On Loneliness

“Ms. Smogard, would you rather be alone and read a book than hang out with people?”

Once I got over the shock of how random and pointed my student’s question was, I nodded. “Sometimes,” I said. “I love being alone, but sometimes it can also be lonely.”

My last school was a boarding school and, when you live where you work, finding alone time is as impossible to come by as it is important. So I sought it out and savored it and, when I became especially quiet and reclusive, the kids would smile and say, “Ms. D is being a moody introvert again”. But here, in a normal day school setting, I wonder what it was that suggested to my student that I might be the quiet type.

I think terms of identity come and go in phases – we are more likely now to ask someone for their Myers Briggs type than their astrological sign. More specifically – I think I have heard the words introvert and extrovert more in the last two or three years than I ever did growing up. The champion book for the strong and silents, Quiet, and the rise of the four letter 16 personality types have got us thinking that we either begin with an I or an E. Like my student guessed, I am definitely an I. An INFJ, to be specific. And here is what the internet has to say about me:

INFJs find it easy to make connections with others, and have a talent for warm, sensitive language, speaking in human terms, rather than with pure logic and fact. It makes sense that their friends and colleagues will come to think of them as quiet Extroverted types, but they would all do well to remember that INFJs need time alone to decompress and recharge, and to not become too alarmed when they suddenly withdraw. INFJs take great care of other’s feelings, and they expect the favor to be returned – sometimes that means giving them the space they need for a few days.

So it seems like INFJs are introverts who can sometimes pass as extroverts given their ability to communicate. They just need time to decompress in the midst of social interactions. And one of the main ways I decompress is, in fact, by reading. By crawling into bed and not emerging for a day or two. Not interacting with anyone or anything but the pages. I – like many introverted people – love (need) solitude…but does that mean introverts don’t get lonely?

I don’t think it matters how introverted you think you are – everyone feels lonely. And sometimes the people who are constantly surrounded by other people are the loneliest. I am usually late on the acronyms (the last one I ever used successfully was LYLAS), but people talk a lot about FOMO (fear of missing out). I first heard the term in 2013, but the underlying sensation is something I think we are biologically hardwired to feel. I was reading a Washington Post article the other day that took FOMO a step further and suggested loneliness – defined as a hopeless feeling of not belonging or connecting – is a public health crisis:

Early on, when survival depended crucially on cooperation and communication, social isolation was a huge risk. So evolution shaped the primitive human brain to desire and need social interaction in the same way it shaped the brain to desire and need food.

The pain of loneliness is like the pain of hunger — it’s a biological signal that something is wrong.

[…]

“I do see these patients all the time,” said psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, who has a private practice in Cambridge, Mass., and has co-written two books on the subject. “Many of the people who end up lonely give off signals they want to be alone out of anxiety. . . . Feeling left out has a huge effect on our psyche from our evolutionary worries that everyone else will survive and we won’t.” (aka: primitive FOMO)

Not only is it a fundamentally human need to feel connected to others, this insecurity of missing out is currently getting salt rubbed in its wound by social media – the entity whose sole purpose it sometimes seems is to let you know how much fun everyone else is having without you every single moment of every single day.

Psychotherapist Matt Lund­quist, director of TriBeCa Therapy in New York City, has become something of an expert on loneliness. Hardly a week goes by, he says, without one of his patients expressing “agony” over something seen on Facebook. “It’s a reinforcement that everybody has these connections and [they] don’t,” he said Friday.

At the same time I was reading this, I stumbled upon another website. About love letters. More Love Letters is about connection outside of social media. In the form of hand written letters to those who need them most.

The world doesn’t need another website.

It doesn’t need another app or a network.

What it needs is really basic. Simple. Bare-boned.& often forgotten in the race to get followers, likes & status.

LOVE. Pure, old-fashioned, never goes out of style Love. Ridiculous, oozing, cannot pack this thing into 140-characters kind of love. Fearless, bold, unstoppable love.

People in need of human connections, emotional support, or even just one kind word can request letters or be nominated to receive them and everyone who has subscribed to the site will be notified when it is time to spread the love. Fearless, bold, unstoppable love. Doesn’t that sound nice? And LETTERS. Something full of feeling that you can hold in your hands. I got a letter a few days after I read about More Love Letters and I laughed because sometimes the universe is trying to send you a message.

The Mindful Art subscription sends me a letter every month with a piece of art and a theme – one word to explain what the art represents and why they chose it. February’s focus was friendship. Because we all feel lonelier than we have to. We seek connection on social media when it only ends up making us feel worse. You are not alone. When you feel like you are, reach out. Even when you think other people don’t feel alone, reach out. It does not matter whether your personality type begins with an I or an E, whether you prefer books to parties, or are seemingly surrounded by people. Everyone gets lonely and everyone needs a connection. It can be with a best friend, romantic partner, or a complete stranger. It can look like a cup of coffee, a love letter, or even an owl, sloth, and fox sailing across the sea. Loneliness will beat us all if we let it, so let’s choose to connect.

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