The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.

~Chinese Proverb~

The Lessons and Liabilities of Loneliness

Most of us, when we speak of loneliness or of being lonely, are talking about a feeling. It is a feeling described as emptiness tinged with longing, sadness or grief.

We may feel cutoff from others, bleak, desolate or desperate whether in a room by ourself, in company with significant others, or at a crowded party.

Loneliness comes from a real or perceived need for belonging that is not being met. It is also, for some individuals, the experience of sensing the disconnection among those around them.

Feeling lonely is not the same as being by one's self. People can be solitary and satisfied or solitary and lonely.

Three Life Lessons of Loneliness

Loneliness, though uncomfortable, is a valuable teacher.

  1. Experiencing loneliness is not unusual, and knowing the feeling helps us to live with compassion for others. When our own need for human connection is not met, we understand its importance for all people. Our awareness of the human condition inspires us to improve it.
  2. Our emotions and feelings give us helpful information about ourselves. If we feel lonely, the message may be to get busy and meet new people. This can involve the discomfort of changing our usual behavior habits, the need to learn better communication skills, and the necessity of dealing with mental or emotional pain that prevents us from opening up to others.
  3. Inside loneliness is an invitation to become more acquainted with our self. The presence of others can never substitute for the strength of being comforted and happy in our own company. It makes us emotionally more self-reliant and better able to enjoy healthy relationships with others.

The Liabilities of Loneliness

Behavior Risks

Despite being a teacher, loneliness is also a feeling people dread. Most of the time we just want it to stop. According to psychologist John T. Cacioppo, University of Chicago, loneliness undermines our ability to self-regulate.

Not being able to self-regulate means we might choose unhealthy ways of stimulating the pleasure center in our brain, such as eating a bag of chips or cookies, using addictive substances, or spending hours playing video games. Loneliness is temporarily relieved by these activities, but undesirable consequences are generated.

Health Risks

Prolonged loneliness can lead to depression and has other serious health implications as well, evidenced by research done at the Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

Researchers there discovered that lonely people produce more inflammation-related proteins in reaction to stress than individuals who are more happily connected with others:

These proteins signal the presence of inflammation, and chronic inflammation is linked to numerous conditions, including coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany aging.

Managing Loneliness

Clearly, feeling lonely is not something that should be allowed to continue unabated. The mental and physical health consequences are too disturbing.

  1. If you know that you need more connection with people and continuously struggle to make it happen, seek help. Individual or group counseling may be a necessary step toward more abundant and satisfying relationships. Many people reach adulthood lacking the skills to create and keep meaningful connections, and the good news is that anyone can learn them.
  2. Loneliness is often accompanied by low self-esteem and feelings of guilt, as if the loneliness is your fault. Remember, loneliness is a feeling and feelings, even uncomfortable ones, are not a punishment. They give you important feedback about your situation so that you can make adjustments if you wish.
  3. Any feeling you fight against becomes stronger. The way to disarm a feeling is to feel it. When emotions and feelings are allowed and accepted they are free to move and morph. Their intensity can fluctuate. Like the tides, they flow in and out. Also, while experiencing your loneliness, consider what lesson (if any) it may hold for you.

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