I wanted to write something that might be supportive at this time of year in response to what I see emerging through many people I work with and have intimate experiences with myself …. loneliness.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the diversity of experiences, feelings, perspectives and ways of being in relation to this time of year depending on our lived experience, present circumstances, beliefs and relationship dynamics.
When loneliness arises we might experience feelings of isolation and disconnection, even when surrounded by other people. These feelings may come and go or be ongoing over a long period of time. This can feel deeply uncomfortable and unsettling, as if there is something “wrong”. Inwardly we may notice thoughts that judge, shame and/or blame ourselves for the circumstances we find ourselves in and/or for feeling this way. Inevitably this inner criticism activates an instinctual threat response (fight, flight, freeze or fawn) that has evolved in all species to detect and alert us to danger making it even harder to reach out to others and risk potential rejection. Most of us have learned habitual strategies that help us to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
It’s important to recognise that loneliness is a natural human emotion. It might be felt as a sadness born out of an absence of and a longing for connection, intimacy, understanding, acceptance, comfort and/or meaningful companionship. Understandably we most often yearn for these longings to be fulfilled by another. Perhaps loneliness is also intermingled with loss and disappointment from unmet hopes and ideals. From a biological perspective, the need to feel a sense of connection and belonging to others is a safety seeking instinct that all humans share. It makes sense that loneliness feels like a threat to our survival.
Self-compassion is the practice of extending understanding, acceptance and warmth towards ourselves, especially when we experience discomfort, difficulty or distress. It involves actively responding to ourselves with the same sensitivity, care and concern that we would offer someone we care about who is struggling, rather than with criticism or judgment. In adulthood when so often there is no external ‘other’ to hold or comfort us, self-compassion can be a powerful way to resource and learn to befriend ourselves.
A compassionate approach to loneliness may include:
Being aware of our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge and accept them rather than trying to suppress, diminish, deny or ignore them (mindfulness). Acceptance doesn’t mean you invited, chose or like that this experience is here, it just means you acknowledge this is the reality of your experience in this moment.
Recognition that struggling, suffering and uncomfortable feelings, including loneliness, are a universal human experience and other people feel this way too. Remembering this can sometimes help us to feel less alone in our suffering and more connected with the greater web of life (common humanity).
Responding to any feelings of sadness, isolation or disconnection with understanding, support and comfort (nurturing compassion).
An active compassionate response might be offering yourself a word or phrase that feels comforting or reassuring to hear e.g. “I’m here with you”, “This is really hard right now”, “Your suffering matters to me” … It’s important that we experiment with a few options until we discover what we most need to hear in this moment.
If this feels tricky for you, imagine what you would say to someone you deeply care about if they came to you for comfort when they were feeling lonely. This is probably what you most need to hear yourself.
So even if it feels strange at first, have a go at either silently or out loud speaking these words or phrases to yourself and notice how it feels to receive this. What is most important here is following through on your intention to respond to your pain with compassion rather than how strongly you feel this sense of compassion within yourself.
Sometimes, instead of or as well as words, being physically held is what would feel most reassuring. You could explore placing one hand or both on your chest, or one or both hands on your cheeks or both hands resting in one another or holding yourself in a self hug. Wrapping yourself in a blanket, hugging a pillow to your chest or creating a ‘nest’ with pillows you can lie or sit in can be other ways that feel comforting. See if you can sense in to any warmth or reassuring steadiness through the light pressure of touch.
Self-compassion can help us to soothe our nervous system and access our mammalian caregiving system through the comforting warmth of physical touch, a caring tone of voice and reassuring words. There are a variety of ways to access a part of us (our compassionate self) that instead of responding to our difficulties and suffering with criticism and judgment, offers warmth, understanding and a caring responsiveness. It doesn’t mean we won’t continue to experience discomfort, difficulty and suffering, it just means we are learning to relate differently to our suffering when it arises and connect with a felt sense of acceptance, care and safety.
There is no one way to respond to what feels difficult for you and self compassion may feel less familiar to you than compassion for others. Experimentation and adaptation is helpful to discover what can potentially be helpful and gentle perseverance is often needed to explore a practice often enough to know if it will be supportive for you at this time. As always, you are the expert of your own direct experience so please take good care of yourself, take what is helpful and leave what is not, nourish what feels meaningful for you, including any experiences and/or relationships that feel like they support connection and reach out to a trusted mental health practitioner or free helpline (see useful resource links below) if what you are experiencing feels beyond your capacity to cope with right now.
"Solitude is one of the most precious things in the human spirit. It is different from loneliness. When you are lonely, you become acutely conscious of your own separation. Solitude can be a homecoming to your own deepest belonging. One of the lovely things about us as individuals is the incommensurable in us. In each person, there is a point of absolute nonconnection with everything else and with everyone. This is fascinating and frightening. It means that we cannot continue to seek outside ourselves for things we need from within. The blessings for which we hunger are not to be found in other places or people. These gifts can only be given to you by yourself. They are at home at the hearth of your soul".
Excerpt from his book, Anam Cara
Free National Helplines (Australia)
Free National Helplines
Free Self-Compassion Resources
You can learn more about different approaches to cultivating self-compassion and experience a variety of practices (guided audio and written exercises) through these two not for profit organisations. There are also many therapists skilled and experienced in working with mindfulness and self-compassion approaches, including myself, that can support you if you feel a more individualised process would be helpful.
Compassionate Mind UK
The information provided in this article is purely educational to support your mindfulness and/or self compassion practice and is not a substitute for therapy or medical advice. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional support from qualified health care practitioners. If you or the person you are concerned about appear at risk of self-harm or harm to others, please seek immediate assistance from emergency services, a registered mental health practitioner or organisation in your area or a crisis care helplines.
Hi I'm Morgan. I’m a qualified Psychotherapist, Meditation & Mindfulness Facilitator & Mentor. I work with people who want to explore their inner worlds, understand themselves more deeply, cultivate self-compassion for their wounds & develop trust in connection with their own inner wisdom.
The information provided in my writings are purely educational to support your mindfulness and/or self compassion practice and are not a substitute for therapy or medical advice. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional support from qualified health care practitioners in your area. If you or the person you are concerned about appear at risk of self-harm or harm to others, please seek immediate assistance from your local emergency services, a registered mental health practitioner or organisation in your area or a crisis care helpline in your country.
Location & Contact
In person garden studio & clinic loacted in Narrabundah, Canberra, A.C.T, Australia
Online sessions available via Zoom
M-F: 9.30am - 5.30pm