According to Cigna’s U.S. Loneliness Index, nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feel alone. A quarter of Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people that understand them, and a fifth report they rarely or never feel close to people. The report says that finding a balance of work, exercise, sleep, and family time are key to lowering loneliness. While I think those things can certainly help, I regard the problem of loneliness to go much deeper. The last six months I have decided to tackle the discomfort of loneliness differently than I have in the past. Instead of temporarily filling it with the usual suspects, I am trying to experience in its raw form and ask what it is telling me.
Loneliness in relationships
What I found most interesting about the report is that being in a relationship doesn’t protect you from loneliness. According to the responses, Americans who live with others are only slightly less lonely – their loneliness scores were approximately three points lower — than those who live alone. If the rest of Americans are like me, I suspect the problem exists in the expectation of people to complete them in ways that are impossible.
In her classic Gift From the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh compares a romantic relationship to a double-sunrise shell: two halves matched perfectly in symmetry and color, joined at the center. They face each other, an intense meeting of two parts. Yet each shell maintains its own identity. Their separateness is what allows the relationship to thrive. Without two cores, the relationship can’t grow and evolve. It’s held to a single form, which becomes confining and fosters loneliness.
Living with the “not yet”
Sometimes we can only know how much of ourselves we were investing into a relationship once it ends. While the grieving process is bitterly painful, it’s an opportunity for us to begin to ask the hard questions: Where is my self-worth coming from? What did this person give me that I think I need? By probing into the loneliness, we begin to construct our own shell so that we are less vulnerable to the assessments of others and less hurt by their limitations.
The task of building a stronger sense of self is a warrior’s exercise. It entails rolling over the rocks of trauma and probing into pockets of pain we didn’t know were stored in our cells. While the end result is a beautifully independent shell, the journey there consists of days and weeks and months trekking down the muddied path of the unknowing or, as late theologian Henri Nouwen described it, the “not yet.” In his book, The Inner Voice of Love,” he offers advice to those who are transitioning from insecurity and codependency to self-assuredness and self-love:
As long as your vulnerable self does not feel welcomed by you, it keeps so distant it cannot show you its true beauty and wisdom. Thus you survive without really living.
Try to keep your small, fearful self close to you. This is going to be a struggle, because you have to live for a while with the “not yet.” Your deepest, truest self is not yet home. It quickly gets scared. Since your intimate self does not feel safe with you, it continues to look for others, especially those who offer it some real, though temporary, consolation. But when you become more childlike, it will no longer feel the need to dwell elsewhere. It will begin to look to you as home.
Be patient. When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness. Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off. Let it teach you its wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving. Gradually you will become one.
Getting access to the still center
As Nouwen explained, asking ourselves what our loneliness is telling us and identifying our needs require sitting with difficult emotions. According to psychiatrist Mark Epstein, author Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, there is no other way. He writes, “Only [by sitting with our emotions] can we have access to the still, silent center of our own awareness that has been hiding, unbeknownst to our caretaker selves, behind our own embarrassment and shame. When we tap in to this secret storehouse, we begin to appreciate the two-faced nature of emptiness – it fills us with dissatisfaction as it opens us to our own mystery.”
A hard lesson I’ve learned is that relief isn’t found outside of ourselves. There is no perfect relative, job, or friend that can rescue us from the inner work that needs to be done. Our strategies to fix and patch will only lead to more disappointment. We must “touch the ground of our own emptiness,” as Epstein says, to feel whole again.
The danger of clinging
According to the Buddhist tradition, much of our suffering is born in clinging to relationships and material items in our lives, attaching ourselves to their permanent status. If we can get comfortable with the idea that everything in life is transient, we free ourselves to experience people, places, and things more fully and spare ourselves the pain associated with attachment.
According to Epstein, intimacy puts us in touch with fragility and the acceptance of fragility opens us to intimacy. To love means to appreciate the fleetingness of a relationship, to be able to embrace impermanence. Per Epstein, “When we take loved objects into our egos with the hope or expectation of having them forever, we are deluding ourselves and postponing an inevitable grief. The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love.”
Loneliness is surely on the rise. That’s apparent in statistics. While I think adequate sleep, regular exercise, time with family, and the right amount of work can contribute to more meaningful relationships and reduce loneliness, I maintain that the gnawing feeling of “I’m alone” is a summons to dig deeper and embrace your needs in ways that you never have. It is an invitation to build a beautifully independent shell.