Living alone can lead to feelings of freedom and independence or trigger feelings of isolation and loneliness. While aloneness and loneliness are often used interchangeably, and often travel together, they are very different.
Aloneness is a physical state in which we are on our own even if other people are present. Reading a book at the library is an example. We may have people with whom to interact and choose to not do so. The key is we recognize our choices and options. We may welcome and embrace the tranquility of being alone, using the opportunity to rest, relax, recharge, and rekindle.
Re-energized, our imagination and creativity flow. We welcome and embrace our time alone and befriend ourselves, allowing for time to explore our values and preferences, our needs and desires, our patterns and routines, our goals and dreams. Curiosity about our inner life leads to discovering with delight the surprise of who we are. Pampering and nurturing ourselves become priorities rather than indulgences. We find confidence in self-reliance. Solitude sustains us.
Loneliness is a mental state in which we feel disconnected from other people and, possibly, from our spiritual foundation. We have no one with whom to share thoughts and feelings even when we are with others. Loneliness can impact physical health as well as mental health, contributing to heart disease, a compromised immune system, depression (which itself may lead to loneliness), thoughts of suicide, and anxiety. We may experience stifled imagination and crushed creativity. Boredom and loss of interest often worsen the loneliness.
There are myriad life events that trigger loneliness, including genetics and grief, which encompasses changes in life circumstances such as moving away from friends and family; empty nest; going off to college; divorce; death of a loved one; a new job or losing a job; illness; relocation of close friends, and more. Depression, anxiety, other mental disorders, and strong emotions such as anger or even elation can bring on a bout of loneliness. We may believe no one else can relate to our feelings of isolation and emptiness, there is no one else to share our pain or our joy.
Feeling lonely and feeling alone happen to everyone. An important point to remember is to balance the two states. As an introvert, I enjoy the company of others for limited periods. I require solitude to re-energize and regroup. One of my friends relishes the company of others and rejuvenates when she is in a group where there is a lot of positive energy. Another friend enjoys concerts and gets lost in the music, oblivious to other people in the audience. This same friend enjoys spending informal time with others and is likely to call someone on the spur of the moment and invite them to meet for coffee or lunch.
Solitude offers me an opportunity to pause, introspect, reflect, and, often, rejoice. Daily thoughts of my sister, mother, and partner, whose deaths occurred in 2015 and 2016, emerge from the hole their absence left in my life. I feel a sense of loneliness for the loss of their presence. In solitude, my grief includes the joy each of those wonderful women brought me, leaving me with gratitude and hope and the realization that, in spirit, they are yet with me. They each left a unique legacy that helps guide my life.
Changes in our attitude and approach to loneliness can go a long way in helping our life improve. Here are several tips for relieving loneliness, some of which involve a little risk (legal and ethical, I promise):
- Journal your internal dialogue to help you sort through the maze of uncomfortable feelings.
- Write a list of the advantages of being alone and use each one as a journaling prompt. This can help shift your mindset to one of acceptance of the situation and allow you to create ideas for using the time in positive ways.
- Develop a mantra or set of affirmations that you can repeat until you feel relief.
- Spend time alone with other people—dine out, join a gym, go to a park or other public place and observe people, or read a book or write.
- Do something eccentric you love, such as prepare a favorite meal others find odd or unusual. I like fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and homemade cornbread. Most of my friends say, “Ewww.”
- Take a class or attend a seminar, workshop, art festival, play, or a concert or go to a museum. Striking up a conversation with strangers who share our interests can lead to lasting friendships.
- Go for a stroll in nature.
- Volunteer with an organization you want to know more about.
- Call someone you would like to know better or someone you already know well just to chat.
- Call a company and ask a question or offer a comment rather than doing so online. I do this sometimes to hear a human voice.
- Limit social media as it can encourage social comparison. We may think we are connecting with others, but we may actually make our situation more intolerable as we compare our life to their seemingly happy lives.
- Read inspirational or spiritual materials.
- Engage in spiritual practices that strengthen you.
- Brainstorm and make a list of activities you can enjoy. I have a Master List of Things to Do When I’m Bored. It spans several pages and has gotten me through some tough times.
- Organize an activity such as a card game, Scrabble, book club, a knitting group, MeetUp group, or fan club.
- Let your imagination boost your spirits. A good idea may change your life.
- Reach out to someone you trust—mental health professional, religious leader, friend, family member, spiritual director.
These suggestions may be easier offered than done for you. Consider your situation, temperament, and tolerance for interaction. There may be a blurred line between welcoming solitude and perpetuating loneliness. If mobility or transportation are difficult, modifying some strategies can help. I encourage you to experiment to find what interests you.
Left unexplored and unattended, isolation and the resultant loneliness can damage physical as well as mental health. We can reduce our periods of isolation and loneliness in frequency, intensity, and duration by taking the opportunity to welcome and embrace them. With a conscious change in perception and mindset, loneliness can be turned into life-affirming solitude that promotes senses of self-empowerment, confidence, serenity, and well-being. Enjoy the discovery of powerful you.
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