It’s a feeling that sometimes gets described as an empty hole in one’s chest, or the heart’s way of saying it wishes to connect. It can happen after saying goodbye to a person you love, watching others bask in the presence of their friends, when you are in emotional pain and need comfort, or in experiences you wish you could share with another person. Sometimes, its onset seemingly comes from nowhere at all, like while you’re sipping tea in a quiet room, while folding that last shirt from your laundry, or even while you’re locking the door to your home. It is a feeling all of us have experienced in one way or another: loneliness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with a new definition of loneliness. The restrictions that keep us safe may have simultaneously kept us from connecting in ways that fill the holes in our chests. However, some have experienced loneliness for much longer than that: maybe you are queer in a non-affirming home and yearn to connect with someone in community. Maybe you’re the only racial or ethnic minority in the workplace or school and wish to talk to someone who understands the extra challenges. Maybe you are coming out of an abusive relationship that made you believe trusting others is impossible.
In any case, and any other case you have lived to experience, all of them would make anyone feel lonely.
How can we resolve loneliness?
It’s a question that can lead to a pretty unsatisfactory answer: it depends. However, there are a few questions that you can ask yourself, and potentially some gentleness that you can give yourself, to help explore and ease the pain.
What was happening right before you felt lonely? Our thoughts and feelings might be a result of something that we notice in the environment. Was it being surrounded by people who already knew each other, or seeing a queer community flag that you wish you could proudly hold. Was it holding a kitsch mug that you got during a holiday party from someone you enjoyed or witnessing something you think is beautiful?
What did the event remind you of? Our thoughts and feelings are, of course, linked to our memories. These memories can be painful, and it makes sense. Loneliness is often an emotion that we want to push away because it’s uncomfortable to feel, but when we understand where it is coming from, it can help us with the next two questions.
How can you acknowledge the source of your pain? Sometimes it can be as simple as saying out loud, “This hurts me.” It might even be allowing yourself to cry if it is in a space that you feel comfortable doing so. Acknowledging your loneliness can feel scary if you have never done it before, and maybe even confusing. However, as you do this, remind yourself that this feeling is temporary and important to feel in order to reach the last question.
What can you give yourself to feel connected? Emotions are, fundamentally, data. They can be annoying sometimes (how meta, feeling annoyed about feelings!) because they may make you pause in the middle of a task. However, each emotion is stating a need. Maybe the need is reaching out to someone who is affirming or doing anything that helps you feel a sense of connection. FaceTime or Zoom call a person you love or go on a forum of people in your community to communicate or read about others. Of course, a reality may be that you can’t do either of those things due to access or resources; it might actually be impossible to reach out to the things that would make us feel secure. Then, the trick becomes connecting to yourself. Some have done this through gentle self-talk. Try telling yourself in a kind voice, whether aloud or in your head, “I know we are hurting right now,” and follow up with, “This will pass,” or, “It will be okay.”
The primary need that arises from loneliness is connection. The key to connection is finding it in places that will truly give it to you. To illustrate this, the sensation of being lonely in a crowded room is common. It showcases that physically sharing space with others isn’t always going to make loneliness ease itself. It can for some, but when you’re hurting, you might need something a bit more, and that’s okay.
We also know that accessing connections can be difficult because of the way we are socialized. When talking about the gender binary, men are often socialized to hide or suppress painful emotions. It often results in coping skills that temporarily soothe pain in ways that may be risky or contrary to the feeling of loneliness itself (i.e. substance use, risky sex practices, or even anger). When talking about our society’s culture, there is an expectation that we are supposed to experience painful emotions in private, which is the complete opposite of connection. So, these four questions and steps can feel radical or far outside of our comfort zone even when, as humans, they are built into our system of survival for a reason: connection helps us survive.
You are not weak for wanting to connect.
Your body and brain are working to survive.
A common way to build a relationship and feel connected is through therapy. A relationship is a relationship, including one with a therapist. Here you can explore these questions in more depth and even come up with ways to help ease loneliness through methods that feel right for you. Whether it be now or further down the line, we know that the step towards therapy can be a big one. Just know that at Cultured Space, whenever you’re ready, we’re here for you.