I’ve been deathly ill, depressed, injured, heartbroken, and just plain broke.
I’ve survived cheating, divorce, robbery, jail, lawsuits, betrayal by friends, and the tragic death of loved ones.
These were painful experiences for me to bear. But nothing I’ve endured in my life has been more crippling than loneliness.
Do you see me?
Not only does loneliness feel like no one sees you, but it can also make you believe nobody wants to be around you.
Many think of loneliness as isolation, but it feels more like abandonment.
Our fear of abandonment goes back to our earliest childhood memories. When a baby thinks its caregiver has left them — because mom went to grab the mail from the mailbox — a baby can go from happy to panic in an instant.
And like dominos, this fear of abandonment sets into motion the release of chemicals to the stomach, brain, skin, and heart, often inducing crying, and even hyperventilation. By the time the caregiver has come back to the crib, the baby is screaming her head off, drenched in tears, skin flushed, and chest pounding.
As adults, the feeling of loneliness can also trigger those same fears of abandonment and release of chemicals a baby goes through — except it’s more of a concealed panic and silent scream.
The worst part of being lonely are the questions that can preoccupy your mind:
“Why am I so lonely?”
“Is there something wrong with me?”
“What am I lacking?”
With no one around to answer these questions objectively, the voices in your head take over. They become your primary counsel, providing mean-spirited explanations for why you’re lonely. But their advice is usually not helpful or accurate.
Listening to the constant echo of these inner thoughts can rob you of your self-esteem, sense of worth, and hope for the future.
How do I know so much about loneliness?
I’ve experienced the debilitating effects of loneliness several times in my life. But what made my loneliness painful for me is that I’m a very social, extroverted person. According to my psychological profile: I derive my source of energy, creativity, and imagination by being around people.
I feel alive and shine when I am with people.
How does a very social, extroverted person end up lonely?
First, I moved around a lot, which entailed having to make new friends frequently.
And secondly, when faced with extended periods of loneliness and lack of human interaction, I’d fall into a negative thought pattern of believing I had no value.
Desperate to solve my loneliness, I read everything I could on the topic. I uncovered many terms to label my condition. But what I didn’t find were solutions for how to end loneliness, or what to do with my time alone.
So I developed four strategies on my own to address my loneliness.
#1. Don’t fight it
Many people seized by loneliness will often fight it. They will wail their arms around, trying to punch an invisible character. And obsess about the matter, which often leads to vicious self-criticism. Or worse, they will get into unhealthy behaviors — such as drinking too much, drugs, or surfing the dark corners of the web in search of human connection. (There’s probably no lonelier place in the world than internet pornography.)
You have to catch yourself before falling into this negative spiral.
When loneliness comes to your door, don’t fight it. Instead, shake the hand of loneliness, let him sit down with you. Offer him a drink and try to figure out how long he intends to stick around.
If your loneliness is only temporary — say a few days or weeks — that’s not only tolerable but, perhaps, healthy for you.
On the other hand, if it looks like loneliness might shack up with you for a while, say 1–3 years — because of a big move, death, or divorce — embrace your new tenant with open arms. Then develop a detailed plan for how to make the best use of this unique time in your life.
#2. Get into a group exercise routine
I meet many people that are lonely, depressed, anxious, not sleeping well, and lacking energy. They’re often looking for a magical pill to make them feel better, but the best medicine available to us is exercise.
When you exercise, you release all kinds of endorphins that naturally help make you feel better. And feeling good is essential to your outlook on life.
But my recommendation for lonely people is to get into an exercise routine that involves interacting with other people as a group.
Many lonely people prefer to run or lift weights by themselves with their headphones on and their personal bubble space well-protected. While these forms of solo exercise tap into the endorphin side of training and allow you to clear your mind, they don’t help you meet new people.
However, exercise activities like golf, tennis, soccer, swimming, water polo, ballet, flamenco dancing, CrossFit, etc. entails meeting new people.
When my brother was in his mid-20’s, he moved from a small town in the south to the big muscular city of Chicago to start his career. He was worried about feeling lonely, so my brother dared to try something he knew nothing about: he joined a rugby league.
They practiced during the weeknights after work and played competitive games on the weekends. The physical pain was intense, and the rules were challenging, but the payoff spectacular. Within a year, my brother had made at least 45 good friends and had people to hang out with regularly.
When I moved to a new city, I tried something equally bold and obscure. I started training in an ancient martial art form called Muay Thai. And I became addicted to the sport and the community.
I’ve been doing Muay Thai kickboxing 3–4 times a week for the last 20 years. This routine did more to improve my life — physically, socially, and emotionally — than anything I’ve ever done. And I’ve met many lifelong friends because of it.
I advise lonely people to get into martial arts — like boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts.
Why do I like these particular activities so much?
They encourage people to make physical contact with strangers, feel vulnerable in front of others, and learn to trust people they don’t know. Martial arts also builds your confidence, helps you face fear, keeps you physically fit, and provides you with a community clubhouse.
The hardest part of exercise is getting started. The voices in your head will come up with many reasons for why you shouldn’t do this, but don’t listen to them. Pick a date you’re going to start a new exercise activity, and don’t let yourself off the hook.
I promise you, once you get started with a new exercise routine, the benefits will far exceed the risk and effort.
#3. Invest in your mind
Each time I’ve encountered a life-changing event—such as a big move or divorce—I knew loneliness would be waiting for me. Instead of drowning in sorrow, I used my alone time to expand my knowledge in a structured manner.
At the start of each year, I’d write down four big topics I was interested in learning. I’d select one item per quarter and spend the next three months reading and learning everything about that subject, like an investigative reporter.
But nothing ever happens without a deadline. It’s critical to have a specific start date, a daily amount of time you’ll commit to the subject — no exceptions — and a self-imposed deadline to complete your project.
Some of my past subjects included becoming well-versed in psychology, religions of the world, cooking, marketing, branding, investing, innovation, graphic design, urban planning, and, of course, loneliness. Outside of studying on my own, I took classes on poetry, Jungian psychology, mediation, Buddhism, languages, and more.
I’ve used this structured technique of studying one topic per quarter for 30 years now. This steady habit of acquiring knowledge has become invaluable to my personal life, work, and success.
And I have loneliness to thank for that.
#4. Go out and see the world
Not everyone has the opportunity to travel. But if you do have the means, I recommend that you take some trips — surprisingly — by yourself.
Traveling alone can help you take a vacation from being your usual self. It can also allow you to contemplate your existence on earth.
When you go on trips with friends, it can turn into an exhausting ordeal trying to synch with everyone’s mood, schedule, and itinerary. Questions such as what time to wake up, go to bed, what to eat, and what to see can turn into fierce debates.
But when you travel by yourself, you don’t have to agree with anyone but yourself. There may be some days when you want to sleep in, or not sleep at all. Read a book on a park bench or walk 25 miles across the city. Or perhaps change your itinerary and travel to a different city.
Traveling alone allows you the opportunity to meet new people from entirely different backgrounds and cultures.
After I went through a divorce, I found myself in a negative spiral, so I bought a ticket from Atlanta to Paris and a return flight from Rome back to the U.S. Other than my first-night hotel room, I made no other hotel arrangements or plans for the next five weeks. With only a backpack, I traveled all over Europe, hopping on random trains and staying at hostels.
Although I was alone, being by myself in a different context, made everything seem new, fresh, and full of possibilities.
Whether you travel across the ocean or just to the other side of your state, getting outside your traditional comfort zone can do wonders for opening your mind to the many different possibilities for how your life can unfold.
Time to invest
I’m happy to report that I’m not lonely anymore. I have the opposite problem now that my wife, kids, parents, in-laws, neighbors, schools, etc. are in my head and personal space all day long. I still make sure to carve out at least an hour or two daily for myself, but it takes effort to achieve.
I love my crowded life now and wouldn’t change it for the world. But I’m also grateful for the periods I had to be by myself.
During that “self-ish time,” I became a martial arts expert, well-versed in a multitude of subjects, and exposed to some of the world’s most fascinating cultures. None of these accomplishments could have happened if I hadn’t gone through those lonely periods.
A hidden purpose
Not unlike a baby, what worries most adults about loneliness is the belief that this condition is permanent.
But what if you knew that loneliness is only a temporary state?
And what if you found out loneliness comes to us for a reason?
If you find yourself feeling lonely, I encourage you to consider the possibility that loneliness is there to urge you to take some time to invest in yourself before you fill up your life with others.
Previously published on medium
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