I’d been wanting to crawl out of my own skin for weeks.
My generally humorous approach to life had left me shivering in my own unbidden sadness. My normal focused and analytical head was traded for a mush-mind that I did not recognize. I felt as if I were simply walking through my days in a misty disconnect from myself and everyone around me. In the middle of my chest was an ache, one that radiated at times to my throat, arms, and belly. Tears entered my eyes with every sad song, heartfelt gesture, and beautiful quote turned into an internet meme.
One Saturday evening, I was alone in the kitchen, and I was struck, almost to the floor, with a realization. I was lonely. I was profoundly lonely. In my bones, I was lonely. In my eyes, I was lonely. In my heart, I was lonely. Through my entire body, I was lonely. Instead of pushing this loneliness away with a bag of Doritos and a Netflix binge of House of Cards, I decided to dig into the loneliness and see what was there for me. And here’s where my lonely-heart story gets interesting.
Giving My Loneliness a Wink
Loneliness is an emotion that we humans avoid and deflect with everything we have. It’s an emotion that we rarely HAVE to face, though it is as common a human experience as any. Yes, we feel it, but do we really have to face it? I didn’t. With endless ways to distract myself and make superficial connections within seconds that would put it off, actually looking my loneliness in the face seemed not only terrifying but completely foreign. Yet, I was compelled to dive in to see what was there.
I wasn’t interested in the WHY… that was simple enough… but I wanted to know what was in the loneliness for me. David Gandelman, founder of Groundedmind.com, says in his meditation on loneliness, “The more we try to avoid loneliness the more we feed it… but what happens if we walk deep into our own hearts and meet that loneliness?” And with that terrifying inspiration, I walked deep into my heart and gave my loneliness a wink.
I found in my loneliness that I was ashamed. I was embarrassed to be lonely. I have love in my life. I have friends and family and colleagues and clients that I am connected to and love deeply. And, still, my chest ached with feelings of isolation and being misunderstood and alone.
In my curiosity, I uncovered something really unexpected. I am ashamed of my loneliness not because I believe I have no reason to be lonely but because I am afraid my loneliness diminishes my independence. It is my most cherished quality and yet, my irrational shame was centered on this thought that if I am lonely, I must be weak. If I am lonely, I must not be able to stand alone. If I am lonely, I must be unlovable.
Whoa! That wink had just turned into a full-on, in-your-face, slap-your-mamma-to-Tuesday kind of moment. And just as unexpectedly, my loneliness gave me some gifts.
The Big Reveal
First, my loneliness gave me the gift of vulnerability. I am an open book when it comes to my past shame. I will tell you about my failed relationships. I will talk for hours about my eating disorder. I will even tell you all about my early false starts at motherhood. But, sharing my in-the-moment, private thoughts and inner-most shame is another matter entirely.
Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat. It’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.” And so, in this loneliness and shame, I was all in. I bared my present shame to three people in one day… my two best friends and a complete stranger on Instagram. I said these exact words, “I am profoundly lonely” not knowing if I could trust myself to actually say the shameful words or the people I chose to tell and doing it anyway. And the remarkable thing was this: With the shame exposed, the loneliness lost its power.
My chest still ached. I still felt incredibly alone and misunderstood. But, I was in the light of vulnerability, and the loneliness lost its power. No longer did I feel the need to hide and run away from this emotion. I no longer felt like I needed to hide in a sleeve of oreos or scroll Facebook for hours. Instead, I was ready to “say hello to my loneliness” as David Gandelman further invites in his meditation.
After exposing my shame, I found that I have the strength to be lonely. I am capable of being lonely while still being me. I did not fall apart. I was not a mess. I found I can sit with my loneliness and carry it around until I am done with it and it is done with me.
Susan David, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, says, “We still don’t like the things we don’t like—we just cease to be at war with them. And once the war is over, change can begin.” I don’t like being lonely, but I am now willing to lay down my ineffective weapons against loneliness because I found that the battle was not one that could be won. And when I did that, I stepped into the realization that the loneliness was bringing me to the warrior heart I had completely dismissed.
Discovering the Irony
I think that we often fight against our emotions not because we are strong but because we believe ourselves to be completely incapable of sitting with the difficult emotions. We go into battle with distraction and incomparable replacements and all of those other weapons that ultimately fail. The truth is if I did not face my loneliness, I would not know my capabilities, and isn’t that the irony here? My avoidance of loneliness was due to my shame and perceived dependence on others, when in actuality, my loneliness brought me to a strength I had not yet realized I had.
Through this strength, I started to uncover the causes of my loneliness. I am lonely because I love easily and yet, accepting love is very hard for me. I am lonely because I have spent the last decade and a half nurturing everyone around me and neglecting to cultivate the friendships that feed my soul. I am lonely because I have often chosen isolation over adventure. I am lonely because I am human.
“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility,“ Susan David says in an unparalleled way. I am human and fragile, and that is part of my beauty. My aching loneliness is preparing me for a gorgeous dance, one in which I will feel that inherent beauty and one that only I can create. I am not empty; I am raw.
Since I am now fully available to accept the penetrating awareness of my loneliness, I am finding that I am deepening in compassion for all. The startling fact is, the loneliness is creating more space for love and purpose and a fullness that I have not yet experienced because I was too busy keeping loneliness at bay.
As Peme Chödrö states in her work, The Places that Scare You, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Let me know my darkness. The world needs my compassion. It does not need another pretender.
My work, both as a client and as a coach in the Plant-Empowered Coaching Program, didn’t bring me to the superficial conclusion that I must be positive at any cost. Working through the process brought me to the belief that I am strong beyond the thoughts and emotions that fuel me as a human.
Only I am in charge of my happiness and meaning in this life. No one else has that contract with me but me. And despite my fragility and loneliness, I love all that I am enough to give every emotion a wink and say hello, then take it for a fantastic, terrifying ride. It isn’t enough to recognize the emotion, and through the Program I learned that I am powerful enough to take control of the thoughts that don’t serve me and view my emotions with compassion and curiosity rather than shoving them to the side to be dealt with at a later date. This is the power of the process. This is the power of freedom. This is the power that is me.