By Jo Christner, Psy.D.
Being alone without another person’s physical presence is an interesting circumstance.
Isn’t it already painful enough that your spouse died and you’ve been thrust into a solitary life that you didn’t ask for and don’t want? Circumstances like a pandemic make the reality even more challenging. You’re being told to stay at home (often totally alone) and to social distance. Social distancing when we’re social beings is such a contradiction to what we’ve always been taught and encouraged. Even if it’s for the good of all, it still causes a conflict — cognitive dissonance, inside. It’s not what we believe to be true. We want and yearn human contact and connection.
Some people find being alone excruciating and lonely. Others find that being quiet brings a sense of relief and feels like less pressure. After all, from the time you enter this lifetime you’re encouraged to learn how to be alone with yourself. Many are not taught and encouraged to develop that skill and “muscle” and so they are often the ones constantly searching and yearning for that next connection.
Some of the HOPE Connection alumni contributed their thoughts about what they’re learning about themselves and being alone:
“It’s a struggle and uncomfortable for me. I don’t like being alone.”
“One day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time, I find that I’m actually ok. I just have to remind myself that I’m okay right now.”
“The world is quiet… but my mind is so terribly loud and telling me terrible stories. I struggle to quiet my thoughts.”
“There are some positive things that I’m learning about myself and others as well as watching happening in the world.”
“I have inner strength that I didn’t know I had. It seems to be waiting for an opportunity to stretch and grow. I feel it yearning for something… I guess that happened because I slowed down.”
“The sun is still shining, the moon is still rising and there is beauty in both. Maybe I see it more clearly in my aloneness because I have taken the time to notice it more.”
“My home is normally cleaned because of the hard work of another. I am now even more grateful and appreciative for the help of others.”
“It’s a relief to be alone. I feel less pressure to take care of others and can focus only on myself for a while. I can rest instead of being so busy. It’s hard at first but I settled into it and like it more now. I’m learning.”
“I have difficulty with transitions throughout the whole day until falling asleep at night. When I am ready to go to sleep, there is “space” between my closing routines and the actual hitting the bed to sleep. That space is where the unbearable feelings often creep in — feelings I can either stay with or distract myself from. I usually find a way to distract myself because the feelings are so uncomfortable and I’m faced with… myself. I understand that I am turning away from what could be a time for deeper self-understanding and growth. I just can’t do it right now. There are so many difficult and lonely transition times: Waking in the morning and starting the new day, the space just after I hang up from a phone call, finishing one task and moving on to something else, eating and ending a meal, ending a meditation, finishing an exercise routine, turning off the television. The list goes on and on. Being alone seems to heighten it all. It heightens that space in between and causes me discomfort about what will happen next. I get anxious about the pause in between, the quiet space.”
“Being an only child, I was often alone and lonely. That’s when I learned to stay busy. During the 54 years with my husband was the only time when I wasn’t alone. It felt natural for me to revert back into my busy mode to keep loneliness away as much as possible. I have my moments and then I talk to him.”
“I learned that being alone can allow me to have introspection about slowing down. It allows me to see what’s truly important about my life and my world like things that are just right outside my door: the flowers, the birds, the sun, the clouds, the trees. The things that truly make a difference, and mean so much are the checking in from a kind neighbor and the phone call from a friend. I hope that the slow down continues when this isolation ends. It has meaning and truth in connecting to what is real.”
“My loneliness in my aloneness is still present but now it brings me more peace, more reflection time and even more joy as I look at art close to home and around the world.”
“For me, when that lonely feeling comes, I put myself mindfully into the present moment, put on what’s needed if necessary, and get outdoors for a walk, a pause to look around, or step out to my backyard and either do something or just watch what’s happening, because I am now part of that moment in that landscape full of life; birds resume singing or flying nearby, the flowers change in some way daily, the trees move as do the clouds. I am at that moment, a part of life there. I do miss being with my friends and family, but we stay in touch and tell each other how much we love them. Because many of us were young during WWII and Korean War years, I look back upon how we, as children and our larger families, tolerated the limitations and survived. Our letters and cards were sent, containing real feelings and love for them and then we waited a long time, and hopefully, for a response from our far away relatives and friends and brave soldiers. Couldn’t just call nor email them; we survived. Food and gas were rationed and were not always available. We lived through not instantly having what we wanted, but knew there would be an end some day. We are both the soldiers and the families this time and cannot go AWOL. Gratitude here for our electronic age of available means of contact and entertainment, but patience, please, we are in a war.”
Everyone has their own struggle with themselves about being alone because everyone has their own unique upbringing, personality, skills, thoughts, fears, etc.
To understand what we sometimes do in our heads, there is a poignant story about “The Two Wolves.”
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.
“One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Remember, where you put your attention, what you focus on… will grow. If you focus and concentrate on “how horrible it is to be alone,” it will feel just plain horrible. If you focus on your strengths and ability to face challenges, they will grow. It may help to think: “I can do this. It’s not forever even if I feel like it will be. Feelings are exactly that — just feelings; the rest is made up. No one knows the future.”
You see, it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you perceive it and what you choose to do with it.
We come into this world alone… and we leave it alone. How we cope and manage with it in between is a choice. It takes practice changing our behaviors and changing the voices inside but you can do it. As we learn to “Be,” we find meaning in our aloneness.
Start today by just doing some of the following:
- Place a note on your bathroom mirror that reminds you of an important message each day:
One day at a time, I’ll get through this.
This too shall pass.
Reach out to a friend or family member by phone or computer today.
Spend time in Nature today and see the Beauty.
I’m Okay Right Now.
- Spend special mindful time with your pets. They really want to love you and help you to feel less alone. Mother Theresa once said “Don’t worry, in the United States, even the pets are lonely.”
- If you believe in a Higher Power, commune with and honor that connection. Find that spiritual place inside of you that feels less alone. Honor it and create rituals around it like prayer and meditation. The app Insight Timer offers over 45,000 free guided meditations, podcasts and groups that you can join and people all over the world with whom you can connect.
- Gratitude — find something every day to feel grateful about. There is an exercise called A-Z. When you start your day, go through the alphabet and for every letter say what you’re grateful for that starts with that letter (i.e. A = apples; B = a healthy breakfast; C = my favorite cousin). By the end, you may feel less lonely and more connected to so much.
Being… and Alone. You can learn to find Being in your Aloneness. It’s not so lonely there.