Click the play button below, or subscribe and listen through our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or Spotify.
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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Rachel (& Kristen)
DID YOU KNOW WE HAVE FREE E-BOOKS?
If you’re new to Clarity on Fire, you may not know that we have 4 free e-books for you to download!
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.
We’ve also got e-books about finding your passion & purpose in life and learning to be happy (in a world where that isn’t always easy). Download them all here!