This post is drawn from a Contagious Compassion Zoom Session — audio and video appended below.
We are all essentially alone in our skins. This is an existential truth of life. As social beings, this is one of the most difficult and painful realities we have to face. Loneliness is bad in itself, and it makes everything else worse. Suffering itself can be defined as a “crisis in connection” and “the opposite of suffering is belonging.” We do not always get love in the way and at the time we’d like. The stories we tell about ourselves and the world when we are feeling lonely can be extraordinarily damaging.
Loneliness takes a huge toll on mental and physical health, and we might engage in all kinds of destructive habits to escape the emotions stirred by loneliness.
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy spoke about an “epidemic of loneliness,” and economists speak of “deaths of despair” – suicide and opioid overdoses, for example, which can be at least partly traced to breakdowns in relationship, whether it’s personal relationships or relationships to community and workplace. Murthy prescribes four antidotes in his new book Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
- Spend time each day with those you love. Devote at least 15 minutes each day to connecting with those you most care about.
- Focus on each other. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact, if possible, and genuinely listening.
I often say “we make each other special with our time and attention” – and we feel special in turn. That’s part of what makes being a psychiatrist so gratifying.
3. Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.
This is key. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness.
4. Help and be helped. Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life.
Checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile or a wave to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger. I was so heartened to see that in NYC, volunteerism has gone up 3-fold during the pandemic.
I would add a 5th tip :
5. Develop your inner life with mindfulness, compassion and self-compassion.
Happiness is not an unending state of bliss or joy, I think – it’s really an “increasing capacity to deal with difficult emotions.” Our ships might run aground on difficult situations, but we can become more confident and skillful at dealing with these rough times.
"Happiness is an increasing capacity to deal with distress and difficult emotions."
I’ve had difficult moments of loneliness over the last four weeks – an intense one on only the second day of quarantine, when it felt like the trapdoor beneath the stage of the world had been dropped out, and there was a bottomless pit of isolation and loss underneath. Others have had terrible loneliness as they mourn loved ones who have passed.
And even one person’s rejection can trigger powerful feelings of loneliness, loss and abandonment, particularly if you’re prone to those feelings.
(In the video, I describe an example of coping with a mild rejection from a friend during COVID-19 from my personal life.)
That’s what rejection can feel like. And it can be far, far worse, because feeling apathy, dismissal or rejection can feel like ostracism to some. Some people don’t have the wealth of relationships I’ve had, or the relatively good attachment history in childhood. If you’ve experienced abandonment in youth, if you haven’t had a critical mass of caring relationships, or if you haven’t learned how to form caring relationships, then relationships can seem out of reach, even impossible. And so you can develop a rejection complex, and tell yourself stories about there being something terribly wrong with you, or terribly wrong with other people, or both. Instead of just learning how to hold the emotion with tenderness, as if you were comforting a crying, unhappy child in your arms.
But loneliness can occur even to those who’ve had everything go right relationship-wise. And even in the closest relationships, we can feel alone at times or in key ways. We are all alone in our skins, ultimately. There’s a saying in therapy circles “you can’t be in relationship unless you know how to be alone” – this is because if you can deal more securely with the emotions of isolation, loneliness, even abandonment, you won’t be surprised when you feel that way even in relationship. When these feelings come up out of the blue, you can allow them to be your teacher. Yes: Loneliness can be a teacher. Rejection can be a teacher. We can use their lessons to develop our inner lives, and strengthen our awareness and practice of what’s truly important to us as social beings.
After I started feeling compassion for my friend, I even felt grateful to her – because she gave me a lesson in loneliness and rejection – on the eve of my being a teacher on the subject! How perfect. Thank you, my friend. I wouldn’t feel this way if you weren’t important to me, if I didn’t care about you and like you. If you are out there listening, somewhere, I hope we can return to that caring someday, or that we both experience caring and affection in our lives more often than not.
Underneath those hard emotions – anger, frustration, irritation, anger, are soft emotions. Anxiety, sadness, longing, loss, bereavement. And underneath those soft emotions are our needs. For safety. For love. For the joy and life that comes from belonging.
Our needs are never met 100% all the time. The gap between what’s available and what we need causes us distress. It’s where we need help, and where we can help ourselves.
Amber Sparks wrote this on Twitter last night “My kid had an absolute unholy screaming like forty-minute meltdown about a very small thing and then at the end of it said quietly “I miss school and I miss my friends.”
I guess loneliness and loss are really in the air! I just loved that her child could get to those soft emotions and needs – a lot of us grown-ups have difficulty with that.
The emotions of loneliness are the emotions of relatedness. We couldn’t feel abandoned, rejected, isolated, ostracized and lonely if we weren’t at heart loving, social beings who long for love and affection. If we cultivate our loving nature, and turn it towards ourselves, especially in moments of loss and distress, we could change everything.
© 2020 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.