The 2 kinds of loneliness (& what to do about them)

loneliness

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As an introvert, I love alone time. It recharges me and keeps me sane. But “alone” is a different sensation than “lonely,” and I’ve all too often felt lonely, even though I enjoy being alone.

Being alone can be thrilling and energizing, mostly because it’s a luxury that we don’t always have when we live or work with other people. It’s like going on vacation — the reason it’s enjoyable is precisely because there’s a time limit. Going on a permanent vacation would be boring and purposeless.

But loneliness isn’t at all dependent on who is or isn’t physically around you. It’s a form of isolation that you carry with you; sometimes it’s worse because you’re surrounded by other people.

So, what is loneliness, exactly? I think there are two major varieties, and understanding them is critical to knowing what to do about your loneliness — because there’s definitely a wrong way to handle it.

SOCIAL LONELINESS

I think there’s an “external” and “internal” version of loneliness.

I’ll call the “external” version social loneliness. Which basically means, “I wish I had more friends/family/romantic partnership in my life.”

Social loneliness is something we’ve all been through, and it’s heartbreaking in its own right. Usually I encounter this in people who are pretty clear about who they are and what they value, but haven’t yet found the right people to connect with — people who share their values and way of viewing the world.

When you’re experiencing social loneliness, it usually isappropriate to do something about it.

Sometimes it means literally getting out into the world: taking a class you’re genuinely interested in, attending a meetup group, trying a dating app, or making a point to ask potential friends out to lunch.

And often the “getting out there” is more emotional: AKA allowing yourself to be more vulnerable and exposed to people. For me, starting a podcast was a good exercise in emotional exposure. For others, that could mean deepening an existing relationship by having a hard-but-honest conversation, or letting go of perfectionist tendencies so that people have a chance to get to know (and befriend) the real you.

By the way, this is how I made literally all of my friends. I met half of them when I was a coach-in-training (so, in a space with people who definitely shared my deeper values and outlook on life), and the other half through my work as a coach (many were my clients first! So again, we connected over shared values and a desire for honesty and vulnerability).

Regardless of how you do it, the bottom line is this:

Social loneliness is usually remedied by you making a consistent effort to vulnerably and honestly expose yourself to the kind of people and places (real or virtual) where you’re likely to find shared values, perspectives, and truths.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EXISTENTIAL LONELINESS?

If social loneliness is “external” — as in, it’s something that you remedy in large part outside of yourself — then existential loneliness is “internal.” It actually can’t be remedied on the outside.

I think of existential loneliness as a void; a disconnection between you and … anything, that can feel profound even if it doesn’t look that way on the outside.

Existential loneliness can look like:

  • Feeling like no one understands or can relate to you — like your very identity sets you apart from other people, even if you wish it didn’t.
  • Related to that, having goals or dreams that other people just straight-up cannot fathom. Like you’re speaking an alien language that the people around you cannot understand at all.
  • Not trusting that the Universe has your back. Feeling unsure if there’s anything bigger or wiser than you that you can rely on.
  • Feeling devoid of meaning and purpose. Having no idea what the point of life is or what you’re here to do.
  • Uncertainty about your future. Feeling like there’s nothing concrete you can count on.

It’s heavy, deep, and intangible. It’s fundamentally wound up in the fabric of your identity. And for that reason, you cannot solve it outside of yourself. But that’s not for lack of trying!

A friend called me recently in tears. She and her long-term partner had broken up a few months previously, and she thought she was on stable footing. But she’d gone to an event that evening that made her feel lonely — which can happen easily when you’re single and surrounded by happy couples — and all of her emotional stuff was coming up again.

She said, “I almost called that new guy I went out with last week. Just so that I could have someone to connect with. But instead, I called you.”

The loneliness she was feeling in that moment may have looked more social — it’s not wrong for her to want partnership in her life and to hurt over the absence of that — but her experience was actually more in the existential camp.

Her break-up had her, as break-ups tend to do, questioning all the fundamental identity questions: Who am I? What do I really want out of life? What does my future hold? What (and who) can I count on?

She recognized, in that moment, that calling up the new guy would have been a social Band-Aid; a temporary distraction from a much deeper existential wound.

She told me, “I think I’m learning that I need to just sit with this loneliness. I don’t need to try to fix it. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable. VERY uncomfortable. But if I keep trying to distract myself with people and plans, then I’m probably never going to get what I need to get out of this experience.”

WHAT YOU DO WITH YOUR LONELINESS MATTERS

I share my friend’s story because I know it’s far from unique.

We feel the cold, void-like pull of existential dread and, because it’s scary AF, we often reach for a distraction that feels warmer and safer. That’s why so many people are convinced that, “When I get a new job, then I’ll be happy,” or, “When I find a romantic partner, then these feelings will dissipate.”

But how do you actually do what my friend said? How do you sit with it and not try to fix it or distract yourself? Does that mean you do nothing? That doesn’t seem right, either. And what if you don’t know whether the loneliness you’re feeling is social or existential? 

Here’s my take on that last question: Assume it’s the existential variety first, because you’ll never be worse off for having done the work that easing existential loneliness requires.

And what is that work, exactly? How do we honor existential loneliness without slapping a Band-Aid over it?

It boils down to a few things (all of which you can certainly work through on your own, but that are usually loads easier with help. This is the bedrock we get to with everyone in coaching):

  1. Because existential loneliness is fundamentally a lack of connection — with yourself, your purpose, your values, a higher authority — the first remedy is always to reestablish connection with yourself. The best way to start is by learning how to hone your intuition.
  2. You’ve got to get clear on what these big, weighty things like “purpose” and “meaning” actually mean to Separating what you value, and what you want your life to be about, from what everyone else is doing is critical. You may not know what the point of life is, but you can start by defining what it isn’t.
  3. You have to become OK with uncertainty, and trust that things are working out even when you can’t fathom This is a daily practice, and one that I’m very much still working on, too! Our favorite introduction to this topic is Outrageous Openness.

If you can concentrate on those things — becoming someone who has a strong connection to their own inner wisdom; who has a solid definition of purpose that they’re living according to and who trusts that the Universe has their back — then you’re on your way to easing existential loneliness.

And from that place it’s much easier to ease social loneliness. Because when you know who you are and what you want, and when you trust the Universe to have your back, then you become a magnet for the type of friends, partners, jobs, and other connections that you so deeply crave.

Not only that, but your confidence in yourself, your path in life, and the Universe to support you along the way means you can breathe through the moments of loneliness, fear, and uncertainty that are bound to come up (and they will, because that’s what it means to be human). You won’t feel so compelled to grab for distractions.

And maybe one last way to say it is this: Work on becoming the kind of grounded, purposeful, confident person you want to be, so that you’re a match to people and experiences who can rise to that same level.

So, what’s your take on loneliness? Are you in the “social” or “existential” camp right now? Come share with me in the comments below!

Much Love,

Rachel (& Kristen)


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If this blog resonated with you, you’ll want to check out What is the POINT? A jolt of hope & practical advice for anyone going through an existential crisis. 

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EPISODES WE MENTIONED IN THIS BLOG

Side Chat: Honing your intuition (& knowing when it’s really fear) (June 2019)

Blog: Here’s what I know for sure is NOT the point of life (January 2019)

Bonus Book Club! Outrageous Openness by Tosha Silver (November 2018)

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8 Comments // ADD COMMENT

8 comments

  • Marianne

    A lot of times I feel like I know what needs fixing in my life (what will make me happy that I don’t have right now). While it’s true that the attainment of those things might very well get me to a better place, I have to remind myself that sometimes the journey is as important as the destination. Just because you don’t have everything you want right now, the fact that you’re working towards it can be enough to prove that you’re whole even without those things. You’re a whole person “who is pursuing ___.” And hey, you’ll probably always be in the process of pursuing something anyway because no one ever just says “I want this one thing” and then they get it and they’re set for life. Even when we’re happy and have everything we set out to get, part of being human is observing and thinking and reacting to what’s around us so there will probably always be revelations and growth til the day we die. (At least that’s how I see it, and I see it as a good thing).

    • Rachel East

      Hey Marianne! Totally agree. I think the healthiest life perspective is very much what you said: “I’m a whole person who’s ALSO pursuing X.” Growth can be exhausting or exhilarating; sometimes both in the course of a single day! Learning to ease into that ride and not get too upset when you’re not “done” growing is the key.

  • Courtni

    THANK YOU.

  • Gillian

    It’s like you read my mind as this could not have come at a better time. This weekend, I was hit with a major wave of loneliness and it’s technically both but definitely more existential. I moved across the country and have family here but it’s not the same. And I force myself to go out to not miss experiences but being alone in a crowd of people at an event that you should be sharing with your friends really hurts. I have a very small group of friends to begin with and opening up to new people is extremely hard for me.

    I moved to try to find a new job and that has been a major pain. I know all my emotions are tied to that. I’ll try to use the tips provided in the article but man, everything just sucks for me right now! Ha. I keep hoping things will get better, but I’ve been burned so many times before.

    • Rachel East

      Hey Gillian,

      I’m always glad to hear that a blog found someone at exactly the right time! And I’m even more glad that this could articulate something that’s vulnerable and painful. Moving across the country is a BIG transition for anyone. And it’s bound to bring up both kinds of loneliness. But I also think it’s great that you took such a big leap. You really “put yourself out there” in both a physical and emotional way in doing that! There can be a time lag between taking an action and seeing the fruit of your labor, but I think there will definitely be a point at which your risk-taking will prove worth it. You’re doing good! Hang in there! 🙂

  • Sarah

    I moved to the other side of the globe (alone) to become an English teacher (leaving my music and baking “career” paths behind), my entire family and almost all my friends… oh, and did I mention I’ve gone through an entire upheaval of my faith in the past year or so but especially when I moved, and that this is also the first time I’ve lived on my own and been out from my rather sheltered upbringing?? Girl, I’ve got ALLL the lonelinesses lol. I’ve made some friends but there’s still work to do on both the social and (especially) the existential fronts. The problem is my anxiety kicks in SO much when I try contemplating those deep questions, even more so now that I’m so far away from any support net should I have a random existential crisis mental breakdown… so I distract myself with my phone, endless videos, just anything not to THINK. I’ve got a lovely therapist who’s been helping me with this but it’s still hard to know how to go about this, because THIS… is changing my entire life, my entire way of living – AND doing it all on the fly, while out here actually LIVING my dream life, and wondering how the heck I made it out this far while having no clue what I’m doing! Any suggestions? It’s a LOT… typing it all out just now made me realize that lol. I guess that means I’m doing better than I think??

    • Rachel East

      Hey Sarah,

      Wow, that is a LOT! As I was reading I was thinking, “Oh boy, I hope she’s got a good coach or therapist already!” and then was happy to find out that you do! haha. I think you ARE doing better than you think. A change of that magnitude would overwhelm anyone, and at the very least, you have a qualified person to work through those feelings with. It’s just going to take time to adjust, I think! It’s just so much to process that you can’t be expected to process or adjust quickly. That said, I’d love for you to try just sitting still without distracting yourself every day, for 5-10 minutes. You can meditate, if you’re open to that. Or you can simply just sit there without a distraction. I think when someone is afraid to confront the deep questions, what they need is to work their way up to being able to do that. And so training yourself to get there by slowly upping your tolerance for emotional discomfort is a good way to go! And yes, it really can be as simple as starting with 5-10 minutes of silence or meditation. You’ve got this! 🙂

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