In solitude, the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself. — Laurence Sterne
WHAT IS LONELINESS?
You might say it feels like:
Emptiness. Sadness. Missing out. Not feeling part of it. Yucky. Unpleasantness. Disconnected. Uncomfortable. Not fitting in… but wishing you did. Without friends. Without anyone. Just “without”. Being all alone.
I think there’s a difference between being alone, and being lonely. Although being autistic makes it hard to find the thin veil of this line. I wonder, perhaps loneliness is not so much “being alone” or “to have solitude”, but rather, “feeling unwanted and isolated”?
Understandably, feeling unwanted is an emotion that goes hand-in-hand with autism. As a person with autism, we are different. We are “unwanted” by the typical mainstream society… or at least, that’s how many autistics feel growing up. But, as we are on a SPECTRUM, each person on the spectrum is different. Although we share a common problem (autism-ness), we still have a wide array of different interests, ideas, and life experiences. So some of us may feel variations of this loneliness sensation.
Loneliness has its benefits, and its pitfalls.
In the quiet space of being alone, of having solitude, there is a great deal of space for self-reflection, to be able to see things clearly and create a future plan to explain and “release” ourselves from current issues…
However, being alone also brings out our negative thought loops and overthinking of things. Being autistic means I sometimes experience an issue of “analysis-paralysis” where we analyze ourselves into corners.
I think that’s why having a good therapist is so important. I can be be alone, but see my therapist to air my ideas and thoughts, gain feedback, and see where my thinking is skewed. As an aside, I’ve had a fabulous therapist for the past 17 years and she’s really helped me to not fall into analysis-paralysis when I’m alone. I find my alone times very self-caring now. I find the solitude brings me peace.
How to work on/ work with loneliness
First and foremost, I need to say:
It sucks to feel darkness in loneliness. It really sucks.
But you CAN work on this.
The catch – yes, there’s a catch – is that working on loneliness is like working on any emotional state you perceive as “bad”. It takes WORK. When something feels bad, it is harder to look at, it is harder to work on, to work through…. because, quite logically, it feels bad! Consider this: when you feel good, everything seems easier, correct? When you feel good, being in the world is enjoyable, and things you do are more uplifting. When you feel “bad”, it’s going impact on your ability to stay with it, and to get things done. In a nutshell, that’s depression.
So, when you feel loneliness, and hence, you feel “bad”, the most most common response is to run away. Fight or flight. Something is hurting me (in this case, emotionally), so I can either choose to fight it (but stay in the emotion) or run away (get away from the emotion). It does, on a very basic level, make sense you want to retreat.
Here’s the tidbit of useful information-
Sometimes it’s okay to run away. Just don’t make a habit of it.
How to deal with “bad” feelings?
It is all about a journey of self-care. Self love, as it were. Now, I know self-love has been absorbed into a happy-clappy new age concept, but it actually sits at the very core of our human psychology. If we care for (or love) ourselves, we are able to give ourselves what we NEED. Self-care is about becoming aware of what you actually need in the moment, not what you want.
For example, when you are out with a group and feel uncomfortable, perhaps what you truly need at that time is to stay. What you want might want most is to run away, but what you need (from a deeper psychological perspective) is to be present in the experience and try to connect with others. It’s also possible that what you *need* is to recognize that you have reached your limit of social interaction and you need to accept that is okay for today. You may want to stay in order to prove to yourself that you can, or because you want others to like you (and think you’ll be judged if you leave early), etc. Do you see how your needs and wants affect each other? It is essential to learn self-care so that you can protect yourself and give yourself what you need.
Sure. I can put my needs first…. but how do I figure out what I actually need?
A good question!
Quite simply, trial and error. In a more complex sense, you will find that more introspective work or mindfulness activities will help you begin to understand yourself better.
Having a supportive therapist is excellent for help with your own inner-journey
By working on ourselves, by loving ourselves, by building a relationship with ourselves, we are able to build meaningful connections with others. And we are more able to manage and understand our emotions.
Specific steps and strategies to manage loneliness
- Talk to your therapist about your feelings of loneliness. What happened? Where were you when you felt loneliness? Did you feel any other feelings alongside the “loneliness”?
- Become mindful and aware of your “lonely feeling” states. It’s okay to feel a feeling. Be mindful of it. Hold that feeling in your mind, and breathe. Tell yourself, “Hello Loneliness. I am aware you are here again. Welcome Loneliness”. This might be hard at first (like, why welcome something horrible?), but the more you do it, the less power Loneliness has over you. You are in charge of your body, of your mind. Befriend all feelings you have. Loneliness is part of you. Being mindful of the less nice parts of you, is loving yourself.
- Act on what you need rather than what you want. When you begin to turn inward (in terms of working on your psychological space), you will learn to love yourself more. You can learn when it is time to stay focused on what you need, instead of reacting or following your habits/ automatic behavior patterns and thoughts. How to do this exactly? Self reflection, chatting with your therapist, reading psychological books and critically analyzing yourself.
- Practice self-care by setting boundaries. You’ll love yourself more and you’ll also feel less lonely when you set limits or say no to work, love, or activities that deplete or harm you physically, emotionally and spiritually, or express poorly who you are.
- Protect yourself. Bring the right people into your life. Surround yourself with people who support you, encourage introspection and self-growth. If you have experienced a trauma growing up, make sure you talk about it with a therapist. Show yourself a little kindness. What happened to you was horrible; it wasn’t your fault. You deserve a little kindness….
- Forgive yourself. Hey, sometimes we forget to show ourselves a little gratitude. We often don’t stop and think about how we may tend to demand perfection of ourselves. We can be so hard on ourselves! Certainly be responsible and take responsibility for your actions, but remember punishing ourselves too much for our mistakes is not helpful. You have to accept your humanness (the fact that you are not perfect), before you can really love yourself. Practice being less critical of yourself when you make a mistake. Remember, making a mistake doesn’t mean you are a horrible person. You are human, so give yourself a break. Forgive yourself for getting it wrong. Accept your humanness. Take note of the mistake, apologize if you have hurt others, and now set your mind to making it right. If you have learned and grown from your mistakes, that is a positive thing.
So why even “love yourself”? What’s that got to do with loneliness?
In short, when you feel lonely and “unwanted”, what you’re really feeling is a lack of connection with yourself. I know that sounds self-help-shitty, but it’s like this: When you have strayed from your strong sense of self, or forgotten to self-care, you’ll start doing things that are destructive. You’ll start feeling that experience of being unwanted and alone, even in relationships/ groups. You’ll have more fights with others; more misunderstandings, more issues…. and you’ll also find your autism “gets worse”.
The fact is, we do not always really love ourselves or care for ourselves. It’s hard to always self-love and self-care. It’s hard for most people, but when you’re autistic, I’d garner it’s harder. Not only do we have life events and stresses, but we’ve got all these other thoughts going on in our head– sensory challenges and taking on feelings, overflowing changing emotions, intrusive negativity, recollections of things other’s have said, quotes from books or films we’ve read, things our friends/ family/ partner has said, our own ideas– all this jumbled stuff to sort out and to choose which is important (which is “correct”?).
Being autistic means I know sometimes I don’t hear things correctly, and sometimes I don’t understand what is meant, and sometimes I can’t interpret your face/ tone/ expressions, so I know I’m already on the back foot in communication. I am acutely aware of my limits.
My loneliness and disconnection from the world and those in it just grows and grows when I deny my own self-care time.
So, I may go to a group, try to get myself “back out there” and then I feel lonely in the group. I feel lonely around my family/ friends/ partner. All this: the loneliness with others is not about them. It’s about YOU. That feeling lonely is actually reflective of your own disconnection with yourself.
When you love yourself, you build the connection with yourself and you self-care with intention and kindness… So, you deepen your connection with yourself, and this solidifies your strong sense of self. In turn, the deeper your self-care focus, the more you can build healthy connections with others.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
Figure out your own self-care plan
When you’re “back to normal”, or working with your therapist, it’s a good idea to create a self-care plan. A self-care plan is as the title suggests: a plan to increase your self-care, something that is manageable and when you do these things, you feel good. This can be a 1 page go-to list, or an essay-length plan. It just needs to be YOUR plan. This is about you.
Think about the answers to these questions, to help you develop your own plan:
- What indoor activities lift your spirits?
- What outdoor activities lift your spirits?
- What music makes you feel happy?
- Who do you most enjoy spending time with? Why?
- How often (per week) can you give time to your self-care? How long?
- How often do you need to see your therapist? Do you have a next-appointment booked in already?
- How do you feel when you self-care?
- Describe how you know your self-care activities are working for you.