Loneliness is usually considered to be the emotional effect of a life situation, the situation of being isolated, rejected, or abandoned. But most of us have experienced feeling lonely in a crowd, or being entirely content when we're all by ourselves. So the emotion we experience as loneliness in adulthood is actually independent of whether we're alone.
Some of us experience chronic loneliness, a persistent sense of sadness we associate with being alone or unloved, and an enduring expectation that our isolation will never be relieved by the unconditional love and companionship we believe we lack. This is a painful dilemma indeed, made worse by the fact that the loneliness prevents us from doing the things we could to find love and companionable security.
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Unfortunately, focusing on and anticipating loneliness can become a habit, just as focusing on anxiety can easily become a phobia, or focusing on anger can become an habit of abusive or self abusive behavior. The emotion of loneliness will make it hard for you to connect with others, so that the facts of your life will grow to fit your feelings and expectations more and more. You can choose to fight this trend if you put your mind to it.
Here are five things you can do that will reduce the impact of the emotional experience we call loneliness:
- Smile. Even if you have to fake it. Experiment with different smiles. Kind smiles, silly smiles, contented smiles. Imagine you're making faces with a baby, or rehearsing a scene in a mirror for a dramatic audition. When you succeed in smiling in public, people will be drawn to you, and you're more likely to get smiles or conversations in return. If you have trouble, go on youtube and search for laughing baby videos. Or join a laughing yoga class.
- Reach out to others. By phone or text or email or in online chat rooms. When you connect with someone, resist the temptation to express your sadness first and foremost. Prepare yourself by choosing some uplifting topics, something interesting and positive you noticed recently, or something for which you are grateful, no matter how small. Gratitude for the smallest things in life can open the door for mutual appreciations. By asking others about their lives, their problems and their blessings, you can take the focus off of yourself and your own insecurities, and begin to build a relationship based on your compassion for them.
- Practice Gratitude. Chances are, you can find something in the present moment or in a memory that you feel grateful for. No matter how small, you can begin there. Once you open that filing cabinet drawer in your mind, you will discover other things you are grateful for. If you stay in this drawer, you'll develop a steadily increasing capacity for gratitude. Our brains are designed to focus first on pain and danger for survival reasons, but they have the capacity to experience gratitude, compassion, and love, and these emotions help us to connect, thrive, and grow. Rather than letting habits of loneliness stifle your talent for gratitude — stretch your capacity for gratitude and reduce the amount of time you suffer loneliness.
- Practice compassion. No matter how bad your situation is, it's not difficult to find someone with a story you can feel compassion for. While I was recovering from surgery recently, I saw a video about Comedy Warriors, veterans who had suffered serious and disabling wounds who were performing stand up comedy to help themselves and others heal. I was immediately lifted up out of my own self concern and filled with admiration for their courage and creativity. Compassion for babies and puppies in distress is easy, so spending time with them is usually rewarding. The more you know about another person, the better you are able to understand their sorrows, needs, or pain, and so taking time to listen to others is essential. Because most people won't share their needs with just anyone, using the internet to locate a well moderated forum or chat room where people with similar backgrounds and problems are willing to talk about their challenges may be a safe place to start. I've often been impressed by the warmth and sensitivity expressed by members of a forum or discussion group online.
- Seize the moment. A large part of the habit of loneliness is the expectation that our isolation will go on forever. If you focus on the present moment and understand that this moment is just this moment, but it is the moment we have now, you can cut your loneliness by 90%. In this moment, there are a number of things to pay attention to: what you hear, what you see, what you think about what you hear or see, and what physical sensations you notice. All of these keep changing, and offer you a parade of phenomena on which to focus, briefly and then let go. Some of the sights, sounds, and sensations may be unpleasant, or maybe your thoughts about them will seem unpleasant, but not all of them will be. Staying in the moment is a discipline that helps break the habits we fall into involving living in the past or future — with a bias toward the painful parts of the past and future.
Why does loneliness make it so difficult for us to practice these things?
Early in life, the emotion of loneliness has a purpose in helping us cope with dangerous situations when we find ourselves separated from the caretakers on whom we depend. Loneliness compels the helpless little animal to keep quiet and stay put so that Mama Bear has a better chance of finding her before something else does. But we don't automatically grow out of emotions when we no longer need them. In fact, we can accidentally fall into habits of evoking emotions that are unnecessary and unhelpful for the situation we find ourselves in. We seem to understand that fear or anger is dysfunctional when they become an automatic response to situations, and we turn to treatment for anxiety or anger management, but it often seems difficult to see loneliness in the same way.
Because the emotion of loneliness reminds us so vividly of times when we were helpless, it's easy to become confused and believe that we're helpless. The cognitive (beliefs) and behavioral (actions) habits that are shaped by the emotion of loneliness tend to reinforce one another. In order to free yourself from the habit of loneliness, you need to choose to act according to plan rather than according to how you feel.
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