I moved across the country a few days ago. A one-way ticket 4,817 miles away from my partner, friends, soccer team, and the city I've lived for more than a decade. Right now, I'm distracted by the excitement, the settling in. But the mild hum of anxiety underneath it all alerts me of what I've been most afraid of since deciding to leave my comfortable life: loneliness.
Loneliness used to terrify me. I think I feared that if I felt lonely, I'd lose my mind and develop an attachment to an inanimate object or something, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. I couldn't sleep alone until I was 12 (hold the "Attachment Issues" remarks). I couldn't spend more than a night away from my partner until I was 27. My understanding of loneliness was conflated with rejection, inadequacy, and worthlessness. It meant failure, and worst of all, it meant I had to be with myself and only myself.
It's not like loneliness has transformed into a totally benign feeling for me, but I am at the point where I can do things like move across the country alone and not have a panic attack (yet!). And although I'm tempted to pack my schedule and text my friends until I develop carpel tunnel to avoid feeling lonely, I know that would just be a recipe for anxiety and shame.
So rather than trying to prevent loneliness, I'm going to try use the techniques and reminders I have for the past few years to cope with the discomfort. Here they are:
1. Every single person on the planet feels lonely sometimes.
Loneliness, like most other feelings, is there to tell us something important. It's there to say, I yearn to connect. I want love and closeness.
Our society tends to pathologize it by portraying lonely people as flawed, weak or not enlightened enough; yet these are unhelpful products of our independence-valuing culture. Loneliness in normal, healthy and universal.
Remember that the family member you see as the most independent, and both counterparts of the couple you perceive to be in the healthiest, happiest relationships, feel lonely at times. They also feel sad, angry, hurt, anxious, and inadequate at times. No matter what you're experiencing, I promise you there are hundreds of thousands of others feeling that same thing at that same time.
2. Actually, everyone is alone.
I remember a therapist once telling me, "The longest relationship you'll ever have in your life is the one with yourself. So why not try to have a better relationship with yourself?" Romantic relationships end, people die, but you're with yourself always.
Hunter S. Thompson said, "We are all alone, born alone, die alone...I do not say lonely — at least, not all the time — but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important." So remember that: you may be alone, but you are also the only person who can fully be on your team.
3. We are all connected after all.
In Buddhist philosophy, there is no self, and no separation between you and me and the air we breathe and the food we eat. OK, I know this might be a tough one to grasp, but hear me further. Think about it: one moment, a plant breathes in carbon dioxide, which becomes part of the plant, which then expels oxygen, which becomes part of the air, which we then inhale, which then becomes a part of our blood. Similarly, one moment lettuce is part of the ground, then we eat a salad and it's part of us, then.... you get the idea.
We're all connected to each other and to the rest of the universe. Perhaps this is too abstract for you to swallow, and that's fine. But don't dismiss it just yet. Observe your environment for yourself and notice how everything is connected. It will make the loneliness less acute.
4. Loneliness will always pass.
Loneliness makes each second feel longer, heavier: it feels like time is frozen and our pain is eternal. But loneliness, just like any other thought, feeling, or sensation, is impermanent. Uncomfortable as it is, remember that it will come and go. Remind yourself of this when as you breathe through the discomfort.
5. I can make space for loneliness and practice being kind to myself.
When I'm feeling lonely, I'm tempted to turn my back to that loneliness — to beat myself up for feeling it, telling myself that I'm pathetic. Then I run away from it, perhaps to Facebook or the fridge or the nearest form of chocolate.
But sometimes, if I can catch myself on autopilot, I can look inward and offer myself a soothing statement. Something like, You're hurting right now. You want to feel something else. It will pass, but remember it's OK to feel lonely and means you're human.
In doing so, we create enough space to do react to and ease the pain of our loneliness in a more serving way, perhaps by listening to music, journalling, practicing yoga or calling a loved one if the loneliness is momentary; or by volunteering, joining a support group or class, or reevaluating the relationships in our life if the loneliness is chronic.
Pema Chodron says, "Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in...When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down." So invite your loneliness in.