When You Feel Lonely

At times in my life, I have felt utterly lonely. At other times, I’ve had disgusting infectious diseases. Try admitting these things in our culture, and you’ll find they evoke identical responses: Listeners cringe with a mixture of pity, revulsion, and alarm. In a culture where everyone wants a happy family and a sizzling relationship, the phrase “I’m lonely” rings like the medieval leper’s shout of “Unclean! Unclean!”

Fortunately, we now treat disease not by isolating its victims, but by diagnosing and healing them. Finding those who can comprehend the emptiness of your heart, diagnosing and ameliorating its ailments, can keep you productively engaged when your loneliness is at its worst.

The Time-Tested BLD System

Allow me to introduce the Beck Loneliness Diagnostic System, which is based on years of research I’ve conducted by brooding about my own problems during bouts of emotional eating. My system divides loneliness into three categories—absolute, separation, and existential—each of which has different remedies. I prescribe two courses of action for each type: quick fixes (to feel better immediately) and long-term solutions (to banish it for good).

Type 1: Absolute Loneliness

This malady occurs when we believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is no one who understands us and no one who wants to. Absolutely lonely people have few personal interactions of any kind. Isolation creates indescribable despair, for which typical self-help advice—”Have a bubble bath! Try aromatherapy!”—is ridiculously inadequate. The only saving grace of this state is that it often hurts enough to motivate people to try the following prescriptions.

Quick Fix

Basic human contact—the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words—is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain. If you’re feeling abandoned by the world, interact with anyone you can—today. If you can afford it, hire a good therapist; if you can’t, hire a bad one. Attend a 12-step group, claiming codependency if you have no addictions. Sift wheat from chaff later—right now, it’s “Hail, fellow! Well met.”

Long-Term Solution

If you’re living completely on your own, you must find understanding somewhere, somehow. No matter how scary it is to learn and use social skills, absolute loneliness is scarier. The best method to break out of solitary confinement is to seek to understand others, and help them understand you.

A simple three-step communication strategy is the most effective way to accomplish this. When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity; offer an honest compliment (step 1) followed by a question (step 2). Say “Cool hat. Where’d you get it?” Most often this approach will result in a brief, pleasant chat. Occasionally, though, someone will answer in such an interesting or charming way that you’ll want to respond by volunteering information about yourself (step 3), such as “I can’t wear hats—they make me look like a mongoose.” Repeat these three steps, and you’ll gradually connect at deeper and deeper levels.

The key word is gradually. Understanding is a dance of seven veils in which strangers take turns revealing a little more about themselves—not everything at once. Be patient, and the three-step combo can take you all the way from discussions of headgear to conversations like “You’re amazing. Shall we get married?”

Type 2: Separation Loneliness

If you force yourself to communicate with people appreciatively and curiously, you’ll eventually emerge from absolute loneliness. However, you’ll still experience what I call separation loneliness. Traveling, empty nesting, and almost any job will distance you from friends and family. Only since the Industrial Revolution have most people worked in places away from their homes or been left to raise small children without the help of multiple adults, making for an unsupported life.

Quick Fix

Use separations to remind yourself how wonderful it is that you have people to miss. Solo time can motivate you to demonstrate that love. Focus on communication over distance. Tell interesting stories on the phone or in an e-mail about your day. Let your favorite people see life through your eyes. Ask them about what they’ve been experiencing, and listen or read with total concentration. You’ll come to know one another in new ways, and absence really will make your hearts grow fonder. Once that’s done, I recommend finding understanding by doing what the song says: If you can’t be with the one you love…love the one you’re with. Use your appreciation-curiosity-openness combo on the folks around you.

Long-Term Solution

This remedy requires facing some hard choices. If you’re continuously aching to be with people you never see, the rewards of your career or nifty home in the exurbs may not make up for the sacrifice. Many of my clients decide that their horrible jobs aren’t worth forfeiting years with their family. Others stop hanging out with people—even relatives—who drain them, in order to be with those who inspire them. You don’t have to make such decisions immediately, but you do have to make them. Every day brings new choices. If you want to end your isolation, you must be honest about what you want at a core level and decide to go after it.

Type 3: Existential Loneliness

The final type of estrangement is a bedrock fact of the human condition: the hollowness we feel when we realize no one can help us face the moments when we are most bereft. No one else can take risks for us, or face our losses on our behalf, or give us self-esteem. No one can spare us from life’s slings and arrows, and when death comes, we meet it alone. That is simply the way of things, and after a while, we may see it’s not so bad. In fact, existential loneliness, the great burden of human consciousness, is also its great gift—if we give it the right treatment.

Quick Fix

One word—art. In the face of great sorrow or joy, love or loss, many human beings who went before me learned to express themselves sublimely through clumsy physical things: paint, clay, words, the movement of their bodies. They created works of art that remind me I am not alone in feeling alone. Seeking the company of people who have learned to transcend the isolation of an individual life, who have felt as I feel and managed to express it, is the best treatment I’ve found for existential loneliness. (Notice that this advice is the opposite of the quick fix for “absolute” loneliness; you may need both prescriptions.) Make your own artistic connections. Read novels, listen to samba, watch documentaries: Seek art from every time and place, in any form, to connect with those who really move you.

Long-Term Solution

Same word—art. The quick fix is to appreciate others’ artistry; the real deal requires that you, yourself, become an artist. I’m not asking you to rival Picasso or Mozart, but I would challenge you to think the way they thought, to put aside convention and embarrassment and do whatever it takes to convey your essential self. Use anything you can think of to understand and be understood, and you’ll discover the creativity that connects you with others. 

If you begin to apply these prescriptions, whether by drumming up the courage to connect, choosing a moment of love over a moment of work, or creating something as silly as a bad cartoon, you’ll soon find yourself stumbling across beauty and communion. Loneliness, far from revealing some defect, is proof that your innate search for connection is intact. So instead of hiding your loneliness, bring it into the light. Honor it. Treat it. Heal it. You’ll find that it returns the favor.

35 replies
  1. Ann McFarland
    Ann McFarland says:

    Don’t forget poetry. Carolyn Forche’s anthology, Against Forgetting, will connect you with many who have felt your pain.

    Reply
  2. Jenni
    Jenni says:

    I just loved reading this. I struggle with loneliness very much and always have. Not having siblings or been married or had children I feel a sense of isolation and separation from a lot of people.
    Even my female friendships aren’t as close as I would like them to be.
    Thanks Martha for shedding light on this interesting topic.
    I learn a lot from your wisdom.
    Jenni Cohen
    San Diego

    Reply
    • Carol
      Carol says:

      Jenni,
      I completely relate to your post. See my response below.
      When one is single it seems no one – except other single people gravitate to them.

      Reply
  3. Bry
    Bry says:

    On my first visit to your site I am instantly rewarded. I spent just a few moments on the site yesterday and have had an opportunity to spend more time today. Thanks to a friend recommending a book of yours I found my way here. I am looking forward to inhaling more of your insights.

    Thank you, Martha

    Reply
  4. Lucy
    Lucy says:

    As I continue my journey 6 months post my third divorce, I look forward every day to reading your insights. Along with art, I find that “passion” is another tool we have to help us through difficult times. Fifteen years ago, I found myself in a similar situation. I read that when you were completely down and out, think about something from your childhood that you truly loved to do. For me, I loved horses and rode as often as possible. With that in mind, I put my then 3.5 year old daughter in the car, drove 1.5 miles from the apartment complex and found a huge barn, wonderful horse trainer, women my age riding, and their kids. Serendipitous? Probably. At the same time, I discovered my daughter was going to struggle with a lifetime of learning disabilities and bringing horses into our lives at that particular moment was the best possible decision I could make for both of us.

    Unfortunately, my third husband has our horses and my daughter sold hers. I am again faced with finding a passion to fill my soul; I need to find the art that gives me time to rise above the loneliness I feel. One month ago, I started the same process; I thought about my childhood and what I enjoyed doing. I played classical piano for 11 years. Just yesterday, my digital piano arrived at my house; it weighs 37 lbs and I plan to take it anywhere I go.

    While this is more than just a comment, I wanted to share my story in case others might benefit from it.

    Martha: I thank you every day for your messages.

    Reply
  5. Susan
    Susan says:

    kinda makes sense that creativity will connect us with our Creative spirit…. the creative spirit… ‘the Creator” and end our existential aloneness:)) Music, in all its forms, does this for me. Thanks Matha.. I think I will go create a collage now:)

    Reply
  6. Sapphire
    Sapphire says:

    ~

    Adore being able to connect directly with the greats, a million plus thanks Matha for continuing to inspire the living of a soulful and very happy life ..

    Arohanui.

    ~

    Reply
  7. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Thank you for the great insight on loneliness. The cool thing for me is that I have been practicing some of these steps subconsciously- all my adult life. And I love that I can be more conscious about it – especially when I know I’m feeling lonely.

    Reply
  8. Jane
    Jane says:

    Martha, your words about art in the final type of loneliness just reached me in such a real way. I am 24 and I this is exactly what I have been looking for. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Nuala
    Nuala says:

    Thanks Martha,
    I look forward to reading your stuff every morning, often your thought for a day corresponds exactly with stuff that is one my mind.

    Reply
  10. BurnitBetty
    BurnitBetty says:

    I have been asked to speak to a group of preteen girls and when I couldn’t sleep last night I was running through using ‘loneliness’ as my topic. I find ithard to be lonely when I am creating anything artful!

    Reply
  11. Carol
    Carol says:

    Martha you hit the nail on the head!

    I completely agree with Jenni’s comment.

    At 47, I too an am only child. It was never a problem growing up b/c I had friends and relatives similar in age and neighbors near by.

    My Mother died suddenly when I was in my thirties and my life has never been the same. I had panic attacks after my Dad remarried a woman 2 yrs later who had eight (adult) children and three previous husbands and interests & values unsimilar to his. My entire family could not handle it–but I had to. Alone. I am still depressed b/c I really have no one.

    I’ve struggled financially b/c I can’t usually hold or get bored with jobs, therefore leading to financial instability = not being able to do things in life and surrounding myself with people of similar interests who can enrich my life =not being able to follow the steps you suggested.

    I tried therapy, but feel that no one can REALLY help my situation. I am alone. Period.

    Reply
    • Sheila Bergquist
      Sheila Bergquist says:

      Carol and Jenni,
      In the past eight years I have lost all my family and many friends and pets (which are my children and just as devastating). The last loss was my brother last month, the last of my family. It was totally unexpected and has left me reeling from grief and upped my anxiety disorder tremendously. I can relate to both of you because my sense of being alone is overwhelming. As you said “I am alone. Period.”
      While I have a couple of friends left, I know they can’t be there for me like my family would have been. I wish all of lived in the same town and help each other out! There are so many people out there feeling exactly what we feel. The only thing that keeps me going is my pets and taking it one day at a time.
      I also can’t hold a steady job because of my anxiety disorder so am trying to make money on the Internet (not too successfully so far!).
      I wrote this because I know it helps me to know others are going through what I am and I hope it makes you feel better.
      I wish both of you peace. Hang in there.

      Reply
  12. carmel
    carmel says:

    I had an energy reading years ago, and in it I was told to make sure I created something all the time. If not, I would become sick. I didn’t remember this until I read this article, so thank you!

    Reply
  13. Rosie
    Rosie says:

    Martha, thank you for this wonderful insight. I have been thinking lately how sad it is when someone feels so alone or hopeless that they would want to harm themselves. While there is an abundance of connectivity all around us. Our youth have to open their hearts and become aware of what your words explain. So they become embedded not only in their own strength but the collective power and energy of all that is around them. They are a participant of this community. So they are never alone….

    Reply
  14. Lorraine
    Lorraine says:

    I am a 70 yr. old living in a Dallas suburb in a 1 bedroom apartment close to my youngest daughter and her family.I am originally from Canada and have been living here for eight years following a divorce. I have forced my self out the door when the walls seem to be closing in on me, and have gone shopping or to the mall. I have attended college classes for seniors. I am social and friendly by nature, but find that people here seem distrustful of this approach, whereas in Canada, I made friends easily. I agree that artistic pursuits are rewarding, but I have to say that a gray haired-pudgy woman’s conversation does not a friend make in this part of the world.

    Reply
    • Wendy H
      Wendy H says:

      Hi Lorraine,

      I’ve just come across your post on Martha Beck’s site. I could not agree more. Like you, I am friendly and outgoing, but I find, at age 61, that people are no longer interested in making friends. I don’t know what attitudes in the US are, but in Britain, older people are regarded at best as ‘past it’ and useless and at worst invisible, or worse, somehow repulsive. Like you, I am living on a state pension, so do not have the option of an active single life. I can barely afford to eat, never mind buying a ticket to the cinema. Children are only interested in what parents can ‘do’ for them. As soon as the money runs out, so does the artificial affection. I can’t offer you any useful insights, but hope it helps to know that you are not alone in this (oh dear, an unintended pun there)…

      Reply
    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      Lorraine I understand this. I would have you as a friend if I were near by. You seem like an interesting person. Keep hanging in there. You have done so much!

      Reply
  15. Laurel Lewis
    Laurel Lewis says:

    This is so beautiful and poignant, yet in typical Martha style, still delivered with humor that makes me laugh….loneliness is a common theme in my life and these words are just salve on the wound. Thank you! I love Martha Beck!

    Reply
  16. Pat Becker
    Pat Becker says:

    Martha, did you repost this just for me? I thank you. I have a bit of the existential and separation loneliness. I love the recommendations and will take them with me today. with love, Pat

    Reply
  17. Maryann Stensrude
    Maryann Stensrude says:

    Whenever I’m feeling down (or lonely), Martha inspires me! Whatever she has to say, you can tell she has been there, done that! She makes me laugh and cry, and gives me the motivation to keep on keeping on!

    Love you, Martha!

    Reply
  18. Barby Gonzalez
    Barby Gonzalez says:

    Great motivation and much needed today! I hope someday soon my cure is found! It is very sad to be alone and not have anyone to talk, cry or laugh with… but… it is what it is and life goes on! Thanks for being there! God Bless!

    Reply
  19. Beth Anderson
    Beth Anderson says:

    This morning I wouldn’t believe, that anyone or anything could reach out to me. Just from reading this article, I got a little extra energy, knowing for the first time ever, that I’m not the only one out there.
    Thank you

    Reply
  20. Marsha
    Marsha says:

    Hi Martha, I just gladly printed your article here about loneliness. THANK YOU! Is there a way you can have us readers just print your article without the extra pages of all the comments?

    Reply
  21. Kim Noeth
    Kim Noeth says:

    “Use anything you can think of to understand and be understood, and you’ll discover the creativity that connects you with others.”
    Speaks Volumes to me..Thank you!
    <3

    Reply
  22. anne
    anne says:

    Thankyou Martha. I have been divorced 10 years now, have 2 kids who are now teenagers leaving home, and suddenly feel a dreadful sense of loneliness. But I also know that it is not relationships I am lonely for; I have plenty of friends although am single. I am lonely for new meaning in life. I know that if a man, or a new friend came into my life I would still feel this hole of something missing that I am meant to find meaning in. I think once I find that, the right relationships might find me. Maybe that is the way forward. There is nothing more attractive than a person who knows what they want out of life, no matter what age. Maybe that is why creativity is so vital; it may lead us to the part of ourselves which makes us irresistible.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] loneliness and longing remind us that we are not yet all that we are meant to be.”  In the creative process, drawing on our unity with the Divine, I believe we begin to taste the resolution of existential […]

  2. […] today is interesting given an article I read this morning by Martha Beck (@MarthaBeck): ‘When you feel lonely‘. In it, Martha explores three types of loneliness: absolute loneliness, separation […]

  3. […] A simple three-step communication strategy is the most effective way to accomplish this. When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity; offer an honest compliment (step 1) followed by a question (step 2). Say “Cool hat. Where’d you get it?” Most often this approach will result in a brief, pleasant chat. Occasionally, though, someone will answer in such an interesting or charming way that you’ll want to respond by volunteering information about yourself (step 3), such as “I can’t wear hats—they make me look like a mongoose.” Repeat these three steps, and you’ll gradually connect at deeper and deeper levels. via When You Feel Lonely | Martha Beck. […]

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