Dear Neil: I am 24 years old, single and alone. I have found myself withdrawing from other people because I feel this profound sense of aloneness and loneliness, and I can’t shake this feeling of isolation. Is there a cure for loneliness?
Lonely in New Mexico
Dear New Mexico: Loneliness begins with you feeling alienated from yourself, and until you reconnect with yourself, you are likely to remain lonely—regardless of your connection to other people.
So try this, courtesy of Pat Love and Jon Carlson in their book Never be Lonely Again (Health Communications Inc. Publishers): Answer the question, “Who am I?” Jot down some words that describe you. Some examples: boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, lover, adult child, parent, grandparent, friend, looking for work—you get the idea.
Now answer the question: “Who am I, really?” Think about the essential traits that make you you. What attributes do you want to be the driving force of your life? What kind of person do you aspire to be? How do you want your loved ones to experience you, and how do you want to be remembered after you die? Some examples: creative, a risk-taker, kind, loving, ethical, honest, supportive, reliable, a leader, a dancer, a loving parent or spouse, a skilled communicator, etc.Ask yourself this question over and over again. When roles like parent, sibling and friend come up, reply with: “That is just a role that I play; who am I really?” If you respond with a state of being, such as being happy or sad, say: “That is just a state of being. Who am I, really?” Respond to every answer in the same fashion.
The essential idea is that your experience of loneliness is the result of being disconnected from yourself. Much of life’s discontent and misery comes from acting in ways that goes against the person you would like to be, or from behaving in a manner that does not honor the principles by which you want to live. Now define an area of concern: “A situation of concern in my life now is…” Then refer to your answers to the question: “Who am I, really?” So let’s, for example, take your issue about feeling lonely and alone, and let’s say you answered the question: “Who am I, really?” with a description that you are open, caring and loving. So then ask yourself: “What would an open person do in my situation? How would a caring person cope with loneliness? How could I still be a loving person even though I don’t have a companion right now?”
Come up with a variety of answers, and then choose the most difficult ones and do them. Doing what’s easy won’t change you, but doing something appropriate and challenging—something that would take your breath away if you did it well—will give your psyche the power jolt that it needs in order to start helping you to overcome your feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Look at the question: “Am I connected?” To whom, and how well are you nurturing these connections? Think about a relationship that is important to you but that has some distance, conflict or disappointment. Imagine a conversation with this person in which you ask: “What is one thing I could do that could really help you as well as our relationship? What could I do that would be super-supportive and over-the-top helpful to you and to our relationship?” Don’t ask unless you are willing to be generous, but if you ask, be willing to choose the one that is most difficult for you but that you can still give with generosity.
If this question creates resistance in you, know that sometimes connection requires that you do the very act that you resist the most. Being without ongoing connection to other people will make just about everyone lonely. Ask yourself: “Am I living in community?” A community forms over shared values, interests, activities, beliefs, around fun activities and around a common cause. If you don’t feel you’re living in community, what could you do to join other communities or to create one?
Answer the question: “Are my talents utilized in meaningful work?” A lack of meaningful work, or work that doesn’t utilize your strengths and talents, will make most of us feel empty. The first step toward not feeling lonely and isolated is to be in connection with yourself—what lends meaning to your life and what the essential traits are that make you you—and also to be able to be in connection with others.