By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Over the course of my career as a therapist, I have talked for tens of thousands of hours with people about a wide variety of emotional struggles. Of all the problems presented to me, one of the most deeply painful emotions discussed is loneliness. This is especially true when you consider the deep kind of loneliness that is a sense of feeling essentially different and alone in the world (even among friends). While the garden variety feeling of being lonely and longing for contact is a bit like getting wet on a rainy day, the other kind of loneliness is more like feeling “soaked to the bone.” It can chill your whole being.
People who experience this deeper loneliness often feel unworthy of love. Even if they can’t identify what’s wrong with them, they perceive themselves as flawed in some very basic way and have a sense that they don’t fit in anywhere. If you struggle with this, you can soothe your pain by developing compassionate self-awareness (your ability to relate to your experiences in a compassionate manner). One way to do this is to find a quiet place where you can practice increasing your self-awareness and self-compassion.
Increasing Self-Awareness: Focus on your loneliness through the following STEP process.
Sensations: Pay attention to the sensations in your body. For instance, you might feel a hollowness in your chest or a constriction in your throat.
Thoughts: Observe your thoughts. These might include particular concerns or self-criticisms.
Emotions: Allow yourself to connect with (and label) your loneliness and any other emotions that arise. You might notice that you are sad or feel hurt.
Patterns: If your loneliness is a recurring experience, try to figuratively step back and gain some perspective. Think about when you first began feeling like this; as well as what you do that seems to increase these lonely experiences. With time and practice, this kind of reflection might help you to gain insight about your struggles and what you can do differently. Please note that if you are emotionally overwhelmed by your loneliness, such reflection can be counterproductive. So, you might need to wait until you are a bit less distressed before doing this.
Increasing Self-Compassion: After fully connecting with your loneliness, consider how you would feel toward someone else whose experience is similar to yours. Would you understand why they hurt so much? Would you feel caring? Would you want to ease their pain? If so, apply this compassion to yourself.
Let yourself know that your loneliness is a sign of your humanity. Others feel it, too. So, you are not alone in it. And, instead of your loneliness meaning that there is something wrong with you, it simply means that you are in pain and need comforting.
Nurturing yourself can start a positive cycle out of loneliness. It can ease your loneliness, enabling you to take more risks in reaching out. You are more likely to persist in your efforts such as planning activities with friends, joining a group of people with similar interests (e.g. hiking group), signing up for an interesting class (e.g. gourmet cooking class), or getting a pet. Though setbacks will happen, by continuing to be compassionate to your struggles, you are likely to have the resilience it takes to be persistent enough to finally feel connected to the world around you.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.