Loneliness and Discomfort, Moving Towards Relationship

loneliness-and-discomfort-moving-to-relationship

Today, many people are alone either by choice or circumstance. Given the way society and culture is today, with people constantly uprooting and moving from one place to another, it would be a lot easier if we could be just as happy alone as with other people. For most of us, though, being alone means being lonely. When we are lonely we often have feelings of discomfort around people we do not know. These feelings make it difficult to connect with others, when connection is the only real cure for loneliness. It may be possible to overcome feelings of discomfort, and improve the ability to reconnect with others through meditation.

Before getting into how to overcome discomfort and loneliness, let’s look at how we got here. To do this, I want you to imagine a place in the ancient world, 100,000 or more years ago.

Imagine yourself long ago in the center of a group of grass and mud huts, all linked together in a circle with their single doors facing inward. It is a moonless night, and the circle formed inside the huts is filled with your family and friends, sitting around small fires. You are all happy, and satisfied from the meal of an antelope killed the day before. You are telling stories, singing, and laughing. Perhaps you are a mother, and your infant lies asleep in your arms. The village is in the middle of a large clearing, next to a forest. To the north, outside of the circle of family, light and safety, you hear the howling of wolves. Despite this threat, you are peaceful and unconcerned because you are safe with your people.

Now imagine yourself a single man sitting next to a small fire, about half a mile from the village. You are from the village, but you were banished for stealing. As you sit by the fire you are warm enough, but you are hungry. You did not get a share of the antelope. You also hear the wolves. But you do not sit safely among family and friends and you are afraid. Maybe the predators will find you in the night. You can see the village in the distance and you can just make out the laughter as it drifts over the clearing. Tomorrow you will go back to the village and beg to be taken back. For now, you are both afraid and terribly lonely, wondering if you will be alive in the morning.

The villager’s situation will resolve itself quickly, one way or another. The village will either accept him back soon or it will not. If he cannot go back, he may die soon, alone. In the meantime, his nervous system is primed by fear. He is ready to flee or fight. He will not sleep well, which in this case is a good thing since he has no one to watch over him. Fear and loneliness, in this case, were beneficial. They forced him to stay alert for danger. They also impelled him to do whatever it took to mend his social bonds. These emotions helped him survive the night, and they helped us survive as a species.

Today, things are different. Being alone is not a death sentence. However, we are still social animals, and those old feelings live in our ancient memories. They live in our genes. To be alone for most of us triggers a feeling of loneliness, and often discomfort or fear. This is why banishment was a severe form of punishment until recent times.

According to the book, Loneliness, [1] by John Cacioppo and William Patrick, early humans were more likely to survive when they stayed together. For this reason, humans who lived to reproduce carried genes that inclined them to find pleasure when they were together, and feelings of unease when they were involuntarily alone. Human “evolution shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation, but to feel insecure, as if physically threatened.”

The book also tells us that loneliness impairs social cognition, which is the ability to understand and interact with other people. It disrupts our ability to “read” people.  Perhaps it is the fear or discomfort that comes with loneliness that robs us of our power to understand and communicate with others. When loneliness takes over, you actually lose full access to your social skills, making it difficult to establish and maintain new relationships.

For example, a teenager excluded from an activity may experience feelings of loneliness and discomfort just as severe as those of the villager in our story. The young person’s body and emotions may react in the same fight or flight way. However, the young person’s situation may not resolve itself in a few days, as it must with the villager. The same feelings of loneliness and discomfort may linger for months and even years. The feeling of being threatened that accompanies loneliness can lead to defensiveness. The young person may be unwelcoming to others, and may even be abrasive; even though all the while what the person wants is social connection.

The extreme reactions to being alone, which impelled the villager to mend fences as soon as possible, are not as beneficial as they once were. Yet, these reactions exist, and they can disrupt our ability to function with people. They can also damage our health. In a recent study, loneliness, isolation and living alone were found to increase the risk of early death by 26%, 29% and 32% respectively. The study said that the effect on reduced life expectancy is comparable to that of obesity. [2]

What to do

When you are lonely, you need to do as much as you can to reconnect with others. Your personal need for social connection is fundamental to who you are. You cannot ignore it. Luckily, in today’s mobile society there is usually going to be someone who will welcome your friendship, and who will help meet your needs for relationship. You just need to find that someone. To do this, you need all of your powers of social cognition. Two things that help to recover social skills is improving your power of perception (your power to read other people) and the lessening of your discomfort with people you do not know. These are the things I want to focus on in the rest of this article.

When we perceive something that triggers a feeling of exclusion or isolation, our automatic responses of loneliness and discomfort can be triggered. Once triggered there is a cascade of negative emotional and physical effects. It may do no good if others try to welcome us or be friendly, since loneliness impairs social cognition. It impairs our ability to accurately see and understand what others are trying to do. At the best of times, we see more negative in the world than good. When we are lonely, the negative intensifies. We can see the world as a hostile place. Often, the people around us are just as interested in connecting with us as we are with them. However, when we are lonely, we may not see this.

To break the cycle of loneliness, you need to improve perception and social cognition, and lessen discomfort with strangers. The following meditation can help you do this. The idea underlying this meditation is that our automatic reaction to being alone and lonely disrupts and distorts our perception of what is happening around us. This meditation helps to reduce that reaction and reduce the distortion.

Exercise

Settle yourself in a comfortable position, with eyes open or closed. Take three slow, deep breaths. Take the air in slowly through your nose, and then let the breath out slowly through your mouth. As you exhale, gently push all of the air out of your body. Allow yourself to relax completely.

Now, breathe in and out normally. Place all of your attention on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Allow your mind to be silent and empty of thought. All of your attention should be on your breathing.

As you meditate in this fashion, thoughts will come up. When they come up, do not fight them. Just allow them to come up as they will. However, try not to get involved in them. Your attention should always be on your breathing. Whatever the thoughts are, allow them to come and go, as your attention remains on your breathing.

Some thoughts, especially emotionally charged thoughts, will draw your attention, and may make you forget about your breathing. This is OK. When you recall that you should be paying attention to your breathing, just let these thoughts go and gently return to your breathing.

Do this meditation for as long as you feel comfortable.

This is the entire exercise. In this meditation, there are no great realizations, no flashes of inspiration, and no feeling as “one with the universe.” There are only the practices of paying attention to your breathing, and when your attention is drawn away from your breathing, moving your attention back to your breathing.

Despite the apparent simplicity of this meditation, it is very powerful. Why is this? What is it doing? How does this relate to loneliness and perception? The power of this meditation lies in large part in moving your attention back to your breathing each time your attention is drawn away. What you are doing here is consciously exercising your power to move your attention where you want it. In doing so, you diminish the power of your “automatic mind” to control what you think, and what you react to.

If your mind is always on automatic, driven by your emotions, you will be a victim of those emotions. One such emotion is loneliness and the other is discomfort. Both of these can be a reaction to being isolated and alone. If you learn to control your attention, you can learn to turn your attention away from these emotions. As you turn your attention away from these emotions, you lessen their disruptive effect on your ability to accurately perceive what the people around you are doing and saying. You are not ignoring your loneliness, you are simply choosing to take your attention away from it. You are choosing to not react to it automatically.

In this meditation, each time you consciously pull your attention back to your breathing you are strengthening your ability to control your attention. It is like exercising a muscle. Repetition builds strength. If you think of the brain as a muscle, then these repetitions may actually be building its size. In fact, it has been shown that eight weeks of regular meditation increases the size of that part of the brain that is involved in promoting emotional stability. [3]

It is important that you do this meditation regularly. It is not a quick fix. You need to set aside time to meditate every day. The amount of time you spend meditating is important but more important is doing it every day.

This kind of meditation can be beneficial in bringing a person out of a state of long-term loneliness. As a person gets out among people, it can help perception, reduce discomfort, and improve social cognition.

This meditation can also help manage expectations about interactions with others. As you interact with people, you want to avoid expecting too much. Each person you meet is not going to immediately fill the void of loneliness within you. If you expect the person to do so you will be frustrated and disappointed, and you may put the other person off. The emotional need to be filled or healed by another person comes from too much focus on your own loneliness.

Through this meditation, and the strengthening of control it provides, you can learn to set aside these emotions when you are with others. You can learn to turn your attention to the people around you and enjoy what they have to offer, without constantly comparing what they have to offer to your unfilled emotional needs.

As you get out among people and let go of what you think you need from them, you may find that what they have to offer is exactly what you need. The simple activities of being together and enjoying each other’s company are what fill the heart and heal the soul.

[1] Cacioppo, John T.; Patrick, William (2008-08-17). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (Kindle Locations 364-368). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Yagana Shah, “Loneliness And Isolation Are As Bad For You As Obesity, New Study Says,” The Huffington Post, 3/12/2015.

[3] Narang Ph.D., David. Leaving Loneliness: A Workbook: Building Relationships with Yourself and Others.

5 thoughts on “Loneliness and Discomfort, Moving Towards Relationship

    • Very kind of you to comment. I find the whole topic of loneliness very difficult, and often not talked about in any kind of a thorough way. This is really too bad, since so many people today report themselves as being lonely.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Loneliness and Discomfort, Moving Towards Relationship | How to Be Happy

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