The Art of Reframing Loneliness.
Why we think of loneliness as a taboo and how to start embracing Solitude.
(Originally posted on kayatoastforthesou.com)
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a negative and unwelcomed feeling. It feels like you're being starved of meaningful connections to other human beings. Yet, it only really comes about from a lack of belonging, companionship and closeness to others.
Loneliness can be situational and transient - meaning it comes and goes at specific times. For example, when it's a Friday night and you can't find people to hang out with, you might feel a tinge of loneliness growing in you.
It can also be chronic - a constant hum of emptiness in your life - born out of discontent with your relationships and social life. This comes about from a discrepancy between your desired level of connectedness with others, e.g. having a romantic partner and a close bunch of friends, versus the reality that you don't have any of these relationships in your life.
The question we will explore here is - do you have to feel lonely even if you're always alone?
Loneliness vs. Solitude.
Below are vignettes of two people.
Stephanie lost her husband about two years ago. It took her awhile but she's managed to overcome her grief. Tonight is a quiet Friday night and she's at home all alone. She's sitting in her favourite chair and reading a book about travelling. Some time after reading, she pauses to look at a photograph of the time she and her husband were on a holiday in Australia. She smiles to herself, recalling the fond memory, and continues reading into the night.
On that same night, Jonathan is at home alone too. It was tough week at work and he was looking forward to spending the night out. Yet he doesn't have anyone in his life that he feels comfortable to invite out for dinner or drinks. Instead, he decides to stay home and watch some TV, which is what he's been doing almost every other night. The movie he is watching is about a bunch of friends who organised a bachelor's party and got into a whole series of trouble. Besides the ludicrousness of the show, he wishes he had friends just like them. He has a few beers by himself and goes to bed wishing tomorrow would be better.
Both the above are people alone in the same moment in time. Yet the first, Stephanie, is at peace with Solitude. She finds it soothing and relaxing, giving her the time to read her favourite books and reflect on memories of her husband. During other parts of the day, she does go out and meet friends for coffee. These are friends that genuinely care about her. Still, overall, she is quite happy being alone for most of the time.
The second, Jonathan, is lonely. He is starved of closeness to others and is uncomfortable being alone. He doesn't really have anyone in his life he feels emotionally or physically connected to, and this unmet need is a constant hum of discomfort for him. Despite this, he doesn't actively try and make new friends, whether at work or during leisure. In some ways, he has given up and has acceded to being alone.
Yet here's the thing, there are actually two broad things that Jonathan can learn to do - one is the obvious, to learn how to connect with other people and try out new avenues of meeting people. The second is to learn how to be okay with being alone.
This article focuses on the latter - exploring the art of reframing Loneliness.
The Taboo of being Alone.
Admitting that you're lonely isn't the easiest thing to do. There's a negative social connotation to it - for example, that you're an unpopular person, weird, socially inadept, or even, a loner.
Being labelled a loner makes it feel like you're socially deficient and damaged. There's even a spotlight effect in play - the phenomenon where you believe people are noticing things about you, when really, they aren't paying attention to you at all.
For example, if you went to watch a movie in the theatres alone, you might think that other couples or groups of friends that inadvertently glanced your way might be thinking that you're so weird for going to a cinema on your own.
This perceived taboo is the reason why so many of us prefer to stay home if we don't have people to eat or hang out with. It's also the reason why we try our best to hide away our loneliness - perhaps by pretending to look happy and satisfied on social media, even if we don't feel anything remotely close to being happy.
Yet, a survey conducted by Ipsos found that about a third of Singaporeans feel lonely most of the time. There wasn't any breakdown in demographics available, but yet, statistically that's one in three people you meet.
Loneliness is really much more common than we think.
The strange and paradoxical thing is, if everyone who was feeling lonely was actually okay with speaking up about it - that is, if loneliness was normalised - it'll actually open up more space for connection with others.
"Hey you're lonely? Me too".
More importantly, it'll also open up more space within you to accept your loneliness, and come to be okay with it.
The Art of Reframing Loneliness.
Shame around loneliness comes from different places. It stems from the fear of how people view us, the taboos associated with being alone, and our inner insecurities about being lonely.
In short, loneliness comes about from the fear of being by ourselves.
We have been trained, subconsciously, that something isn't quite right about being on our own.
Yet, since one of every three people you meet are also lonely, it doesn't make you an outlier at all. It's purely the lack of open talk that's hiding this fact, making it seem less common than it really is.
On one hand, we can learn to talk about loneliness more openly. The more comfortable we are doing so, the more we open ourselves up to other people who feel just the way we do.
On the other hand, we can also change the way we talk to ourselves about loneliness. Rather than 'admit' or 'confess' to being alone and seeing it as some form of social failure, we can remind ourselves that loneliness is pretty normal and common too.
It's also got absolutely nothing to do with popularity. A few quality connections is more important and better for us than having thousands of loosely-linked followers on Instagram.
So just like feeling hungry or thirsty, you feel lonely because of your needs for meaningful connections are not met. There is nothing wrong with you, it's about stepping out and meeting people to fill that unmet need.
And while you're doing so, it helps to be okay with lonely now. In fact, being alone is an opportunity - and the truth is, some things are better done alone.
Seeing Solitude as an opportunity.
What if, rather than feeling sad, invisible and empty when you're alone, you felt contented, energised and fulfilled?
Turning feelings of loneliness into the acceptance of your own solitude gives you the chance to feel that way.
Solitude offers many opportunities to work on ourselves - i.e. the quietness away from the chatter, the freedom and independence to do as you please, and the time for you to reflect and learn more about yourself.
While loneliness stems from a fear of being by yourself, the strength of Solitude comes from the comfort of being with yourself.
In that sense, you can learn to transform the time you spend feeling lonely into more empowering states of positive solitude.
Inherent in Solitude is the gift of time that you grant yourself - namely "me-time". So as a start, here are some activities that you can try out to embrace the positive stance of solitude.
Plant the seeds of self-care.
Instead of spending your time alone binge-watching TV or scrolling through social media aimlessly, figure out what truly nourishes you and makes you happy.
You can try out this simple self-care guide:
Prepare two lists. On one list, write down activities that you simply enjoy doing. For example, I enjoy drawing, writing, reading, playing basketball, swimming, running and enjoying time at a café.
On another list, write down things that spark your interest - what are some things that you'd love to learn more about? For me, I enjoy learning about psychology, reading therapy dialogues, taking online courses on Coursera and reading general non-fiction books about science.
Now, pick your top three or four favourites from each list and write them down on a sticky note and paste it somewhere you can see easily. Each day, try and free up some time to at least perform one of those activities.
It's nourishing, and it'll keep you happy.
Get to know yourself better.
Have you actually taken the time to reflect on who you are as a person, and what makes you, you? One very positive way is to find out what your personal strengths are.
Positive Psychology has actually determined that there are twenty-four Signature Strengths that sit across all human beings. It's actually best if we found out what our Top Five Signature Strengths are and focus on them.
You can actually start right now by completing the 96-question assessment in the link below (it's free):
Once you've done that, reflect on how you've used these strengths in your life. Then think about new ways you can start using them.
For example, my top five strengths and how I use them are:
Creativity: drawing psychology comics for my instagram account.
Prudence: thinking about what I say before I say it aloud. To help and not to hurt.
Love of Learning: reading one to two books every single week.
Kindness: engaging in volunteering and random acts of kindness.
Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence: taking walks in nature as my own self-care rituals.
It's a beautiful and easy way to get to know yourself better!
Revisit what matters to you most.
The common thread amongst people who experience loneliness is the yearning to feel connected. The present moment feels empty, like time that's just meant to be passed by until something or someone comes along.
That's such a waste of your precious time don't you think?
Behind the presence of this unmet need sits the value of wanting to connect, love, and be loved by others. Yet, we aren't driven by a single value in life.
Values are a quality of living and being - it's the aspects of our lives we deem to matter the most to us.
For me, my values are my family and friends, but beyond that, my values are also to be kind, to help others, to be challenged, and to be the best and happiest version of myself each day.
There's a well-known positive psychology intervention called the Best Possible Self intervention. You can read more about it here.
It involves visualising yourself when all your needs are met, when all your goals have been achieved and when you are the best possible version of yourself.
Establishing this genuine and ideal quality of your best self creates a blueprint for you to act upon. It helps you set goals to get to that ideal version of yourself. It also helps you reflect if you really need everything that you think you need to be truly happy - such as wealth or even finding the perfect partner in life.
More importantly, it might help you to see, that in some ways, you are already on the road to becoming your best and true self.
With that, instead of feeling like you're simply waiting to stop being lonely, you can come to be more happy with yourself - all while paving a positive version of you that people will be excited to come to know about.
So start being happy with yourself now. Don't simply wait for loneliness to go away on its own!
Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul. This article is based on part of the book "Navigating Loneliness" by Cheryl Rickman. I encourage you to get the book if you want to learn more about embracing solitude. Email me if you have any questions! Take care, Hernping.