According to the psychiatrists Richard Schwartz & Jacqueline Olds, the key lies in the difference between loneliness and solitude. Solitude, they explain, is something that we have actively chosen. It is characterized by an understanding that we will come back into connection with people again. It is any work, hobbies, or activities that we do alone yet find enjoyment in. This could look like a job we love that requires a lot of alone time, going for a long walk or a run, practicing an instrument, painting, reading, gardening, cooking. On the other hand, loneliness is characterized by a creeping, negative feeling that we will always be alone. Loneliness makes us think that we have no one to turn to when we feel down. It is defined by scattered thoughts, and an overall sense of hopelessness. It often instigates addictive behaviors: scrolling on social media for much longer than you wanted to, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, or other seemingly less dangerous addictions like shopping, workaholic tendencies, watching too much TV. These are all ways to escape the discomfort of loneliness.
The pandemic forced us into an isolation that New York Times recently called a “loneliness epidemic”. What does this mean, exactly? And how is it that, at times, we all crave our alone time, yet other times we dread being alone? At times when we’re alone we may find ourselves singing out loud, dancing freely within our four walls, yet other times we practically hear the slow tick of the clock and the emptiness of the four walls caving in. What is this all about? If we can experience loneliness not just when we’re alone, but also in the presence of others, then what does this mean if we want the best for our mental health?
Being able to recognize the specific moments in time that loneliness steps in is the first step. We need to always remind ourselves that simply being alone does not mean you are lonely! If you spend time with someone, but feel as though they do not understand you, or do not listen to you, is that not one of the loneliest feelings in the world?
Having a strong sense of self-love is a big part of the solution. When you love spending time with yourself, you are not looking towards others to fill certain needs. That doesn’t mean that a person with a strong sense of self-love doesn’t need others. We’re pack animals, and thrive on human interaction and connection. The key is to seek quality interaction with others, and quality interaction with yourself when alone. What does quality alone time look like? We need to satisfy our creative side, our intellectual side, our quiet-reset side.
Let’s start off with a journal:
- Identify when loneliness took control.
- What day of the week was it?
- o What time of the day was it?
- o Were you alone or with people?
- o What was taking place within the prior 48 hour?
- o What got you out of the funk of loneliness?
- Identify when you were alone and feeling great
- What were you doing?
- Was there something you were looking forward to?
- Identify the fulfilling factors that you do alone
- What do you do creatively?
- What do you do intellectually?
- What do you do to reset or replenish you mind?
- Rate the quality of your lifestyle
- Eating healthy
- Mental stimulation
- Social activity
Writing these things down helps to gain a clearer understanding. It’s not just about how we spend our time, but also how we care for our mind and body. This will not completely eradicate loneliness from our lives, but it will help us to build resilience. The more resilient we are, the less frequent and intense our bouts of loneliness will be, and the quicker we will recover from them.