. No judgment. Just feeling it.
If your mind wanders into thoughts, stories, emotional reactions, or dramas, just acknowledge that and bring your awareness back to the feeling of loneliness. This is where the practice of meditation is so valuable, because it teaches you the skill of how to simply be present.
If you can allow yourself to consciously feel and be present with the feeling of loneliness (not wallow in it), you’ll learn more about the source of your loneliness. It may not always be comfortable, but it’s about being present and accepting of what is actually there for you.
With all that you do, approach it with an attitude of non-judgmental curiosity. This helps ensure you won’t be too serious or hard on yourself. Curiosity makes things more enjoyable.
And remember, you’re not alone!
There are other’s just like you (well, not exactly like you, you’re unique!), who have these same thoughts and feelings and who are experiencing loneliness as a result.
As you come to understand more about your own experience of loneliness, you’ll discover you understand more about others. Loneliness is inherent to the human experience and the world needs more people who understand.
Understanding is what brings us together. Understanding is a form of connection.