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.