Here’s a question I get from time to time: Do you get lonely? The straight answer is: Yes, of course, don’t you? But it’s a Tardis question, right? The inside is bigger than the outside. When people talk about loneliness, they’re expressing a concern around social connection, which is a basic human need. But I think loneliness is something other than a dearth of external social contact; I think it may have its roots in our inner lives.
Here’s a breakdown of some social scenarios I find myself in, and the extent to which each scenario makes me feel lonely.
- Being alone. Heck, no. Alone-ness is my default setting, the condition in which I rest, regenerate, learn best, work best. To me, alone feels like fullness, like all one.
- Being with one or two people. This is my most natural kind of socializing. One-on-one, where we can share with each other without the overstimulation of multiple voices, the confusion of many trains of thought. Except: If the one-on-one is a conversation that feels one-sided. Sometimes a question can be a box that the truth doesn’t fit in, do you know what I mean? Not every simple question has a Tardis interior. When someone is asking questions that are shaped by their experiences and don’t really allow room for my lived experience, then I feel super lonely.
- Being in a crowd. If it is a crowd of friends with whom I feel at ease, not lonely at all. I may work the room, dance hard, tell loud stories, and get cheeky. Afterwards, I may get anxious about having had too much fun—did I forget myself and say something rude or hurtful without noticing? That anxiety can feel like loneliness. If the crowd is one in which I know very few people, or if for some reason I feel an instinct to hide my true feelings, I feel very lonely.
- Being alone in an unfamiliar place. Not lonely at all. An unfamiliar town or country is a puzzle to solve, and that’s fun. Sometimes I feel a need for social connection, but that works itself out in one way or another, sometimes in some epic way that makes for a great story. However, there have been times when I’ve visited a new place, and some well-meaning person has taken me under their wing. Sometimes the extra attention from a person I don’t know well can feel restrictive and draw attention to my outsider-ness. This kind of attention can make me feel lonelier than I’d feel if I were left to find my own way.
- Being far from home and in crisis. While the crisis is happening, I don’t feel lonely; I’m just in crisis-management mode. It’s the period after the crisis has passed, when the anxiety gets its turn to act out, that’s when this sense of being alone in the world comes over me. That’s the hardest kind of loneliness, I think. It can happen whether there are people around me or not. Worse still, it can pop up just as life is getting good after a difficult period; in such cases, I can be struck with terrible sense of loneliness just when I think I ought to be feeling happiness and gratitude.
As far as I can tell, loneliness is not a direct function of alone-ness. Loneliness happens to everybody, regardless of how much social contact they have in a typical day. We all experience loneliness in the same way we all experience appetite, desire, curiosity; these are all aspects of that scary, fascinating, exhilarating wilderness of our internal lives.
Are there situations in which you feel particularly lonely?
In case you’re interested, Pema Chodron has some wise things to say about loneliness.