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Why do some people feel lonely more often than others?
And what does it mean to be feeling lonely?
Because I'm an odd duck, these are questions I've frequently asked myself.
In the age of social media and "always on" technology, loneliness has taken on new meaning.
We're connected with each other through Facebook and Twitter, but we're not.
Here's what it comes down to: loneliness is a mental health issue, and so it must be analyzed in a certain way.
A Time In My Life I Felt Very Lonely
My understanding of loneliness has changed over the years.
I used to think that feeling lonely was something that happened the same way for all people.
But, like anything meaningful in life, lonely people don't all have the same look. No mental health issue can be pinned down with a label--you need to look at the unique individual experiencing it.
I felt most lonely when I was in college.
This was supposed to be one of the best times of my young life up until that point--and it was in some respects. But there were also telltale signs that I was dealing with something big.
It was the first time I realized that I struggled with some pretty significant mental health issues, although I didn't quite have the words yet to describe what was going on.
Loneliness, first and foremost, comes down to mental state, and my mental state in college was one of maturation and excitement, but also one of extreme anxiety and insecurity.
When I started college, I was surrounded by friends and classmates in the dorms and on campus, in classes and in the organizations I joined. But something didn't feel quite right.
Now that I know more about mental health and who I am, I know that I was extremely lonely at the time.
Unfortunately, there's no one Wellbeing Manual For All People and Situations. There are the terms, and then there are the unique individuals who must match their unique experience to the imperfect labels that describe a whole host of general situations.
I was surrounded by people in college, but I was still lonely. I had some really good friends, some with whom I'm still close to this day, but I didn't feel good inside. I was terribly anxious.
It was the budding awareness of something off with me. And I didn't know how to express it.
So I drank too much on the weekend, and I would often get extremely depressed late at night. Sure, the alcohol didn't help, but I also wasn't being honest with the people around me.
This, I now know, this lack of honesty with myself and others, is a huge component of being lonely.
What Does Loneliness Mean to You?
So now it's your turn.
Think about a time you felt very lonely like I did. Did it match the traditional definition of loneliness? Of being alone?
Because that's not it at all. Like me, you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. There's no one-size-fits-all way to look at it.
This is especially true on the Internet and with whatever social media you prefer to use.
On Twitter or Facebook, on Intstagram or Snapchat, there are people everywhere. The possibilities are endless. But you can still feel lonely.
Why in holy heck is that?
Because loneliness is centrally linked to anxiety, and anxiety actually is made worse by endless possibility.
One of my favorite philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard, said it best:
"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom."
But Kierkegaard wasn't known for his succinct phrases. He also said this:
"Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down."
What if you and I did not look at the vast expanse before us? What if we narrowed our focus at one thing at a time?
Well, it's not that easy.
Online social networks rely on your attention being captured and then split all over the place. These platforms want you to feel inundated. It keeps you occupied, but it's not so great for feeling heard by others.
And as we're talking about here, loneliness comes back to a sense of feeling understood.
Want a better relationship? You probably need to be more vulnerable. Want to feel less lonely? You probably need to get off social media and surround yourself with people who can help you come to a better understanding of who you are.
When To Do Something About Feeling Lonely
You might be thinking, This is all gravy. But, what if I still feel lonely?
That's a valid point, and there are mental health professionals who deal with this sort of thing.
Remember, loneliness, like mental health in general, has mental, physical, and social aspects to it. And there's no shame in seeking help for this kind of complex subject. Scratch that, there's no shame in seeking help period.
If you've taken action, if you've made effort after effort to put yourself around people who truly get you and want you to be who you are and you still feel lonely, seek out loneliness specialists.
Now, this doesn't necessarily need to be an expensive counselor. It could be someone from your church. It could be that one good friend who always seems to be content and confident and secure.
The golden rule is this: if something is affecting your quality of life and preventing you from going about your day-to-day activities, it's time to do something.
Because loneliness is not a character flaw, nor is it a problem that can't be named.
Loneliness is a common human affliction.
It's time we talk about it.
It's time you talk about it and take it seriously.
This isn't meant to scare you. It's meant to inspire you and to let you know that you're not alone.
I've been lonely before, very lonely.
But it doesn't happen so much anymore.
Because I know who I am now.
And I'm working every day to become a better version of that.