“I’m lonely, May.”
This sentence floored me — because it was so raw, but mostly because of who had said it.
Like most Asian men of his generation, my father has never been able to express emotion. This was further compounded by the fact that he was adopted as a child and grew up in an environment devoid of affection. Even at age 70, he receives emotion like an awkward teenager. A typical attempt at emotional expression tends to go like this:
“I love you, Papa.”
“Umm..are you hungry?”
Which I suppose was better than my first attempt.
“I love you, Papa.”
“How much money do you need?”
He couldn’t express that he missed me terribly when I left home, or that he was extremely worried when I would go on solo rock climbing trips or that he was immensely proud of my accomplishments. It always came out through some roundabout comment.
“Your mum is worried about you. She wants you to come home.”
“May, I don’t think the place you want to go to is that nice. I hear there are better mountains here. Also, you can see it better on TV. They have helicopters that can film places you can’t get to.”
“Your boss sounds nice to look after you like that. You take after me, good at being resourceful.”
But there was one emotion, one powerful emotion — that he could express. It came out in a direct and forceful manner, a complete anti-style to all his other emotions.
It wasn’t “I feel lonely right now” or “I have been feeling lonely lately” but “I AM lonely”. A deep-seated emotion that had formed a part of his identity.
It made me really sit up and take notice of this emotion. Why are there so many forums to discuss depression, anxiety, happiness and all manner of other emotions but none to discuss loneliness? A depressed person can walk into a doctor’s office, call a 24-hour hotline or seek counseling. What does a lonely person do?
Nearly 47% of Americans report feeling lonely sometimes or all the time, while only 15% of adults in the US are estimated to experience depression. Think about that, it affects every other person you know. If we painted each person who was lonely blue, it would be a sea of blue people. So, why do we talk about it so much less? Maybe it’s because we don’t have the language to describe it. While post-partum depression, major depressive episode, seasonal affective disorder are part of our collective vernacular, there are very few words to describe loneliness and the nuances of why we feel it.
I’ve moved many times and traveled a lot for rock climbing, a sport that by necessity requires a partner. This need to constantly rebuild a social network or create a trusting relationship (sometimes on a daily basis) has made me classify loneliness into several different types.
Types of loneliness
- Situational loneliness
This is the kind of loneliness where you’ve just arrived at a new city and literally know no one. This loneliness is fleeting, easily fixed. You engage in a conversation with a stranger in a bar and it quickly dissipates. It’s the kind you feel the first day at a new job and quickly forget when you get invited out to lunch.
2. Specific loneliness
Specific loneliness is where a particular need isn’t being fulfilled. Maybe you feel like being touched or to go somewhere and just play video games like you used to with your friends back home. Maybe you crave meaningful conversation or the complete opposite — to sit in silence with no conversation at all. This type of loneliness lingers a little longer but is also fleeting. Maybe you’ll go to bed on Friday night feeling it, but by Saturday morning, after your morning run, it’s gone.
3. “I’m different” loneliness
This loneliness stems from not being understood. You feel that no one “gets” you. This is a common experience for people who socialize through an activity. You run a lot, so you join a running club and spend all your time around runners. Or you like music festivals, so all your friends are people who go to music festivals. As most come to realize soon enough, shared interests do not guarantee that people will understand and appreciate you as a unique individual. People are multi-faceted. Yes, you identify as a runner/climber/skier, but you also want people to appreciate your unique brand of humor or value your quirky need to go to great lengths to find the best coffee in town. This type of loneliness tends to pepper your life. It comes and goes until you meet your “tribe”. It’s not sadness you feel, just that something is…missing.
4. Intimate connection loneliness
This loneliness is a combination of the last two but relates specifically to emotions. This is where you have an intense emotion or emotional need but don’t have someone to share it with who will respond in the way you need them to. When I first moved to the US, I had some early successes at work, and because I hadn’t had the time to make strong connections, I remember thinking how much I would have loved to share that moment with someone who understood what it meant to me. That’s the kind of loneliness where your dog dies, and nobody really understood what it meant to have him by your side 24/7 for 15 years, or a parent passes away, and your friends will never understand how inspirational they were to you.
5. “I changed” loneliness
This kind of loneliness is due entirely to your choices. This is where you join the military or move to a different country or spend two years traveling and then try to re-insert yourself back into your old life. Your experiences have re-shaped your identity, thoughts, and views on life but everyone else has stayed exactly the same. They have the same jobs, talk about the same things, see the same people and generally do not understand your need for change. This type of loneliness can be tougher than the others because although you love these people and they are still there for you, the people who you considered closest to you no longer understand you at all. Worse still, this loneliness tends to mostly coincide with when you are also undergoing a significant transformation and are questioning how well you know yourself.
6. Irrational loneliness
The next type of loneliness is probably the scariest because it can be totally and utterly illogical. You can have the best friends who “get” you, a loving family and a partner whom you think is your soulmate and feel incredibly lonely for no apparent reason. It can appear at strange and seemingly irrelevant times, like when you are at your own birthday party. This type of loneliness can seem isolating because you have no idea how to talk about it. What do you even have to complain about? You don’t even really understand the reason for it, but it doesn’t mean you don’t feel it. Sometimes it’s fleeting, other times it stays around, but you never really know when it comes or goes.
7. I AM lonely
And finally, there is the kind of loneliness that my dad expressed to me. The one that becomes a part of your identity. This is where you don’t know if anyone will be there for you. You find yourself wondering if anyone would even care if you weren’t around and sometimes even feel like a burden to those in your life. This loneliness is pervasive. It’s with you all the time, even in the midst of a happy event. It’s a combination of all the previous types of loneliness, all the time. You want companionship, you want to be touched, you want to be understood, you want to be able to express emotion and have them be expressed back to you, you want someone to grow with you as life changes, you want not to feel irrationally lonely all the time.
I had not thought about loneliness with this much depth until I sat down to write this story. Its full power revealed itself to me as I gave it voice. Why is loneliness such a powerful emotion?
It’s powerful because we misunderstand it. We think loneliness is about not having company but we sometimes feel the loneliest when we are surrounded by a roomful of people — painfully reminding us of the absence of the connection we seek.
It’s powerful because loneliness causes us to withdraw. It makes us socially awkward and self-conscious. It motivates us to do the opposite of what we need to do to get out of it. When you have no money, it motivates you to get a job but when you are lonely, it can sometimes motivate you to isolate yourself.
Most of all, it is powerful because we have never been taught the tools to define it. We have no language to describe even to our closest friends what we as individuals specifically need to overcome it. We cannot shed light on it so we cannot overcome it.
All we are left with is desperately blurting out “I am lonely” and leaving the person who loves you dearly to try and understand what to do.
I’m sorry, Papa, but I don’t know. I don’t know how to begin to unpack a lifetime of loneliness.
I say the only thing I can think of saying.
“I love you, Papa.”
Even as I say it, it feels pitifully inadequate. Why, with all my education, do I not know the right words to say? Why, with all my experience learned from connecting with so many different people, could I not have prevented this from spiraling to this point?
On a rational level, my dad is grateful for the wife that has remained by his side through thick and thin, the children who love him unconditionally, the daughters-in-law who treat him like their own father and the grandchildren who adore him. The fact that he is surrounded by these people doesn’t change a lifetime of being an outsider, of never quite feeling like he belonged to his family growing up.
Here’s what I came to realize — there are two sides to loneliness. One is the lack of external companionship, and the other is the lack of internal self-love. Both, connection with others and self-love, are necessary to prevent loneliness.
Phrased in this context, loneliness becomes something we can manage as opposed to something that just happens to us.
Tools against loneliness
- Cultivate self-love
We cannot always be surrounded by our favorite people, but we can learn to love ourselves. It may be that we feel lonely because we no longer enjoy our own company. Maybe our internal monologue has become so self-critical that we constantly seek distractions to quieten it or maybe that voice isn’t there at all. The voice that tells us what we “should” do is so much louder than the voice that tells us what we “want” to do.
If you’ve forgotten to stay curious about yourself, you should take yourself out on a date. Imagine you are someone you are truly excited to get to know. Did you use to love to paint or to write? Or maybe to read super technical math books? Or do you not even know what solo activity brings you joy anymore? If that’s true, it may be time to rediscover that dormant desire to play the guitar. Give yourself the luxury of time and pamper yourself. Be fully present and really listen to yourself. What are you passionate about? What are your hopes for the future? What do you like about yourself? The key here is active engagement (hint: binge-watching on Netflix by yourself doesn’t count). You never know, you might find someone you like hanging out with in there.
2. Prioritize meaningful connections
The irony of loneliness is, it’s really hard to make new friends when you are lonely. It’s much easier to lean on existing relationships. However, for most people, connections are the first to go when there are competing priorities in life. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that meaningful connections are a “want” instead of a “need”. In study after study of regret amongst older people, not investing more in meaningful relationships is a dominant theme. When it comes to loneliness, as with most things, active prevention is better than a cure. Don’t worry about the deadline, a new job is much easier to find than an old friend.
3. Ask for what you need
This last one is one that everyone could be better at — develop the language to talk about your emotional needs instead of suppressing the feeling. Ask yourself, how many people in your life could you say “I’m lonely” to? And how many would of those people would know how to respond in the way you need them to? You have a responsibility to learn how to express yourself in a way that can be understood. Aside from listening to yourself, read more and talk more to others about this. Start with “I need….” and go from there.
Loneliness is a complex emotion that is deeply intertwined in our culture and I don’t want to diminish it by providing flippant advice that I am not qualified to give. But I do know this — I want to be part of shedding light on this emotion. I want to invite people to develop a language around it, to talk about it and to create a safe space for people to express it. I hope you will join me.