When was the last time you were lonely?
Maybe it was last weekend. Maybe it was yesterday morning. Maybe you are lonely right now.
How long did the lonely last? Hours, days, weeks, months?
How did you know you were lonely? What emotions, feelings, reactions triggered along with lonely? Did you become anxious? Was there a knot in your stomach? Did you feel inadequate? Did you cry?
When was the last time you were lonely … and decided to stay present in the lonely?
Stay present in the lonely. Feel your emotions. Feel your thoughts. Maybe cry. Maybe reflect. Maybe just be alone with yourself.
Choosing to stay in the lonely is difficult. Not just because of what it might stir in us. But because it is actually difficult in this world we live. We have so many distractions surrounding us at every moment, not to mention plenty of opportunity to choose distraction. Being lonely, or even being alone, is unlikely.
When you feel loneliness creeping in, what is the first thing you do? Do you pick up your phone and aimlessly scroll Instagram, wishing your selfie looked that good (don’t worry, she took it 18 times to get it right) or that you could post a photo of you and your family enjoying the day together (I promise, they fought for 20 minutes trying to organize that picture)? Do you turn on some music or drown out the quiet in a podcast? Do you flip on the TV for some mind numbing entertainment, or open a book to take you to an alternate reality? Do you call someone? Do you return to your inbox and answer a few more emails? Do you text 10 people with the hope that at least one will engage in conversation? Do you hit the local pub and strike up conversation with the (other lonely) person in the next stool? Do you go shopping or eat a pint of your favorite Ben & Jerry’s?
I often wonder if we feel lonely now more than ever because of the sheer amount of interruptions around us. (Squirrel?) Are we so used to having someone to talk to, something to do, something to purchase, somewhere to go, that we have lost the ability to be alone, to be lonely? Are we more apt to feel lonely because of the incessant showcase of what everyone else is doing … that we are not?
Have we forgotten how to be alone?
Lonely forces us to live without gratification from the world. Without the satisfaction of another like on our social post. Without the accomplishment of spending the evening completing another work project. Without the indulgence of more new clothes hanging in our closets. Even without the fulfillment of outside voices of people who might in fact just be saying what they know we want to hear. Let’s be real … we don’t always choose to hang out with our most honest, sincere friends when living in the lonely. They might affirm the things we aren’t ready to own.
Have we forgotten the benefits of choosing to stay in and be present in the lonely?
In the lonely we have to be alone with the chatter in our head. With the past stories we aren’t proud of. With the stories we are making up (right, Brené Brown?). With the swirling thoughts of possible life change. With the fear of what is to come and what people will think because of that change.
I’ll admit I didn’t think much about loneliness, and certainly didn’t entertain the idea of staying in the space, until life shook me up. Usually when lonely finds us — true loneliness — it is because of darkness, or external struggle, or internal wrestling. And in those places, it is so much harder to embrace the gifts of lonely. It is much easier to turn to outside numbing agents every time.
I often remember my period of lonely. And these days I am quick to discuss it with people. It lasted nearly a year, and not to say I don’t have my days of loneliness anymore, but this was a significant phase. I was separated from my husband. My mom had just passed away. I decided to take a new job and move back to a place I hadn’t lived in about 10 years. I was alone. I knew very few people and those only at an acquaintance level. My new place of employment was rather small, not necessarily a quick fix for friends. (For this I am grateful now.)
My mind was noisy. My emotions ran the gamut. Many days I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I contributed to some of my issues (insert shame and guilt here). In other instances, I had absolutely no control over the struggles, but they left me feeling empty. I didn’t feel like myself, the one I thought I knew. Thought is the key word in that sentence.
The reality is I didn’t actually know myself at all. Sure, I could rattle off facts: I love sports and running, enjoy craft beer at snob level, and actively support breast cancer nonprofits. But what did I value? What did I want my days to look like? What did I desire … for myself? I had spent so much time trying to do for everyone else, be perfect in their eyes, that I didn’t even give myself the opportunity to want, let alone define those yearnings and ambitions.
Life stripped of many important people. Life in a place you never anticipated. Enter loneliness.
It was the best thing that ever happened to me. The best.
Don’t get me wrong. Being lonely, present in the space, active with your internal chatter … is awful. It is unsettling. It shakes you to the core because you are getting up close and personal with yourself. Sounds fun, huh?
But here I am on the other side. I see the story from a different place now. I see it in a more complete place even though it continues to evolve as I develop and learn. I see how the story, which was derived only from staying in the lonely, serves others and me. I am a different person, a more convicted, defined, authentic person. I am a person so deeply grateful for my struggles, my loneliness, that it still brings tears to my eyes.
Because I have the benefit of reflection on the period of living in the lonely, I wonder if perhaps we should seek out and embrace the lonely instead of just waiting for it to find us. What if we prescribed lonely as preventative care for our minds? Deliberately choosing reflection. Intentionally creating space to own and learn from our stories. Consciously determining if we are deviating from our values and walking down a path with consequences we might not want or interacting with inauthentic people.
Maybe lonely doesn’t have to be scary. Or maybe it should be … but we should grip that fear and name it, own it, and overcome it. Discomfort is so much more enlightening than content complacency. I promise.
My encouragement today … if you are already in the lonely, stop trying to get out. Use the space to become a more genuine you. Challenge the ways you numb to avoid seeing the parts of you that don’t make you proud. Start slow. An evening of lonely. A weekend of lonely. Dial back the pace of life, the distractions of your days, to listen, to feel, to find the true you.
If loneliness isn’t knocking on your door right now, decide to create your own lonely and examine your road. Are you growing, learning, and advancing in your life? Or are you discounting and disguising your desires and dreams? What would you change if you had the power (and you do)?
I won’t tell you the process with be easy. Or fun. But the outcome … now that is a true blessing. Cheers to becoming the real you, my friends.