alone: adjective \?-?l?n\: without anyone or anything else: not involving or including anyone or anything else: separate from other people or things
lone·ly: adjective \?l?n-l?\: sad from being apart from other people: causing sad feelings that come from being apart from other people: not visited by or traveled on by many people
The other day, I was standing in line at Starbucks (I know, I should really just make my own, it’s way cheaper) and I observed a phenomenon you’ve probably seen, too.
All of the tables were occupied by solo patrons sipping their drinks, staring at their laptops and phones, gently nodding to the music being transmitted through bulky headphones. I got my drink and did the necessary hula-hoop walk as I navigated through the sea of tables to find a place to sit. I passed each table, looking for one that seemed relatively welcoming for the silent blind date I was about to initiate, and ended up sitting down with a lovely chap who made room for me at “his” table for two, and we both did our own thing.
As I sat there working, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the patrons around me were engrossed in some type of social media. It was an ironic picture; a room full of people, no one talking to each other, all focused on creating community through a glass screen. Seeing this picture of everyone looking down at their gadgets, smiling at a device that can’t smile back, it got me thinking about relationships and the nuances between being alone and being lonely.
As noted in the above definitions of “alone” and “lonely,” the difference does not solely rest in physical circumstances. In other words, it’s not about what is happening around you, it’s about what’s happening inside of you.
You can be standing in a room full of people—even people who really love and care about you—and still feel lonely. Conversely, you can be alone on a hike and feel absolutely amazing.
In my therapy sessions with clients, we often explore their feelings of loneliness, what happens inside their mind and body, and what kind of narrative about their self-worth comes up. When feelings of loneliness and the way they play out are wrapped around relationship status, it can come down to a simplistic equation: If I am alone or single, I am lonely; If I am not alone or I am in a relationship, then I am not lonely. This way of thinking—which is normal and common—can keep people holding onto stale relationships, intensify the pain of breakups, and also make it confusing when feelings of loneliness pop up despite being in a satisfying relationship.
For many people, when feelings of loneliness pop up, the go-to solution is to be around people or find distractions. And that’s okay. Sometimes that’s just what you need. But there is also something to be said for getting to know your loneliness, not being afraid of it, and not making decisions in order to avoid it.
A friend once shared with me that whenever she’d get text messages from a male friend asking her to come sleep over, she’d go despite feeling frustrated that he didn’t want anything more from the relationship. On the way there, she knew inside she was going because she didn’t want to feel lonely in her apartment, and this was better than nothing. But every time she found herself walking home afterwards, she felt lonelier than ever.
With the help of therapy and learning self-compassion, she explored her fears of loneliness and the irony of her behavior – that her fears were leading to actions that made her feel even more lonely —and over time she was able to stop the self-defeating cycle from happening. Similar to the idea in Kelly Clarkson’s song lyric, “Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when alone,” she developed an acceptance of herself and a self-concept that was independent of who was by her side, and it translated into wiser decisions in relationships and better confidence in herself.
Getting to know yourself and what you hope a relationship will do to alleviate your loneliness can be a vital tool in establishing realistic expectations of a partner and what you expect a relationship to do for your ability to be at peace in your own skin.
Ask yourself what scares you about being alone, what lengths you’ve gone to to avoid being alone, and if your efforts to find a suitable partner have been hindered by impulsive decisions to avoid feeling lonely.
Looking inside yourself can be scary, but with honesty with yourself and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone, you can find yourself experiencing life with a whole new level of satisfaction and independence.
Rachel Hercman, LCSW is an individual/couple psychotherapist, writer, and lecturer specializing in relationship issues, sexual functioning, and women’s wellness. She is based in New York City and is on staff at the Medical Center for Female Sexuality.