I am blessed with kids I feel close with, a loving extended family, dear friends I stay in touch with regularly, romantic relationships that have added much to my life, inspiring work colleagues, volunteer communities, an ability to strike up conversations with strangers and make new friends, and resources to engage people to help me. By all measures, I have a vibrant and diverse community of people in my life. So why, then, do I sometimes feel lonely?
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is an experience of craving more connection than one is currently experiencing. It’s part of the human condition based on an individual’s perception of their reality. It can lead to sadness, longing, emptiness, and feeling unwanted. And it can be a sign of depression and low-self esteem both of which can perpetuate feelings of loneliness. Feelings of loneliness have been recorded as around 40% among Americans in multiple studies and this figure surged during the pandemic. Some studies, like these conducted by Cigna, show that the prevalence was greater than 60% in some populations even before the pandemic. It’s a common feeling.
Thoughts, Not Circumstances, Create Loneliness
Sometimes we think we feel a certain way because of circumstances. Take social media: it’s apps and web sites. They don’t cause loneliness. They just operate as programmed. But, for example, if you have “compare and despair” thoughts that “everyone” on social media is more hip than you, you might feel unwanted and therefore feel lonely. We can convince ourselves that it’s social media that makes us feel lonely. But actually it’s our thoughts about what it means that people are posting vacation shots with friends with everyone looking fit. Nobody, or no thing or event, can make you have a feeling until you have a thought about it.
I used to think my sense of loneliness in recent years came from being a single parent. When a parent of 2 children complained of family logistics while their spouse was away, I would think, wow, I manage 3 kids all the time including handling their medical emergencies, and I should commiserate? Or, I’d focus on not having a partner to support me in times of parenting uncertainty or when Mother’s Day or other holidays come around so I’d sometimes feel drained. And what about social gatherings where people talk about their spouses and I have nothing to say? I’d feel invisible.
Our Thoughts About Ourselves Matter
As a single mom, it bothered me that married people didn’t seem aware of some of my challenges. I thought people judged me negatively for failing in marriage. And if someone said, “I don’t know how you do it!” I found myself wishing they’d actually be interested enough to find out how I was doing it. I have no idea what they were thinking, but I chose to believe they were disinterested, judging me, or feeling sorry for me. These thoughts led me to feel unseen, judged, and misunderstood. And I felt disconnected from others and, most importantly, disconnected from myself. With coaching, I realized it was my thoughts about my situation that made me feel lonely and not the situation itself.
Feeling Seen, Heard, and Understood Can Alleviate Loneliness
I realize I didn’t fully embrace myself as a single mom. I judged myself, looked for external validation from family, friends, and romantic partners, worked hard to socialize normally with married people, and didn’t really talk about my challenges for fear of coming across as needy or pitiful.
However, when I was more accepting of myself and my experience as a single mom, I was better able to allow others to also accept me and my experience as a single mom. What a relief, and what a joy to be more myself with others and see others more fully for who they are!
Everyone Feels Lonely From Time to Time
Realizing I could decide what to think of myself, I chose to practice more self-compassion and self-acceptance both of which have helped me minimize the loneliness and better tolerate it when I feel it. I’m OK with my situation as a single mom, and it’s OK if I feel lonely sometimes. Rather than judging myself or trying to fix the situation, I can take the feeling as a sign it’s time to reach out to people I care about, do something thoughtful for someone else, or get out there in the world to regain perspective.
Craving connection still stirs up vulnerabilities and thoughts about what could have been or what could be. But I have less expectation that others will alleviate my loneliness. My greater sense of connectedness to myself gives me more capacity to welcome authentic connection. I play a greater role in feeling seen, heard, and understood. My thoughts about me and my situation create my experience of connectedness. Not my circumstances or other people.
If you’re feeling lonely when you’re with other people, check in with yourself and reconnect. Chances are you’ll feel less lonely and you’ll be more likely to connect with others.
If you’d like to explore your experience of connection or lack thereof, I invite you to reach out via email firstname.lastname@example.org or you can book a complimentary session. I look forward to connecting with you!