A few years ago I mentioned that when I was young and single I found that when the weather got warmer and the days got longer, I’d feel an almost physical pain. It was like a longing for something I could not name. After that post, I had at least one blog comment and several long emails telling me that others have that same experience. What is that painful feeling? That pain is loneliness.
I felt that pain again a couple of weeks ago. It was an unseasonably warm day, so I decided to take a really long walk around my community. Everyone was outside, either playing with kids or just talking to friends in their yards. Everyone was happily occupied with other people. I felt like the only person in the world who didn’t have someone to talk to, someone to plan the rest of the day with. In fact, walking among the busy families and happy couples, I almost started to believe (just allowing myself to wallow and be crazy for a minute) that I was actually invisible. I was like the poor guy who gets shown around by the Ghost of Christmas Past. I was seeing a world where I didn’t exist, and nothing I could do would help me to enter into that world. Of course, after I walked a bit more and exerted myself to get over a huge hill to get back to my own neighborhood, I felt better. I realized that I have my own friends and family. Did I want to call one now to get together? No! But just realizing I had the choice helped me to get back to my happy mood.
At different times in our lives, we may find ourselves lonely for different reasons. Maybe we have just moved to a new area where there are no familiar faces, or maybe we have suffered a breakup or other loss of an important relationship. If we’re a little older, maybe our last child growing up and leaving home triggers a painful feeling of being lonely. Other times it can be a seemingly simple event that sets off that painful reaction.
Take my coworker Steph for example. Steph is a 45 year old healthy independent woman who is one of the most introverted people I know. She has a partner, Josh, and she has a best friend, Kim, and she’s quite happy most of the time just doing her own thing after work and even most of the weekend. She usually sees Josh several evenings a week, and then every few weeks she and Kim get together for a movie or dinner. Kim is an introvert too, so the two women may text each other once in a while but really don’t see each other very much. Steph is happy to have Josh and Kim in her life, but she has a lot of solitary activities she loves to do too, from sculpting to reading to talking long walks with her dog.
Yesterday the weather was warm and beautiful, so Steph decided to grab her dog and go for a long walk to the park to throw the Frisbee for him. She was happy enough, and just wanted to get the most out of the fleeting weekend before the work week arrived. But then she received a text from Kim. “Hey – did Josh tell you we saw him at the sidewalk art show?”
Suddenly Steph’s spirits plummeted. Kim was probably at the show with her family, but why hadn’t Josh asked her to come along with him? She felt totally abandoned by both of her close connections. She realized she had always felt secure and happy having just two people in her life, but now she felt so alone. She had an irrational thought that neither of them really cared about her or wanted her around as much as she had always thought they did. Although she knew she was being “crazy,” she felt depression creeping in to ruin her afternoon.
Of course her friends just happened to be out for an afternoon and it meant nothing negative at all, but sometimes something as trivial as that can take us down. Our wonderful sister who was the only person who really understood us says something sharp to us, making us feel that we’re alone after all. Or maybe it’s a holiday weekend and all of our close ties are actually out of town, so all we see are people we hardly know, rushing to have their own gatherings and celebrations. We start to feel as if we could be isolated for an infinite amount of time and no one would care.
It may come as a surprise to extroverts that introverts can get lonely, of course. After all, aren’t we the ones who walk the long way around in order to avoid the crowd? In fact, some of us introverts may be even more lonely than other people, because for us not just any person or group will do. We want to be with real connections, people who really get us. We may know dozens of people from school, work, or other previous situations and yet not want to socialize with any of them no matter how lonely we feel. Although it’s very unpleasant, I think that loneliness is a necessary pain nature provides to keep us from getting too isolated. Otherwise we might get so wrapped up in our own thoughts and hobbies that we neglect our friends and loved ones too much. The hours just fly when we’re happily doing our solitary pursuits.
I’m still trying to analyze and work on this area of life. Some possible solutions or goals for introverts might be:
Try to meet and develop at one new real friend. Of course this will be a process that takes time. Introverts want genuine friends, quality relationships.
Meanwhile, try to identify when we’re really lonely or when we are just reacting to social custom or the people around us. If movies were something that everyone went to alone, we wouldn’t feel bad about doing so ourselves. It’s that feeling of, “What’s wrong with me? Am I really all alone in the world?” that feels so bad sometimes if it strikes. So – if it’s just the “should” in the world rearing its ugly head, tell it to shut up we can enjoy the movie.
Make the effort, even when we’d rather get lost in our own worlds, to get out once in a while and maintain the relationships with people we really like. Sometimes that will mean doing something when we don’t want to, like cleaning the house to have someone over when we’d rather be reading a great book.
What else? What do you do when you feel lonely?
Photo credit: Waheed Akhtar