During a recent visit with my therapist, she took me through an exercise where we looked at different parts of my life that cause me anxiety. While the exercise was meant to help me identify the anxiety inducing triggers, she landed on a theme that resonated across all parts. A theme of loneliness.
My therapist says
“Lesego, while you’re not actually alone, there does seem to be a feeling of loneliness,” she said while writing notes in her pad.
“Uhm, I wouldn’t use the word lonely,” I responded quite anxiously, “Don’t write the word lonely. I don’t think I’m lonely. Alone yes, definitely not lonely.”
If there was ever a self-proclaimed badge of honour that I’ve worn for years it’s the “while I’m alone, I’m not lonely” badge so her findings definitely didn’t resonate with me.
“Look Lesego,” as she pointed at the paper she had me do the exercise on, “Your life is filled with interactions, work as well as social activities, but you feel alone in all of it. You’re not alone, you have family, you have friends, you have colleagues and you’re busy but you still feel alone. I would use the word lonely.”
She also landed on this in the last five minutes of our session saying, ”There’s nothing wrong with feeling lonely, it’s ok we can upack it in our next session.”
Why does the word lonely sound so bad?
I was dumbfounded. Before that moment, I would’ve never used the word lonely to describe how I was feeling, ever. I’m not sure about you but the word “lonely” for me has always derived feelings of being in a state of neediness. It sounds “clingy”. It lands as weak, not enough. Culture tells me that if I feel lonely it’s because I haven’t done enough work on me and that I need to do more so I can feel like I have enough and that I am enough.
But, Dr M said there’s nothing wrong with feeling lonely.
Then I started wondering if perhaps I wasn’t the only person who attached a negative feeling to the word “lonely”. Am I just a weirdo? Are other people comfortable expressing that they may be feeling “lonely”?
And it was this that thought prompted the question, “why does the word lonely bring up so many negative connotations for me?”
Let’s unpack: Alone vs Loneliness
Obviously, I couldn’t wait two weeks to unpack so… I got home and did some reading on the difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Eglantine Julle-Daniere notes that being alone is “the physical state of not being with another individual, might it be human or animal,” while loneliness is a “psychological state characterized by a distressing experience occurring when one’s social relationships are (self-)perceived to be less in quantity and quality than desired.”
In simpler terms, loneliness describes your state when the social contact you have at a given time isn’t fulfilling for you completely.
This definition made me feel better. Not being completely fulfilled by the social contact that I currently have? That I can admit.
Am I lonely alone?
I spend quite a lot of time in conversations with friends, family members and colleagues, and I haven’t heard anyone express being lonely. However, I could imagine some would admit to being unfulfilled in some spaces. And I guess somehow, that can be lonely. Would it be selfish to say it out loud if you have a family? Is it selfish to say it out loud if you still have a job and you’ve experienced little loss in the past year?
It’s left me wondering if some of us (if not most of us) are living in a world of social interactions that have us busy in the moment and yet leave us feeling slightly unfulfilled in the most important areas of our lives (but no one says it out loud)?