We are all sentenced to solitary confinement

The title of this article is a paraphrase of something Tennessee Williams wrote: “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” By solitary confinement he was referring to the cage or prison called loneliness. Loneliness and aloneness are not the same. Aloneness is a state of being, while loneliness is a state of mind. We all know people who live alone and are perfectly happy. Yet, the opposite is also true. There are people who, despite their families and friends, have a gnawing feeling of loneliness that eats away at them. They feel disconnected from the world and usually suffer in silence.

Loneliness is both pervasive and unavoidable. Temporarily experiencing loneliness after the death of a spouse or child is normal. But after loneliness is triggered by an event, care must be taken to immediately begin on the road to recovery, even if it takes a year or longer to heal completely. If we do not aggressively attack it, there is the danger of getting mired in chronic loneliness. It is at such a time that we sentence ourselves to solitary confinement.

Some of the many events that can trigger loneliness are: retirement, job loss, a career setback, death of a loved one, a sudden disability or serious illness, substance abuse, discrimination, estrangement, imprisonment, shyness, children leaving home, relocation, divorce or the end of a relationship, obesity, isolation, rejection caused by ones sexuality, mental or physical abuse, real or imagined rejection, homelessness, and the absence of spiritual, religious or life-affirming beliefs.

Loneliness-triggering events for children include, criticism, corporal punishment, sexual abuse, their parents divorce, not enough time spent with working parents, transfer to a new school, and schoolyard bullying. Even the rich, famous, and powerful can suffer from loneliness. For example, they may be suspicious of the motivation of everyone in their lives. After all, it may be difficult to distinguish between sincere friends and groupies that merely wish to share in the limelight.

How should we respond when a loneliness-triggering event occurs in our lives? There are only two things we can do. We can allow the event to seize control over our lives, or we can remain in control. If we choose to succumb to loneliness and wallow in self-pity, our negative attitude will drive others away, isolating us, and thereby beginning the dangerous downward spiral that can lead to chronic loneliness. On the other hand, we can recognize that loneliness is a natural and inevitable experience that will defeat some and strengthen others. We can choose to join those who decide to overcome their suffering. Why not become a victor instead of a victim?

Overcoming loneliness

Here are some steps you can take to release yourself from the prison of loneliness.

Be your own best friend. Learn to like yourself. I dont mean that you should become egotistical, but just that you should feel good about yourself. Follow your conscience and you will be proud of yourself and happy to be in your own company. As Wayne Dyer wrote, “You cannot be lonely if you like the person youre alone with.” Jean-Paul Sartre reversed the same idea when he wrote, “If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.” So, if you are bad company, improve yourself until you are a pleasure to be around! If low self-esteem is holding you back, dont just whine, pick up a good book on the subject and apply its principles. If you are troubled by psychological pain you experienced in your childhood (criticism, rejection, ridicule, etc.), you can also learn how to heal your wounded child. There are many excellent books on the subject.

Help others.
Loneliness drains ones energy. Lonely people may just sit around hoping to be noticed. Instead of focusing on themselves and experiencing their own pain, why dont they look outward and notice the pain of others? Think of all the lonely people in hospitals, for instance. Why stay at home and mope when we can visit hospital patients and relieve their loneliness? If we were to do so, wouldnt our loneliness disappear? Isnt it true that if we wish to have a friend, we must be a friend? Experience the insight of Dag Hammarskjold and youll be on the road to recovery. What was his insight? Heres what he said: “What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear.”

Accept responsibility. Stop blaming and start taking responsibility for the choices you make. Its time to make the right choices. You deserve to be happy. So, take the steps that will pull you out of the gutter of loneliness. Blame is self-defeating. Responsibility is self-actualizing. Live by the precept, “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Journaling. Need someone to talk to? Talk to yourself in a journal. Keeping a journal is cathartic. It will help purge yourself of negativity. Ask yourself questions and sit in silence until you get answers. Record the answers and apply them to your life. Example questions are: What would it be like not to be lonely? How would I act differently? What can I do to change my attitude and behavior? When will I accept responsibility for my own actions? When will I begin to take the steps I know I should take? What can I do now to begin overcoming my loneliness? Journaling is a valuable tool in regaining control over your life. There are several great books on the subject, look into it.

Join Groups. You can meet many people at church groups, clubs, associations, volunteer groups, and adult education classes. While there, dont look for friends, but look for opportunities to befriend others; dont look for someone to heal your loneliness, but look for chances to heal the loneliness of others. For it is in giving that we receive.

Plan in advance. When you know in advance that you will be alone, prepare by renting a hilarious video, borrowing an inspiring biography from the library, or catching up on chores youve been meaning to do.

Focus on the positive. If you dont have any friends, look in the mirror, and what do you see? A smile or a frown? If we walk around with a chip on our shoulder, we drive people away. Conversely, if we are polite and friendly, we attract others to us. If you wish to attract birds, scatter bread crumbs, if you wish to attract friends, scatter seeds of love.

Exercise. Loneliness is a state of passivity. To erase it you need to be active. Get involved in an exercise program. Exercise will make you feel better by improving your health, lifting your spirits, and boosting your confidence. And while doing so, you may make new friends.

There are many other things you can do, such as getting a pet and cultivating hobbies. For more help, look into The Loneliness Workbook by Mary Ellen Copeland, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, California. If you cannot lift yourself out of loneliness unassisted, seek the help of a professional or join a local self-help group.