When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
I haven’t quite figured out loneliness, maybe its because I am an engineering student whose skills lie in deciphering why materials act the way they do- as opposed to why humans feel the way they do. In saying that it is something that no one is exempt from it. In the past few weeks this subject has come up twice with two different friends and 2011 was probably the loneliest and worst year for me. So it only makes sense to explore this feeling we all feel at some stage of our lives, not to necessarily make sense of it or to understand it, but to explore it.
The most widely accepted definition of loneliness is the distress that one feels due to discrepancies between their ideal and perceived social relationships. An axiom in the study of human behaviour is that we are highly social creatures that need to develop social connections in order to maintain a balanced lifestyle. Maybe it is this gap between these idealistic expectations and what our social life actually is. These may have been created due to societal pressures demanding us to be socialites when some of us lack the personality traits needed to be a social butterfly. While some of us are introverts by nature and thus embrace the solitude, some of us cannot – resulting in isolation and this feeling of being disconnected, whether it’s for temporary periods or permanent.
Even though I have and had that one person I can talk to anytime of the day without feeling like I’m intruding- I used to still get lonely (it has now stopped). During a conversation with a friend the topic of loneliness somehow arose, where she told me about a paper her friend had written in Spanish on it. Once translated, it doesn’t sound very fluid but the crux of it was that loneliness is a state of mind, you don’t have to be alone to be lonely. The more I thought about this, the more I realised how much I related to it. A lot of us have this idea in our heads that if we our keeping occupied we won’t feel that emptiness in our hearts. But, the truth of the matter is that by ignoring it all you’re doing is burying it in the back of your minds, and like everything else you have shoved back there – it will explode, it comes back stronger, emptier. It’s either that or you will still feel isolated even when amongst all your friends.
I think this is also another reason we cling on to the wrong person – the fear of being lonely. If we keep ourselves occupied with the person we are with, we won’t ever have to face the feeling of lonely, or when it starts to creep in all you have to do is flick that person a text and forget about it. This really isn’t the best way to go about it because you’re just taking pain killers and not fixing the wound. One of the million reasons why relationships become dull and people reach a state of acceptance is because of the fear of being alone in this big bad world, the fear of change. What we need to realise is, the feeling of loneliness will still happen whether or not you’re alone.
It gets confusing here. We don’t have to be alone to be lonely but as an article by The University of Chicago mentions the very definition of loneliness is distress that one feels due to discrepancies between their ideal and perceived social relationships’. What!?!?
Okay, if you’re just as confused as I am – let us try and make sense of it. You don’t have to be alone to be lonely – correct, but you can be alone and lonely? And maybe the definition mentioned in the article is relating to the most common cause of loneliness. That perhaps people who have unmet social needs are unhappy even when they’re in social situations.
There are many conceptualizations of loneliness, a lot of which I haven’t touched upon – genetic disposition, unfortunate tragedies, relocating etc. But, I think the reason for loneliness is all to do with the mind. If you want to get out of this trap of loneliness you have to confront opportunities head on, you have to create the mindset of wanting to get out of it!
I have been fortunate enough to never have faced depression, anxiety or any other feelings very common in today’s culture. However, I used to get lonely from time to time. I will be happy bathing in the sun at the beach with friends but when I get home, start to think about random things a tinge of loneliness will reside within me and grow sharper and sharper. Or Ill be at party and still have this cloud of loneliness over me. And it was because I wasn’t satisfied with my life (social, academic etc). I wasn’t grasping life by the lapels. My thought process was all wrong. This time last year I was probably the loneliest person out of my group of friends, but none of them would know. Vulnerability isn’t my forte. All I had to change was my way of thinking to get myself out of this hole I had dug for myself.
Instead of focusing on why my life is the way it had turned out and comparing it to these unreliastic fairytale expectations I had created for myself when I was 12, I acknowledged what I had accomplished (which still was a lot) and started to think positively. Changing my mindset is all ever anyone needs! All I ever needed. Once, I started grabbing opportunities – I was busier, I had more events, I had a purpose and even though they were all little things – they changed my life immensely. I went from a C+, B- student to now a A, A- student. Not only did I benefit academically but now I don’t have those periods of loneliness I used to get and what’s more – I love alone time! I did all this by changing the way I thought about things.
So try it, like Liz in Eat Pray Love said, we need to learn our way around loneliness. What did Liz do to get out of this trap? She explored the world, cultures, religion. She learnt her way around it and she came out a happier person!