Alone versus Lonely

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While exploring in session how loneliness can sometimes drive us to accept relationships that are not in our best interests, I heard a client also speak to how, “when things are good, she really enjoys her alone time.” That felt like a moment of internal and universal wisdom coming through, and I thought it could be useful to others who struggle with loneliness.

What comes to mind for me is how being alone can be very different than being lonely. This is not a new subject of exploration, and I’m sure several books have been written about it. Yet, in my work, I feel it is important to consider the part this difference plays in how we come together (or not), either through genuine love and affection or through attempts to relieve some inner tension or turmoil.

When I think of being alone, I think of the phrase, “I really need my alone time.” Like my client, when we feel good about ourselves and our place in our worlds, spending time with self, alone, can be a productive and regenerative process. Meditation has been shown to grow important neural networks in our brains that help us cope with the difficulties in the world. For introverts, alone time can feel crucial to survival.

When I think of loneliness, I think of the lyric about being “so lonesome, I could cry.” (Or is it “die?” I really don’t know! But that is an interesting mind slip that I might take up in another post.) Solitary confinement is the ultimate punishment in prison. For some, loneliness equals death in that we feel we don’t matter to anyone and we may as well be “dead to the world” when we feel loneliness that abjectly. There is a great deal of power in that state, and it can be devastating.

So, for my purposes, I’m interested in a better understanding of what makes these two experiences of being a solitary person in a certain time and place so different and how that difference plays out in relationships.

I’m not ignoring the idea that one can feel lonely in a crowd. In fact, that experience seems to stem from feeling one’s solitariness instead of connection when in the crowd. And, maybe that’s the first difference. That the experience of loneliness is really about feeling connected or disconnected to others. One can be alone but hold others in one’s heart and not feel loneliness. Conversely, one can be in a group of people and feel so disconnected to the group that it registers as loneliness.

Another possible difference between being alone and loneliness is that “alone time” can feel more like a choice, whereas loneliness can feel imposed upon us. Thus, it can lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that can be so excruciating that we will do whatever it takes to find solace or relief–including staying in hurtful relationships.

At the same time, loneliness may come from isolating oneself, which seems like a choice; however, if the isolation is coming from such a strong sense of shame or unworthiness (of others’ attention and regard), then it can be understandable that isolation still feels put upon us even though we may be “choosing” it as a remedy for the fear of shame or unworthiness. In the same vein, if others feel so unsafe to us because they hurt us or abandon us, then the option of connection versus isolation can feel like a false choice.

So, loneliness can be a frustrating dilemma in that, while we need to feel safe and bonded with others in order to enjoy the fruits of being alone, it can be hard to connect in a way that supports a comfort with “alone time” for many reasons.

The idea in relational counseling is to help those in this dilemma start the process of opening up to truly loving and affirming connections: pulling unspeakable feelings of unworthiness from the darkness of shame into the light of another’s compassionate gaze or touch. In couples counseling, this process is heightened by feeling the healing love of the most important person in our lives in the face of our most fearful ideas of self and others.

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