I’m going to tell you something that I feel ashamed to admit: I often feel lonely.
As an introvert and highly sensitive empath, I like spending time alone, so why do I feel lonely? I should be good at it, shouldn’t I?
Making friends has always been difficult for me. Starting in kindergarten, where we were a group of three that were thick as thieves (and often as mischievous), I mostly spent my time with my two closest friends.
But we broke up as one of us went to a school in a different area. Then we two that remained broke up in the third grade when my extrovert BFF found a friend that was more her speed and they turned their united front on me to bully me for my “weird” introverted ways.
Making friends after that didn’t get any easier
Moving to a different city on another continent with a highly patriarchal culture and getting married wasn’t that big of a deal for me. I had few ties at home and was hungry to see the world – I’d been trying to go study abroad for years before I finally moved.
Over the years, I’ve met many great and wonderful people, but I haven’t found the kind of tight-knit group with which to have reading circles, road trips and baking parties. The kind of people that have similar (or better) taste in home decor, who get excited about exactly the same things I do and who’ll always be ready to hang out.
And I’m not the only one: feeling lonely isn’t a marginal phenomenon. Research has shown that young people are even lonelier than 70-year-olds.
The reasons for loneliness in old age are well documented; family members not visiting, old friends that are infirm or have passed away, and the kind of decline in personal health that takes a toll on your social life.
Talking about loneliness in younger generations can be challenging without sounding like a party-pooper.
Because how can a person who’s fully functional, who has work and/or school, feel lonely? Just go out and talk to people!
If only it were that easy.
I often feel like I’m the only one struggling with a feeling of loneliness, but statistics say otherwise. Research shows that experiencing loneliness in your 20s is near the top of the major challenges for both millennials and GenZers.
Young people are feeling an increasing sense of isolation as they lack the intimacy of in-person human interaction. We can partly thank constant connectivity for that, though it isn’t the whole story and the reasons for loneliness are myriad.
Research also shows that loneliness is a considerable health-risk because it makes your body produce more stress hormones, keeping you in a constant state of fight-or-flight without respite.
Continually feeling lonely also lays you open to serious psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation.
Yet loneliness is something we don’t really talk about
I think one of the big reasons why we don’t talk about feeling lonely, is that it’s often connected with a feeling of shame. Feeling lonely can make you feel like you’ve failed.
When you’re young, you’re supposed to be in that care-free part of your life, where your main focus is on hanging out with your friends and enjoying yourself. Spending the weekend on your couch while scrolling your friends’ brunches and backyard Olympics on Instagram does nothing for your self-esteem.
At one point, I decided to just try and join a lot of different hobbies and plucked up my courage to approach people even when it felt nerve-wracking. Eventually, I thought that I’d somehow messed up or like I just wasn’t a fun person to hang out with when I still couldn’t find any friends.
And just the thought of going around telling people, “I feel lonely” was too embarrassing to even contemplate. I used to think that I couldn’t really claim loneliness unless I was a complete hermit.
But, as I looked it up and learned more about loneliness, and talked to others about their feelings of loneliness, I realised that the feeling of shame I had about it wasn’t necessary at all.
Because everyone experiences loneliness differently
And different people experience it in different contexts and at different times for different reasons. The best, and only, measure is your own experience of it.
Sociologist Robert Weiss defined loneliness as two distinct types: emotional isolation and social isolation.
A feeling of emotional isolation indicates that you lack permanent and meaningful interpersonal relationships in your life. Experiencing social isolation means that you don’t have a social network of friends.
This definition helped me to better understand my own loneliness. And I understood that, in my case, it’s mostly a question of social isolation.
As I said before, I like spending a lot of time by myself, in my own company – and, indeed, I’m a solopreneur so I mostly work alone – but this doesn’t mean I don’t miss having some friends to switch it up with.
Normally, I find a lot of solace in the companionship of animals, but at the moment I don’t even have that.
A common misconception about introverts and empaths is that we’re anti-social
The truth is that we really love people and hanging out but get tired in social settings really easily. The more people there are, the faster we get overwhelmed and tired.
It’s also good to remember that for a relationship to form, there have to be a lot of moving parts that click together at the right time. It’s eased my own conscience to understand that, no matter how much you put yourself out there and are friendly to others, friendships don’t always form.
Sometimes you just can’t find your kind of people in a community. Other times the other person’s life situation just isn’t open to new relationships. You can end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time when things simply don’t align.
There’s no such thing as soulmates
As anti-romantic as it sounds, I don’t believe in soulmates. Not in love and not in friendships, because admitting that usually means glossing over your own responsibility in any given relationship.
Having been married for 14 years now, to a guy who I met online, I’ve heard my fair share of “it was meant to be” comments. The truth is, that breaking up would have been the easy choice. The entire first year, we fought like ferocious badgers.
What’s gotten us this far, is doing the work. The inner work with our own triggers and making sure that we grow emotionally. And the outer work, which flows naturally from the inner work, where we ensure that our relationship is a big enough container for both of us to grow.
If we would have relied simply on the premise of being soulmates, we would have assumed that the other one was a mind reader (and therefore willfully inconsiderate), and our relationship would have ended long ago.
Feeling lonely is painful but, oh so, human. Feeling bad about it just makes it worse.
So, how can you tackle that feeling when it shows up?
How to personify your feelings
Personifying your feelings will give you something tangible to observe, describe and put your creative energy in.
Personifying your feeling of loneliness will allow you to give that feeling the space and recognition it’s demanding – because all feelings are data, telling you something that you really need to know.
Begin to imagine what kind of persona your feeling would be.
My loneliness has manifested itself as a cat. A slighted, offended cat.
She’s got long, fluffy fur and she’ll often sit with her back to me at the opposite end of the room, making a point by not looking directly at me with her green eyes.
She isn’t swishing her long tail, like dissatisfied cats usually do, because she refuses to give me even that bit of communication. She’s feeling neglected and ignored and isn’t going to give me a single thing until I give her what she’s due.
She’ll mournfully and pointedly glance in my general direction until I acknowledge her presence. Once I decide to acknowledge that she’s there, that I feel lonely, she’ll usually scurry over to me and comfortingly curl up next to me, behind me on the chair, or in the crook of my arm in a fluffy ball.
And thus, I’ve been able to befriend my feeling of loneliness. Because whenever I see my cat of loneliness, I know that it’s time to acknowledge that feeling, embrace it and welcome it.
Only by doing that can I allow it to fully express itself, and to pass through me, leaving in its wake a sense of contentment and calm. Because it allows me to step back and examine it and the reasons for it without being caught up in that crushing feeling of isolation.
What does your loneliness look like? Is it male or female? Something else? What does it look like? How does it behave?
If you’re having trouble doing this just as a visualisation exercise, or simply want to hold the space more firmly for that feeling, write it down. Write an elaborate description of that character and why they are the way they are.
Write out that feeling like a character in a novel and see if it makes any difference to how you feel. And let me know how it goes!