I went back and forth about writing this article. My coaching work is mostly focused on helping people take effective political action and loneliness feels like a more personal topic. But this is work I know deeply and in many ways it is both personal and political, so here goes. What gave me the final push into writing this was two-fold: first the constant slew of articles talking about a “plague of loneliness” brought on by the pandemic and second, several undoubtedly well-meaning people getting in contact specifically to say how worried they are about me because I live alone and therefore must be lonely and suffering. We all have our moments, but I do not feel particularly lonely and I am definitely not suffering. I believe this is a result of unlearning some common ideas about loneliness and redefining my relationship with being alone and with feeling lonely.
Loneliness is a feeling, not a state of being. You can feel lonely, but you cannot be lonely. Feeling lonely isn’t the same thing as being alone, because being alone doesn’t make people feel lonely. Think about this for a second. If being alone made people feel lonely, nobody would choose to be alone. And yet plenty of people do. If being lonely was caused by being alone, it wouldn’t be possible to be with people and still feel lonely. And yet that happens all the time too. I don’t know about you, but some of my most intensely lonely times have been when I was with other people. Loneliness is an emotion which, when we get right down to it, is simply a set of sensations in your body. For me, loneliness manifests as a kind of tugging feeling around my heart, a feeling like there’s a big, heavy stone in my stomach. If it had a colour, it would be the grey of a rainy spring birthday. It’s like sadness, but more intense. For me, the exact qualities of loneliness differ depending on why I’m feeling lonely. If I’m missing friends because the pandemic means we can’t meet in person, loneliness almost feels like a kind of love – it has a kind of sharp, sweetness to it. If, on the other hand, I’m telling myself that I’m alone because I’m broken, loneliness feels like a big black hole that is threatening to engulf me.
Once we recognise that loneliness is a feeling, it follows that feeling lonely is not inherently problematic. Feeling lonely does not mean that anything is going wrong and it absolutely does not mean that anything is wrong with you. However, so many of us think that it does, and when we do so we start to feel anxiety or shame about feeling lonely, which creates more suffering for us. In part, this is due to social stigma existing around loneliness as well as to our prejudices about the kinds of people who feel lonely. It’s worth noting that we tend to be wildly wrong about who feels lonely and why – for instance, it’s often assumed that people who feel lonely have poor social skills, but studies show this is not the case, and that people who feel lonely tend to be more empathetic than those who do not. In particular, Western societies place a disproportionately high value on certain kinds of relationships, namely, monogamous romantic ones. If you aren’t in a monogamous, romantic partnership (and especially if you would like to be) the story goes, then your life must be empty or less satisfying than that of someone who is partnered. This story is especially strong for women and people socialised as women, even though, paradoxically, studies show that single men are unhappier and lonelier than single women. In fact, many of the social media updates I have seen about loneliness during the pandemic are from partnered people. Many people are thinking that they lack strong social connections outside of their partnership and are feeling disconnected and lonely as a result. The idea that one relationship should meet all of our emotional wants and needs hurts partnered and unpartnered people alike.
I’ve also seen plenty of posts from people living alone saying that being alone is the worst or that weekends are unbearable because all they have to do at the weekend is watch telly and sleep. If I think weekends are unbearable, it follows that I’ll feel lonely and therefore my weekends will be unbearable – because our thoughts and feelings work together to drive our actions and, ultimately, co-create our reality. Not knowing how to fill your time has nothing to do with living alone, or indeed with weekends (which are an arbitrary human invention that we have the trade union movement to thank for). Being alone isn’t a reason not to do most things, although it is true that if you think it is, you will almost certainly not do very much. If this is you, then it’s worth asking yourself why a weekend spent watching telly and sleeping feels like a problem to you, and, if there’s something you would rather be doing instead, why you’re not doing it. Relaxing is not inherently less worthy than other ways you could be spending your time. Capitalism tells us we should always be productive, because our value depends on our productivity, but that’s a lie. You are equally worthy whether you are watching telly with your dog or caring for your children or going after your biggest dream. The only person who gets to decide how worthy you are is you.
Women and femme folk often struggle more with having free time than other groups of people, because we’re socialised so strongly to care for others that the idea of having time for ourselves feels alien and uncomfortable and the idea that we are entitled to decide how to use our time takes some getting used to. I used to feel like I had to extract as much value as possible from my time alone, because time alone was a luxury and a privilege that felt somewhat transgressive to have. That left me feeling resentful of my time alone. The role I learned to play in romantic relationships was that of a caregiver, a pleaser, a do-er. Not having someone else to consider in this way left me feeling very lonely for a time. I either didn’t know my own desires and preferences, or I gave them up so easily that they ceased mattering. Being alone therefore felt scary to me, because, with nobody telling me what to do, I suddenly had to make a tonne of decisions, all on my own, at the same time as realising that I didn’t know myself as well as I’d thought. What it came down to, once the buffer of other people was taken away, was that I had never really learned to be comfortable with my own company.
I’m going to try and outline here what shifted for me – with the caveat that everybody’s journey is going to look different. I think the basic shift is that these days I enjoy spending time with myself because, fundamentally, I like myself. I like who I am when I’m with people and I like who I am when I’m alone. That basic sense of self-love and worth feels pretty unshakable at this point in my life and it’s something that I cultivate on a daily basis by choosing to treat myself kindly over and over. Your relationship with yourself is…a relationship. You get out of it what you put in and trying to escape your own company and emotions is a zero-sum game. This may sound painfully obvious, but for a lot of people, it isn’t. And for good reason. We’re socially conditioned not to be satisfied with ourselves and to minimise our preferences and needs relative to those of others. If we don’t like ourselves very much, it follows that being alone won’t be much fun. Or rather, it will be exactly as much fun as spending time with anyone you don’t like very much, and you’ll probably try to numb out in order to feel better. Choosing unconditional self-regard in a society that is selective about who gets to do that, is to me a deeply political choice and many writers have written wonderfully on this topic already, in particular Black feminist thinkers such as Audre Lorde and adrienne maree brown. For me, claiming self-regard and pleasure required divesting from much of what I was taught about what my life should look like, as well as stepping back from the urge to compare my life to other people’s.
You can prefer to have more (or less) human company than you currently have and still make the most of what life is currently offering you. There isn’t some other, better place you have to get to before your best life can begin. Your best life is the life you are living right now, because it’s your only life. I’m not talking about making the best of a bad situation, I’m talking about giving up the idea that being alone is inherently bad or worse than being with people. Both are a mixed bag, because life is a mixed bag. Finding joy and love in your life right now (self-love is a totally valid form of love) doesn’t mean thinking positive at the expense of ignoring a problem. It’s just intrinsically pleasurable, especially when compared with the alternative of feeling miserable because we think reality should be different. Loving yourself isn’t just something for the good times, either. You can choose to love yourself when you are happy and when you feel lonely and wish you had people around. Neither of these things had to to come at the expense of the other. A lot of people this year can’t be with their families at Christmas, because right now there is a virus circulating that we agree poses a serious health risk, especially to older people. We can choose to think this is unfair and feel lonely, or we can choose to think that we’re staying home to protect our loved ones and feel love. I argue, therefore, that loneliness is part of our human experience and that if we can hold space for loneliness when it shows up, we can start to use it as a cue to help us connect with each other.