Full disclosure: For the majority of my dating life, I was hell-bent on always being in a relationship. At the time, I didn’t fully understand my behavior and simply considered myself a “relationship person” as I bounced from one romance to the next, rarely giving myself time to process my emotions.
Then one day, I found myself in another relationship that was headed nowhere. I knew it needed to end, but I was terrified to be alone—so I pushed the feelings away and persisted in the relationship. I started to experience anxiety and depression, which, looking back, makes perfect sense. I wasn’t listening to myself, so my body created symptoms to try to make me listen.
Can you relate?
I knew I needed help, so I started seeing a therapist. It was the best decision of my life as it helped me develop a deep understanding of what was motivating me to jump from one relationship to the next (plus, it motivated me to switch careers!). Most importantly, therapy allowed me to see that my feelings of loneliness were a result of something called self-abandonment—a term widely used in the mental health community. Essentially, it describes the unhealthy tendency to avoid dealing with uncomfortable or painful feelings.
Self-abandonment behaviors include:
- Ignoring and not tending to your emotions
- Harsh self-judgment (e.g., I am unlovable, I am ugly, I am alone and will always be alone, no one will ever love me)
- Breaking promises to yourself
- Making choices out of fear
- Blaming others for your feelings
- Continuing in relationships that are wrong for you
Through my personal work, I began to realize why relationships will not cure anyone’s loneliness. More importantly, I found out how to be single and happy. Here’s what I discovered:
01. Chronic loneliness is a sign of a deeper issue.
Loneliness is a feeling of being isolated and unknown, and it can occur either inside or outside of a relationship. Being alone and feeling alone are two different experiences. You can be by yourself and not feel lonely, and you can also be surrounded by people and feel totally alone. In my work as a therapist, I have rarely encountered someone who didn’t have a self-abandonment issue. Most people don’t consider how they routinely abandon themselves—through self-judgment or by blaming their self-judgment on life circumstances or others—because the behavior is an ingrained habit. If you are highly critical of yourself, engage in self-sabotaging behaviors, or make other people responsible for your emotions, chances are you will struggle with feelings of loneliness. Still, you will never feel fulfilled until you learn how to love and value yourself and take responsibility for your feelings. Ultimately, no matter how much someone else loves you, as long as you continue to abandon yourself, you will continue to feel lonely, insecure, and inadequate.
02. Loneliness is a teacher that doesn’t go away with distractions.
I am a firm believer that conflicting feelings do not go away until we learn what we need to know. Loneliness is an excellent teacher. It shows us exactly how we are stuck and gives us an opportunity to learn and evolve. When a person feels lonely, the natural inclination is to distract from it—which is fine, sometimes. But the key word is sometimes. Instead of bolting from your feelings, what happens when you really allow yourself to feel it? What does that part of you need? This may sound bizarre, but the best way to deal with and work through a challenging emotional experience is not to distract from it. Rather, you must lean into your discomfort and deal with it before you can move beyond it.
03. Romantic companionship will not cure your loneliness.
There is a tremendous amount of evidence that supports the idea that loneliness is not caused by being alone; it is caused by a lack of relationships that feel deep and satisfying (emphasis on relationships—plural). From a sociological perspective, this makes sense. Our society has evolved from living in small rural communities in proximity to our extended families to living on our own in separate apartments, sometimes hours away from those we care about. As we’ve become reliant on the internet and social media to connect, we’ve also become hyper-focused on searching for a romantic “match”—putting pressure on an ideal connection that will fulfill us. But it won’t because deep down, what we all really need is a community. So before you start seeking romantic companionship, first cultivate meaningful friendships and connect with your neighbors.
04. Romance will not fulfill your greater purpose.
Unfortunately, women have been fed a cultural narrative that implies that if we are not in a relationship, there is something wrong with us. We are subtly shamed for being single when we are asked questions like, “How are you still single?” (Aka, What is wrong with you?) “Don’t you want to get married and have kids?” The problem with these types of questions (that single women are asked constantly) is that they encourage women to stay in bad relationships to avoid being single and to initiate relationships as a solution to loneliness. A woman’s world need not revolve around her love life. Romantic relationships are great—but they are only one part of a woman’s world.
Ladies, we all get lonely because we all strive for deep, meaningful connection. And indeed, it’s beautiful to find a deep connection with another person. Still, the real elixir for loneliness is learning how to connect with you.