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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.