The difference between alone and lonely

"How to be alone"

“How to be alone”

Here on Valentine’s Day, where the focus is so frequently on couples and romantic love, those of you who are single, in a long-distance relationship, far from friends, far from family, or otherwise alone might feel lonely. Sometimes people even feel lonely when they’re with their spouse, romantic partner, family, friends, or even in a crowded room. Have you ever felt alone when you were surrounded? I know I have.

Lonely is a totally normal human emotion. It happens when we don’t feel connected to others and want to feel connected to others. Lonely is uncomfortable. Lonely produces anxiety. When we feel lonely we might feel inferior, invisible, like we don’t matter, or that others are looking at us and laughing or feeling sorry for us. (But is that what you think of someone you see who is alone?)

When you hear the word lonely, I would bet you have a negative reaction to the word. But here’s a question for you. How do you react when you hear the word solitude? What about meditation? What about solo? What about individual? For me, at least, these words imply “alone” but without implying that alone is a bad thing. Sometimes those words even feel powerful to me – I’m impressed by someone who goes solo!

So here’s my big question: can you be alone and not lonely?

My personal answer is yes, and for me the answer has a lot to do with your comfort with yourself, your comfort with your own thoughts. Sometimes we talk about this as loving ourselves, but I think it might be even more than that. When we are alone with ourselves we learn how to deal with discomfort. We learn more about what we like and don’t like (and not just what we’re willing to go along with for others). We learn to be okay with ourselves.

In my own personal journey learning to be alone wasn’t easy. I used to not be able to sit at home alone without turning the television on for some background noise. I imagine it goes without saying that I was uncomfortable with being not in a relationship too! I thought if I didn’t have others who wanted to be with me all the time that I might not be important, meaningful, or lovable. Have you ever felt like that? 

And then I started learning how to be alone. This beautiful video, “How to be alone”, helped me. I recommend it to anyone who is feeling lonely today. Really, please take 5 minutes to watch it now! I started small, just as the video suggested. Eventually I discovered that I like going to movies alone. Further down the road I did something that terrified me: I traveled alone. Internationally, no less. And it turned out that I loved it! I had grown to love time with me, which also helped me know me and love me. I was okay with myself!

There’s no question that it is important to have a support system: friends, family, other loved ones. Support is proven to be important for our mental health, so we don’t want to be alone all the time! That said, I think learning how to be okay being alone is a powerful, transformative action. It isn’t easy to learn how to be alone, and it isn’t easy to move from lonely to alone, but I know it is possible. It doesn’t mean you’ll never feel lonely, but I think it does mean you’ll know a lot more about when you’re actually lonely and when you’re just alone. I can’t encourage you enough to learn how to be alone, and Valentine’s Day just might be the perfect day to start!

If you’d like a partner in working through loneliness, learning to be alone, or getting to know yourself, give us a call at Life Skills Resource Group Orlando at 407-355-7378. Cindy Fabico, Amy Smith, and our other Orlando mental health counselors are ready and waiting to join your team and help you grow to love yourself!

We all wish you a happy Valentine’s Day full of love for those you care about, but most importantly, full of love and comfort with yourself. ~Krista Bringley