Loneliness

Moving From Loneliness to Aloneness

Two experiential exercises to move beyond loneliness.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Steve Halama/Unsplash
Source: Steve Halama/Unsplash

These have been difficult weeks. Life brings hardship and, like most people, I’ve had my share of adversities. 

But this pandemic is in a category of its own. Most of the things I do to help cope in hard times — whether hanging out with friends, getting acupuncture or massage, or visiting family — can’t be done now.   

In my work with clients, conversations with fellow therapists, and reflection on myself, I see that social isolation thins the protective layer that we all carry to buffer painful experiences. When life is rich in moments of joy, meaningful connections with others, and enjoyable experiences, our buffer is strong and durable. This allows us to endure painful moments without overreacting and to prevent the ugliness we are experiencing from embedding itself deeply in our hearts.

But in the relentless grind of social isolation and anxiety over finances and health, our buffer gets thinner and weaker. Difficulty and pain that seemed far away or unthreatening in the past now seems closer, or directly threatening. This causes old trauma symptoms to resurface. Things that in the pre-pandemic era were manageable, and often even easy, may now trigger powerful inner reactions.

One of the most difficult things is the isolation — first, since it is physically more difficult to engage and get social support. Second, because for many of us, isolation is triggering and can be experienced as a sense of loneliness. 

We all feel lonely sometimes. The more we have experienced adversity, especially at a young age, the more we are prone to feeling isolated, unloved, and lonely. A question to consider in evaluating this is how often do we have these feelings and how much are we controlled by them.  

Perlman (1988) defined loneliness as an “unpleasant experience that occurs when a person's network of social relationships is deficient in some important way, either qualitatively or quantitatively."

COVID-19 impacts our ability to maintain social connections with everyone. With added worries about the health and medical aspects of the pandemic plus, for many,  major financial worry, we all tend to withdraw and feel more isolated than ever.

Aloneness vs. Loneliness  
Unlike loneliness, aloneness is a state of solitude without feeling isolated and unloved. Aloneness is a response of choice, while a sense of loneliness is an unconscious reaction. The stress and worry that often accompany loneliness are quite capable of sending us back into what in the ETI Roadmap we call Withdrawal. This is a sequel to fight/flight/freeze that follows immediately after a traumatic experience (read more here).

The way out of withdrawal, in this case, a sense of isolation, begins with awareness and a conscious choice to take action. This action can be symbolic. Even just a minor action is an important first step to break the cyclic impact of withdrawal and move towards trauma integration. Here are two experiential exercises as an example of such a symbolic action in this case focusing on transitioning from loneliness to aloneness.

Transitioning From Loneliness to Aloneness I:

Materials: A4 print paper divided into two parts; crayons/markers, notepad, and pen.

Chose a comfortable place to practice this exercise. Light a candle, or anything that can be added to help you soothe.

If at any time during this exercise you feel triggered use the *Reset exercise.           

  1. Think of a time when you experienced, even if only briefly, a sense of aloneness and felt calm about it.  If you can’t remember such a time, imagine feeling aloneness without experiencing pain. If you can't imagine that about yourself, imagine how others may be in such a state.
  2. Write down in a few sentences as many details as possible:

    a. Where was it?
    b. What time of the day was it?
    c. What were you wearing?
    d. What was the smell? Light? Taste?
    e. What were the sounds around you?
    f.  What were the dominant colors around you?
  3. Give this description a one-word name.
  4. Take a few minutes to color the paper with colors that express the one-word name.
  5. Take a “mental” picture of this image as a first step to building your muscle of aloneness by choice.

Transitioning from Loneliness to Aloneness II:

Materials: A4 print paper divided into two parts, crayons/markers, notepad, and pen.

Chose a comfortable place to practice this exercise. Light a candle, or anything that can be added to help you soothe.

At any time during this exercise you feel triggered, use the Reset exercise.*

  1. Sit in a comfortable position and slowly take 10 breaths (if it is too difficult right now, slowly count to 20).
  2. Describe in two sentences how you experience a sense of loneliness.
  3. Give this description a one-word name.
  4. Color one half of the paper with colors, symbols, and prints that express in colors the one-word name.
  5. Again slowly take 10 breaths (if it is too difficult right now, slowly count to 20).
  6. Describe in two sentences how you would want to experience aloneness. If you think you can’t, imagine how it might feel for someone else to make a choice to feel aloneness (alone without a sense of pain).
  7. Give this description a one-word name.
  8. Color one half of the paper with colors, symbols, and prints that express in colors the one-word name.
  9. Write down these two names together and observe the two halves, thinking of them as forming one large image.
  10. Give the large image a one-word name.  Check-in within yourself and notice if there’s any difference. 

*Reset exercise:

  1. Jump up and down (as fast as you can) 10-20 times. 
  2. Sit down (preferably leaning back on something) and breathe in (2-3-4). Hold (2-3-4-5) and breathe out.  Make an "sss" or "hmm" sound on the outbreath and notice how the sound changes during the outbreath.
  3. Repeat the deep breathing part 5 more times. 

References

Perlman, D. (1988). Loneliness: A life-span, family perspective. Families and social networks, 190-220.