The Difference Between Alone and Lonely – And Why It Matters
It was Thanksgiving, twenty-some years ago, and I was in graduate school. I decided not to go home to visit my family that year. Unexpectedly, my close friend and roommate told me that she was going to spend the holiday at her fiancé’s house in another city.
“Come with me,” she said. “It will be fun!” I knew that it would be, but somehow, I just didn’t feel like it. “No, I’ll be okay. I feel like being alone,” I assured her.
The morning of Thanksgiving, I got up in an empty house, and instantly knew I had made a mistake. The house felt empty, and so did I. I walked into the empty kitchen, and filled an empty cup with coffee. I sat down with an empty thud, and stared down at the empty table.
Thus began one of the loneliest days of my life.
Almost everyone feels lonely sometimes. It’s an unavoidable part of the human condition. Few are so surrounded by people at all times that they never feel left on their own.
But it does seem that loneliness is becoming a serious problem that threatens us all. New research from the American Psychological Association has established that far more people are living alone than was true in the past. New studies also show that loneliness can significantly harm your health, and decrease the length of your life.
This new research suggests that we should begin to pay more attention to the spread of “alone.” We need to take a closer look at “alone,” and “lonely.” What do they mean? How do they feel? Can we prevent ourselves from experiencing them?
First I would like to assert this one vital point: You needn’t be alone to be lonely. And you can easily be alone, and not be lonely. In other words, “lonely” is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Actually, it’s a feeling; a feeling that visits some folks more than others.
The 2 Kinds of Loneliness
1. The kind you feel when you are actually alone. This “alone” is situational. It happens when you acutely recognize that there are no people with you. You may feel this when, for example, you weren’t invited to a party, or you just moved and haven’t made any friends yet, or are sitting at home alone on a Saturday night. This alone is painful, and difficult to tolerate. But it goes away when people arrive.
2. The kind that’s more lonesome than being alone. You can feel this kind of loneliness anywhere, even when surrounded by people. This “lonely” can happen when you are actually alone. But it can also happen when you are in the company of people who genuinely love and care about you. This type of loneliness can follow you wherever you go, and it often does. This loneliness can come at any time, under any circumstances. In fact, it may be so woven into the fabric of your life that you feel it all the time. It’s a feeling that can become a part of your everyday experience of yourself and your life.
This kind of loneliness comes from your childhood. It comes from growing up in a household where the deepest, most personal expression of who you are, your feelings, are ignored or squelched by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).
Having your feelings ignored or discouraged while your brain is developing sends you a deeply-felt, never-understood message:
You are alone in this world.
This is one of the powerful messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And it does not leave you simply because you grow up. It stays there, visiting at will, and often when you least expect it.
The Solution to the Loneliest Lonely
The amazing thing about CEN is that its solution is the exact opposite of its cause.
As a child, your emotions were squelched or regarded as “nothing.” So now, you must encourage your own feelings, and make a choice to treat them as “something.”
Your walled off emotions are keeping you walled off from the people who could be occupying your heart and mind right now. Your walled off feelings represent your true self, and they have waited for you long enough.
When you begin to pay attention to them, you are paying attention to your true self. When you listen to them and take them seriously, you are listening to yourself, and taking yourself seriously.
Once you become aware of your CEN, and how it’s affecting you, you can begin to use your emotions in a way that connects you to people. It can literally change the way you feel inside, and the way you live your life.
You can begin by putting words to all of the emotions that go into “lonely” for you. Here is what I felt that day, some 20-odd years ago:
On my own
On the outside
I now understand that I wasn’t rejected by others that day. No. I was rejecting myself. I now know that taking down the wall that your child self built is one of the most important things you can do in your life. And beginning to use your emotions to connect with others in a new way is the icing on the cake.
It does take work and perseverance, but it will change you for the better in significant ways. You can defeat your Type 2 Lonely. You can take this on, and win, I assure you.
On your mark. Get set. Go.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about how to use your emotions in a new way to connect with the central people in your life, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Webb PhD, J. (2017). The Difference Between Alone and Lonely – And Why It Matters. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 20, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-neglect/2017/10/the-difference-between-alone-and-lonely-and-why-it-matters/