Im A Therapist, And Sometimes I Get Deeply Lonely Heres How I Deal

Toa Heftiba

Last Sunday I schlepped myself home from a friend’s place at 5:41am. My “I’m going to have one drink!” night turned into a runaway — an outcome I rationalized as necessary coping following hands-down the most traumatic dating experience I’ve had in this city. My usual go-to of Jivamukti and Acoustic Covers just wasn’t going to cut it with this one, so I gave myself permission to help my friend clean out the dregs of his liquor cabinet (liquor shelf*), and we danced our way through 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s playlists respectively. Following a flash of lucidity in which I was reminded I’d prefer to wake up in my own bed, I congratulated myself for my responsible decision and embarked on the twenty-or-so minute stagger from The West Village to Flatiron.

It wasn’t until the door of my friend’s building latched behind me that I realized I was stepping into a classic New York monsoon (you know the kind of I’m talking about — extreme, like everything here). I of course didn’t have an umbrella as that would’ve required foresight, so I haphazardly layered my phone in my sweater and surrendered to the downpour. And, the album gently massaging my battered heart, I surrendered to the overwhelming loneliness I felt in that moment. No longer anesthetized by five different kinds of hard-bar, the familiar hollowness quietly expanded in my chest.

Loneliness tends to catch me off guard: a visiting friend departs and I’m overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness; I see a couple walking hand-in-hand on the Westside Highway and vaguely recall what it was like to be in love, truly skeptical I’ll have that experience again; I tap open the Instagram stories of my best friends in Vancouver–being their goofy, wonderful selves–and I question whether the solitary path I’ve chosen is worth it.

Now, I doubt I’ll ever come to enjoy loneliness, but it no longer catapults me into depression like some emotions do (whattup shame). Loneliness is sticky and fatiguing and tells all sorts of lies (); but I’ve learned over the years to go into the loneliness rather than try to push it away. As Rumi says, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” (I think “cure” is ambitious).

Loneliness is a pervasive theme with my clients. Whether they’re presenting with an eating disorder or depression, loneliness lurks beneath the surface. It usually takes us a few sessions to identify the feeling — especially with my male clients, who struggle to let themselves feel anything of an uncomfortable nature. But regardless of gender, we’re not supposed to feel lonely, society says. We’re supposed to independent; “alone but not lonely;” confident in our singledom and solitude. An admission of loneliness is an admission of neediness; of immaturity; of pathology. And thus, the pain of our loneliness is compounded by self-judgment–by trying to run from our prickly inner world.

The sobering reality is our culture breeds isolation (and therefore loneliness). “Success” means living alone if we’re single, and in a freestanding home (generally in suburbia) if we’re not. We value productivity over socializing; confidence over vulnerability. The way we commute is isolating. The way we parent is isolating. The way we work is isolating. We’re privy to seemingly connected group photos on social media that leave us feeling like shit; we choose our phones over conversation with the person next to us on the airplane; we date people’s resumes rather than their hearts. And yet we bury our loneliness, wearing veneers of happiness and perfection and touting gratitude and positivity.

I have a masters in psychology and more than a decade of experience speaking with people about their most intimate challenges. I’ve had ample therapy. I’ve done more than a thousand yoga classes. I’ve taken several intensive meditation courses and have studied Buddhism and its complementary philosophies for years. I’m buddies with Deepak. And you know what? I still experience loneliness. And I imagine I always will at times, even if I ever do get into a relationship again (in fact, the loneliest I’ve ever been in my life was actually when I was in a relationship).

So rather than vainly attempting to achieve eternal connectedness, I’ve learned to deal with loneliness when it arises. Here’s how:

1. Pause before pathologizing loneliness.

Feeling lonely is a normal, natural part of being a human. It means you yearn for connection, which is essentially what’s kept the human race alive (I think online dating is going to extinguish the human race before climate change does…).

But here’s the thing: I bet you’re responding to (healthy, normal) loneliness with judgment. And now you’re not only experiencing (healthy, normal) loneliness, you’re experiencing shame and anxiety. We tend to internalize the voices of society (and parents, partners, siblings, bullies, etc.), interpreting loneliness as a sign of pathology or weakness. This is no bueno. Play with giving yourself permission to feel lonely for a moment, and notice what happens.

2. Instead, get to know it closely.

As I mentioned, I wouldn’t say I enjoy loneliness, but there are times now where I’m not mobilized to run from it; to continually suppress or numb it because perfectionism has led me to believe I don’t have the skills to cope with emotional discomfort. There are times now where I can make space for the feeling and approach it with curiosity and compassion. So pull a Rumi and try to notice loneliness when it arises–maybe even welcome it, knowing it’s temporary. Instead of trying to be superhuman and never experience loneliness, explore with compassion, “When do I feel the loneliest?” (for this gal, following a ‘situationship’ breakup). “What does loneliness tell me?” “Where do I feel loneliness in my body?” “What do I need right now?” More on this shortly.

3. Don’t let shame take the reins.

For me, loneliness can quickly transform into shame. I have my theories: perhaps on an unconscious level I’m making sense of my loneliness by determining “I am bad” and “I am unlovable;” perhaps in my childhood I experienced loneliness and shame together, and one stirs up the other. I’m not sure. But the reality is if I don’t pay attention to it, an innocent A seemingly benign Instagram scroll becomes a hotbed of rejection and dismay. So hear loneliness’ message that you’re feeling disconnected or isolated, but question the interpretation that feeling disconnected or isolated means you’re bad or broken.

4. Remember impermanence.

It may have taken me 43,9721 experiences with difficult feelz to learn to keep this one at the forefront of my mind when I’m in emotional pain, but none of our emotional experiences stick around forever–neither the pleasurable or painful ones. Life is a series of momentary experiences strung together; it’s by making room for the ever-changing weather and finding compassion for our humanity that we can rest in the uncertainty of it all. So after you become aware of what my girl, Pema describes as “hot loneliness,” make room for it and trust it will pass.

5. See loneliness as an opportunity for awakening.

Our difficult emotions are some of our wisest teachers. Each moment with them is an opportunity for practicing self-compassion (intentional, non-judgmental acceptance to our present experience, saying to ourselves what we would say to a friend or loved one, acknowledging loneliness is part of the universal human experience). And the more we practice self-compassion, the more we rewire our brains to default to it over self-criticism.

Loneliness is also an opportunity for deepening our belief in a collective consciousness. We can choose to see the discomfort as an experience in awareness; we can see our discomfort as a modulation of consciousness shared by billions–from whom we’re not actually separated.

Finally, loneliness is an opportunity to look inside and ask ourselves what we need. Connection? Belonging? To feel seen? To feel relevant? So many of us our turned off from our needs. We live our lives doing what we think we “should” do, not realizing how isolating these “shoulds” can be. In turning inward to our loneliness, we can explore different avenues to authentic connection.

6. Consider where you can architect moments of connection.

My go-to’s with any difficult feeling are generally:

—Music (I cycle between old-school hip hop that brings me back to my angsty high-school years, Acoustic Covers, and a handful of Beatles songs),
Thoughtful walks on the Westside Highway with said playlists (these usually involving moments of curiosity about what my fellow New Yorkers are struggling with).
—Bubble baths with said playlists, and sometimes Bumble or Hinge (fight me).
Yoga, preferably not the “fitnessy” kind.
—Dancing on my own, oftentimes to “Dancing On My Own”.
—Emo writing-sessions at Argo Tea.

This list excludes moments of numbing, when I deem a pint of ice cream, uninvested date, or liquor shelf annihilation permissible (I’m a big believer in flexible, realistic, intentional coping — meaning we allow ourselves to be adults and cope in the way that serves us best, however awake to the potential consequences). The former are ways I connect to myself and to the collective consciousness in moments of loneliness. If you’re new to this idea of making space for your difficult feelz, consider adopting my list or coming up with one of your own. It’s nice to have one handy for those low moments everything feels hard.

Of course, loneliness is also there to tell us we may be missing deep connection, especially if we experience it frequently. We all go through periods of disconnection in life, and the vulnerability necessary for intimate connection is more difficult for some than others. If the thought of broadening your social network or deepening existing relationships is terrifying, consider working with a therapist as a first step. I help my clients notice where shame, anxiety, and unhelpful beliefs are getting in the way of opportunities for connection. If you feel equipped in reaching out, consider:

—Sending a Facebook message or text to someone you haven’t reached out to in a while letting them know you’re thinking of them
—Signing up for a REC Team, book club, improv or MeetUp group (my weekly soccer keeps me sane)
—Joining an online support group (I’m excited about Campfire)
—Trying out Bumble BFF or one of the other “friend apps” out there
—Volunteering for a cause you feel strongly about (a double-shot of connection and meaning!) – just Google “volunteer opportunities” and peruse what comes up in your area

I write this while on a bus to D.C. to see my brother and his family. Surrounded by fellow pensive-looking travelers I know are dealing with their own life challenges, I feel less lonely than I did on my soggy walk home last weekend. Yet I’m not naive to the loneliness the visit might evoke–the Everyone else is a most important person in the world to someone except me kind of loneliness. But I don’t fear it. If said loneliness arises, I’ll try not to judge, resent, or run from it. And I urge you to do the same. And then even in our loneliness, we’re in this together.

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