2 kinds of loneliness: why we feel alone in a crowd
(Art by Lorenzo Bosi)
I have a theory that there are 2 kinds of loneliness.
I know this is false because any kind of binary is automatically going to have holes in it. I get it.
In the meantime this theory is brought to you by my understanding of the nervous system as well as by watching myself feel so ridiculously alone in moments even though I could make a list of people that love me. In the moment I feel ridiculously alone, "none of those friendships are real. They're pretending to like me."
I see this consistently in the people I work with as well, when they're in a trance/funk state, I can ask them who's got their back and they will not be able to think of a single friend. Two sessions later they end up talking about the amazing weekend they had with a bunch of close friends.
So, what the heck is going on...
FIRST KIND OF LONELINESS
It's the "real" sense of loneliness, meaning it's true in our present reality. There is less social connection than decades ago and we live independently (a fancy word for alone).
Your family lives in Toronto, a $500 plane ticket away.
Your bank teller is a machine on the corner of Commercial and 1st Ave.
Your city is expensive requiring you to work more and "hang out" less.
Your community is online or promised to you by a clothing store's Instagram.
Your "hangouts" must be booked weeks in advance.
It is normal in your city to have one person living in a house over a long period of time.
You live in a different country than your grandparents.
This is true; this is North America. This is something that is exhausting to fight against, should we even care to try.
SECOND KIND OF LONELINESS
The second kind of loneliness is trickier, as it's programmed into our nervous system generally before 7 years of age. It's an old and deep kind of loneliness. It's not indicative of our present time reality though it will affect our perspective of present time.
It's the kind of loneliness where you feel alone even though you...
just hung out with your best friend.
have tried various different groups/tribes/communities.
are in the middle of a party.
That's because it's IN YOUR BODY.
It's deep. It's old. It's a feeling of "I'm alone in the world," or "I don't belong."
And I think everybody has a piece of this, but some people have a big enormous piece of it.
If you're one of those people you live feeling alone, gut-level alone. If you imagine a pack animal wandering alone in the forest, this is a similar thing that we feel in our nervous system, often unconsciously. It feels dangerous, and even desperate at times.
This kind of loneliness started early, before you consciously remember. It started in our families who were surrounded by our communities, cities and countries.
Let's clarify something to start. All parents love their kids.
I'm pretty sure that this is a biological imperative.
However, not all parents are able to translate that love to their kids. Not all parents get how to meet their kid's needs which is how we FEEL love.
This is the difference between love and attunement.
Love is there, it's a given.
Attunement is the real deep understanding of what a kid needs, and how to nurture them, that has to make it through all the layers of defences, filters, tragedies and hurts of your life so that your kids FEEL the love.
And we often imagine a lack of attunement as looking "bad" or "serious" from the outside. Not true. Chances are it's going to be subtle. (check out this blog post)
If we didn't get attunement we are going to FEEL alone. Deeply, deeply alone. And this is a terrifying feeling. As a child it's deeply problematic, and as an adult, carrying this belief in their nervous system, it can feel huge (again, like a lost animal wandering through the forest.)
This kind of loneliness is where talking and logical analysis fail to make us feel better.
You have friends.
No I don't.
No, you really do.
No, they don't really like me.
Everybody likes you.
No they don't.
In this state it's impossible to see around us what our nervous systems doesn't believe. It's impossible to see people that love us when our nervous system believes it's alone. See the below video for an example of this.
We have to work with this second kind of loneliness at the nervous system level. Which means we have to slow down and get conscious of the sensations in our body.
Try this. Take a moment, sit down, take a few breaths, and imagine a good friend is sitting beside you. Notice how your body responds. Does it soften? Does it want to move away? Is it uncomfortable? Does your breath change? Do you cry?
This will give us some clues about how supported, and accustomed to support, our nervous system is.
And it's a cycle, the one kind of loneliness leads to more of the other kind of loneliness.
How do we break it?
Work with the image I mentioned above over and over and over (a few times a day even).
Work with a somatic therapist. I don't say this so I get your business, but often I will write something here and you'll need someone in the room to support you in experiencing it. This isn't because you're doing it wrong, but because of the nature of the work.
Go to places where you have to sit your butt down beside people (my friend's bottom line praise of AA meetings).
Choose connection over screen time.
Choose human contact when you get the option.
Understand that it's not you, it's about society and it's about your nervous system, and both can be changed slowly over time.
Take a moment at the end of the day, think of a moment of connection with someone else. Slow down to imagine it and pay attention to how the subtle sensations in your body feel. Do this over and over and over.
When you're feeling lonely you might also try this tonglen meditation that brings awareness from the narrow view we often have in the middle of pain out to include other humans in the world feeling the same thing.
I hope you are surrounded by kind eyes.
I hope you can slow down and take in those kind eyes.
I hope you soften in their gaze.
And if you aren't yet able to see them, I hope you learn to see the kind eyes in the world around you and move towards them.