Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

Light and Shadow


Coping with Loneliness: Finding Your Way Out of the Dark

You don’t have to choose loneliness as your companion.

Posted Jun 25, 2015

In my last post, I talked about how a search for solitude can sometimes take a wrong turn, leading us into a barren, lonely place instead. Here, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to help you start to make your way back.

 Creative Commons/Flickr
Source: Creative Commons/Flickr

Face it: You’re lonely. If you’re a self-reliant loner, someone who chases after freedom and independence, simply glimpsing your own capacity for loneliness can be a startling revelation. The need to belong seems to be a human universal. So even if you prefer to keep people at arm’s length, chances are that you still have some desire to connect with others. And when your need to belong isn’t met, you feel the ache of loneliness just like everyone else--even though you might be doing your best to ignore it or cover it up. Still, even if it makes you feel worse in the short term, you’ll be better off if you can admit it:  You’re feeling lonely. It’s OK. So is everyone else on the planet, at least some of the time. Welcome to the human race.

If seeking a quick fix, think it through. Loneliness can be so agonizing that it often presses us to seek a quick remedy, something to numb the pain. The good news is that we can often take the edge off in simple, cost-free ways: a call to a family member, some light small talk with a stranger, or a heart-to-heart with a trusted friend. But depending on the need and the types of contact available, this desire to escape from loneliness can get us into trouble, too. Feelings of yearning can take on a desperate edge, drowning out the voice of wisdom. If loneliness is driving our decisions, we might jump impulsively into a high-risk sexual encounter or a soon-to-be-regretted relationship. An urgent need to connect might also push us to reopen a friendship or romantic bond that really wasn’t that great for either of us. We can incur more subtle costs as well, such as not allowing ourselves to grieve major losses, to forgive those who have hurt us, or to learn more about ourselves. There’s no time or emotional space for any of this, because we're too busy trying to smooth things over with new connections.

 Creative Commons/Flickr
Source: Creative Commons/Flickr

What exactly are you looking for? Sometimes loneliness can take such a vague, foggy form that you might not be clear on what’s really bugging you. Try to identify the longings, the unmet needs. Are you looking for simple companionship? Guidance? Reassuring words? Physical touch? Sex? Are your thoughts focused on a certain person, or are you just looking for someone—anyone—to be with you at this time? Are you leaning too much on one person to try to meet all of your needs, then ending up disappointed and frustrated when this person can’t be there for you at all times? Have you faced a recent loss or rejection that is eating you up inside?

Are you afraid to be alone? Sometimes loneliness is about running toward someone else; but it can also mean running away from ourselves. Deep down, how do you feel about being on your own? Many of us don’t like it in certain situations: The house seems too quiet and spooky; we feel self-conscious going to parties solo or eating by ourselves in restaurants. But in some cases, being alone brings up deeper issues: Without a partner (or a child or a best friend), we feel incomplete. We wonder what’s wrong with us. We feel insecure and inferior. We may even discover that we do not especially like ourselves, which will make it pretty hard to enjoy our own company.

Reach out and help someone else. Even while you're trying to meet your own needs for support and belonging, you might consider shifting some of your energy toward others: Rather than focusing on how people are not there for you, perhaps you can be there for someone else. Think about the people in your life. Who could use some encouragement or attention? Could you take a little time just to let them know that they matter to you and that you are thinking about them? After all, you've gotten this painful reminder of what it feels like to be lonely. Why waste it? You might as well get some mileage out of it in the compassion department.

Source: Theleticiabertin/Flickr

When I recently found myself besieged by loneliness in a dingy hotel room, what really helped me was to start writing. First I let the words tumble out uncensored, raw and sharp and ugly. Then I tried to understand exactly what I was feeling and why. But what helped the most was the next step: I started to sift through what I had written, through that whole jagged pile of words, to see if there was anything that might be worth sharing. Although it took a while, the ideas from that journaling eventually turned into this set of posts on loneliness. (This one is the second entry; here’s the first one.)

Most of what I wrote on that lonely night was private and specific to my own experience. But I’d at least like to share the closing words from that journaling session:

So I guess that I am saying to all of those people in my life, I like you and I need you.

Tonight, knowing that I am not just writing this to myself but at some level I will get to share this with you ... that will have to do.

And envisioning you reading this and maybe feeling a little better ... well, that makes me feel a little better, too.