Resist the urge to recoil from discomfort in your life and watch the magic happen. Learn how to lean into loneliness and embrace new opportunities to grow.
According to the Center for Disease Control, loneliness has become a major factor in the rise of suicide rates over the last decade among Americans—overwhelmingly men—aged 35-54. Studies also show us that loneliness is the result of broken social ties that once bound us together in institutions like marriage, religion, and work. And as cultural traditions shift away from community and engagement faster than we can respond to the rapid changes they create in the way we live, we can expect to see these trends continue. Even so, despite how dire these statistics may seem, there’s much we can do to help ourselves understand and address loneliness.
We can begin with the basics: acknowledging we are lonely and that it’s complicated.
That’s not to say that everyone, everywhere, right now is despairing. Rather, it’s about calling our attention to the fact that we’ve at least been there and know what it is to experience the hollow ache of being lonesome. And to dispel a couple of widely held beliefs that loneliness is synonymous with being alone or elderly—it’s not. Loneliness can abide as easily in a young heart and in solitude as it can a crowded room, within a big family, a circle of friends, or inside a long-term partnership. In fact, the experience of loneliness can sometimes feel more intense in a group than in isolation.
Whether you’re introverted and relish your alone time or you’re the life of the party and repeatedly seek connection in the company of others, it’s important to remember what you resist persists. Where loneliness is concerned, our resistance to touching it can cause us to respond in ways that sabotage our growth and overall health. Famed analyst and father of depth psychology, Carl Jung, coined the phrase and devoted his life’s work to exploring what drove so much of our unexplained behavior.
On the face of it, loneliness is most often associated with negative feeling qualities like fear, rejection, detachment, hopelessness, and grief—all of which are emotions we’re more inclined to run from and ignore than sit with and befriend. So, how can we learn to embrace loneliness instead of pushing it away?
Leaning into loneliness is a process of discovery that requires us to be gentle with ourselves as we go. It’s a journey that’s as individual as our experience, so there’s no one way to do it. It takes practice, and the good news is there are lots of ways to lean in when we choose to.
You can’t address an issue unless you know there’s one to be dealt with. It’s important to understand that loneliness has many faces and likes to hide in the shadows where we’re not looking for it. We’d do well to work with challenging emotions like loneliness by simply bringing our attention to our feelings without attaching language, judgment, or explanation to them. Just like a picture is worth a thousand words, learning to acknowledge our feelings rather than ignoring them as they arise is priceless.
As a writer and healing arts practitioner, the central focus of my work lies in helping people delve into their stories with an eye toward unleashing power from narratives that no longer serve their lives in productive ways. This process of reframing—or reclaiming—isn’t about denying the truth of what happened in the past; it’s more about allowing room for other truths to surface.
If loneliness was handed to you in a story from your past, look for ways to shed new light on that old script. For example, Ken’s parents told him he’d always be lonely if he pursued his lifelong dream of helping others by becoming a nurse. “No good woman will want you,” they said. “Why wouldn’t you be a doctor?” After experimenting in different career fields for much of his adult life, Ken returned, well into his forties, to his chosen line of work. Despite being dogged by the echoes of his parents’ doubt, he reframed their negativity by neutralizing it with compassion for his parents’ limited ability to express their true belief in the skill and brilliance Ken had always brought to everything he did. Through his repeated practice of reframing the message with forgiveness and compassion, he was able to emerge from the old story of loneliness and experience the surprise of new friendships and rekindled passion.
Because we’re human, there’s no end to the complexity of our feelings. Loneliness can be as fleeting as a cloud patch on an overcast day or as intense as a tsunami. What’s important to remember, though, is both are fleeting and bound to move on in time. But in those moments when we’re being visited by loneliness, we have a unique opportunity to venture into the gift of what’s stirring beneath the surface.
The next time you feel waves of loneliness rolling in, instead of responding in failure, defeat, or anything less than genuine curiosity about your experience, take a moment to feel yourself grounded and safe enough to withstand the fleeting emotion. No matter how scary it might seem. As it approaches, ask it what message it’s bringing to you. As implausible as it may sound, sometimes the willingness to dialogue with our emotions helps create an opening into a deeper understanding of what life is trying to teach us.
My friend Jona likes to say in times of challenge that the universe is always good, no matter what. Depending on where she is, she’ll do her best to throw her head back and fling her arms wide in a gesture of surrender and receptivity. Having witnessed her loving approach to adversity many times, I try to keep her in mind whenever I’m feeling besieged by doubts.
The posture of power and openness goes a long way in our body and mind to help us believe and receive it as truth. Loneliness, when regarded with wide-open eyes, might reveal, for example, that what we really want is to matter deeply in the lives of others. If that approach resonates with you, why not try embracing the feeling and looking for ways to address that need in time? Perhaps volunteering locally or reconnecting with loved ones over the phone, through letters, and random acts of kindness can bridge the distance in no time.
A door closed by loneliness, fear, or doubt can open into new opportunities for us to grow and change, as long as we’re willing to lean into the experience.