There is a gulf of distance between being lonely and being alone.
At some time, we all experience both. Until we do, we might mentally accept the difference but we lack the insight of intimate awareness to fully grasp those differences. And they are distinct. Some mistakenly deem them as minute or subtle, yet anyone who has experienced both loneliness and being alone knows the differences are huge and about as subtle as a sledgehammer—hard on the mind, body and soul.
Being lonely hurts. As a child, you wish for someone to play with. You notice that others who are not alone seem to have more fun, more excitement and adventure. They seem better equipped to deal with whatever comes their way, more able to be flexible and to cope with unexpected changes or events—and they well might be because they’ve learned those coping skills through necessity.
As teens, perceptions shift. Lonely teens feel like outsiders, distanced and isolated interlopers. They seek ways to gain notice; some positively, but if that doesn’t work, then negatively. Teens are influenced by those in their circle beyond their own authority figures. They’re influenced by peers and their perceptions of what makes others popular. The pressure to conform to those perceptions and to what adminred peers think is good is enormous. Some teens do, and are poorer for it. Some embrace being alone and begin exploring within, seeking their path on their own.
As adults, perceptions shift yet again. Being lonely still hurts—it always hurts—but adults, who have more experience in life, look not so much to peers but for something or someone who offers solace and comfort. Sometimes they look in constructive places and sometimes destructive ones. Often, adults go through several bouts with destructive choices before some event or situation snags them by the throat and says, This isn’t working. Try something else. Nothing that hurts this much can be good. Try something good that makes your life better.
Eventually, we reach a point—some of us as a child, some as a teen, and some as an adult—where we awaken to the idea that we’re seekers, and what we most seek is a way to fill the gaping hole inside ourselves. Something is missing.
Maybe we were born without it—whatever it is—or maybe it isn’t meant for us. We tell ourselves that, indulging in our personal pity party or seeking comfort or inner peace, trying to come to terms with our lot in life. But even as we think it, we know down deep in places we don’t like to visit much or to talk about—everything that cuts close to the bone lives there!–it isn’t true. We don’t know how we know we’re not lacking, but we know it. The truth is, we fear we’re lacking. We fear something is wrong with us, that we’re missing some something that others have. And we fear we’re always going to feel lonely and empty and hollow and lost. No matter what we do, this awful gnawing inside us is our destiny.
It isn’t, of course. But so long as fear reigns, it’ll try to convince us that this, for us, is as good as it gets so we might as well get used to it. Unfortunately, some will. But most of us will rebel. At the time we recognize that it is fear trying to keep us down, we stand up and fight for ourselves. Our future depends on it.
When we make the decision to fight for our future—the one we envision—we often don’t know exactly where to begin. What do we seek? Where do we seek it? We’re not sure. We just know we desperately need something we don’t have, and we want it. We need it to have the future we crave. And so we being exploring, looking for answers to questions we can’t quite put into words or articulate.
And because we’re looking, searching, we notice things we hadn’t noticed in the past. We pick up bits and pieces of things from all kinds of sources and we recognize them as truths. Bits of truths. Simple truths. We can’t prove they are truths, but we know it with the same certainty that we know the sun rises and sets each day. That love exists because even in misery we felt it toward someone or someone felt it toward us. We just know.
But bits of truth do not satisfy the seeker in us. Deep inside in those places too close to the bone to talk about, we feel there is more. We know there is more. And we know that if we can just find it, claim it, we won’t be lonely anymore. So we keep searching.
And we note that our search seems different. It is different—due to those bits and pieces of truths we’ve gathered thus far on our journey. We now use those truths as tools. Maybe they’re positive affirmations that help lift us up. Or stories we’ve read or been told by others that lift us, or open our eyes to small things that bring great joy. To seeing others who had been in pain and how they got to a place of feeling better. What worked for them might work for us, too.
As we journey on this road of seeking with our eyes wide open, our compassion and empathy engaged, we gather more and more tools, and we realize that our lows aren’t as low as they once were. We aren’t yet not lonely but we aren’t desolate and aching from loneliness anymore, either. We’re armed with tools and gaining more, noticing more because we’re focused more on ways to combat being lonely.
The journey continues. The toolbox is now brimming with tools. We still feel lonely now and then but we notice something… We’re enjoying our lives more—even when we are alone. We don’t feel desperate—don’t break into a cold sweat when by ourselves. We don’t fall out of bed and onto the phone seeking someone—anyone—to join us so we aren’t alone. No, we do things alone that we enjoy. We laugh, we live. And we grow.
We grow and we discover that we like our own company. We’re comfortable inside our skin, and we’re enjoying the life we’ve created. That loneliness is still there at times, but it no longer cuts like a knife. In our journey, we reached out to people and they reached back to us. We discovered a few things that we now, through our experiences, have proven true. We pull them from our toolbox for a closer look…
- No one else can make you happy or content.
- No one else can make you like or love your life.
- No one else can define what you need better than you can define it.
There are times when being alone feels like a luxury.
- When stuck in a place you don’t want to be, with people you don’t enjoy, doing things you don’t want to do.
- When every instinct in your body screams another person is bad for you, and will be bad to you.
- When something that seems innocent enough isn’t, and it violates your ethics, standards, or beliefs.
- When being with others means betraying yourself, being someone who isn’t you.
- When someone doesn’t respect or value or appreciate you.
The power of loneliness is that it can make those luxuries feel like burdens. You feel ignored, unappreciated, invisible. And you don’t like feeling those things. No balanced person does.
But a balanced person also knows that if you have to be someone you aren’t, stuck in situations that violate you, in the company of people who don’t respect your or see or grasp your value and appreciate it… that’s the loneliest of the lonely. Because while you’re in a group, you’re still isolated and apart from the group. You’re in the wrong-for-you group.
I was raised like an only child. I had three brothers. One died before I was born. One was grown and gone before I was old enough to remember much about him, and we didn’t hear from him for years. He dipped in after I became an adult, and dipped out and stayed out. By his own choosing, he’s a stranger. The third brother contracted meningitis at five months and was a vegetable for eighteen years before he passed away. So, in essence, I was an only child. There were many lonely times. I felt the sting, the burn, the aches. I experienced the isolation and the seeking.
Yet I was a lucky one, raised in faith. I had a solid foundation to support me and, when I felt lonely, it was there that I turned. Oh, I tried a few destructive paths, but the ones that violated me, because I had that foundation, I quickly deemed them paths to nowhere and changed directions.
That’s a great thing about life. If you don’t like yours, you can change it. I did. Several times, and I continue to change it day to day. That’s one of the tools I picked up and put in my toolbox. The power to change belongs to all of us. We have an infinite supply. Not just changing things, but ideas and perspectives and thoughts, and our minds.
Everyone goes through times of feeling lonely. Everyone is less than content and has troubles and worries and hard times. It’s life. It’s normal. It isn’t the challenges that get us down or keep us down. It’s how we cope with them. If we do negative things, we get negative results. If we do positive things, we get positive results. I’ve done both, and from experience, I’ll share that positive is better. Not easier always, but always better.
For all the times I’ve felt lonely and alone, I have to tell you—with the clarity of hindsight because I sure didn’t feel that way at the time—I now recognize a life pattern.
When at my lowest and feeling my worst, that was always right before something powerfully good happened. It was always right before a mountain I wanted moved did move.
If I’d given into the low, been distracted, diverted, or fallen into believing things would never get better, I’d have given up or changed my path and then I would have missed out on something really great. And—note this, it’s an important tool—it would have been my fault with only me to blame. (That’s the power of persistence and faith in following your own path and not a path someone else deems right for you.)
When we feel most desperate, it’s then that we seek. As long as we’re comfortable, we don’t. It’s just that simple. We need to be motivated to look for answers. We need to be nudged to notice the questions that we need to be motivated to answer. Hard times do that for us. They give us these opportunities. And through them, we do notice and seek and discover. And it isn’t just tools we discover. We discover ourselves. We define who we are, who we want to be and why it’s important to us.
Being lonely is never easy. It always hurts. But it doesn’t have to devastate or debilitate or depress. The key is to recognize it for what it is—a yearning coming from deeper inside you to seek. To recognize that if you like the person you are, are comfortable in your own skin and with the human being you choose to be, then you might experience periods of loneliness but you have no fear or dread of being alone. You recognize and appreciate the luxuries in being alone.
That’s the difference in being lonely and being alone. Loneliness is a sign to you to notice the questions in your life and to seek the answers. And the gauge on how you’re doing at that is in being comfortable with yourself when you’re alone.
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