Why is there such a difference between being alone or lonely? Sometimes there’s nothing more desirable than to take a break from a good hectic and demanding life in order to enjoy some peaceful solitude. And other times the idea of being alone taps into a terrible fear that perhaps we are unlovable.
Several years ago I was sitting with a young woman who was telling me of this fear of always being alone, a fear that had been triggered by the breakup of a relationship that from most perspectives would be viewed as abusive and toxic. The man who broke up with her had been unfaithful repeatedly, had criticized her constantly for being stupid and unattractive, and had led her to have thoughts of suicide for the first home in her life.
We had talked about this over many sessions and both of us could see that the relationship had to end if she was to reclaim for herself a healthy life.
But then he broke up with her and all that knowledge and understanding went out the window to be replaced by a terrible sense of hopelessness and despair.
These feelings are universal and they are locked into our psyches. After all, throughout most of human history, to be abandoned by one’s parents was to face almost certain death.
The drive to avoid this kind of rejection is one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of human psychology.
Fortunately, most of us experience reasonably loving childhood environments and develop a sense of security in relationships that makes us able to move past a breakup without slipping into a sense of despair.
But some of us did not.
For those who did not ever develop that sense of security we may fall into a pattern that I illustrate below… We go from a reasonably stable life without a romantic partner, to a life of crazy ups and downs and then a crash into despair when the relationship ends. The difference between “before” and “after” illustrates the profound difference between being alone or lonely.
What to do?
The first step is to see the pattern clearly. Because our brain can be pretty irrational when it faces the sense of loss and loneliness after a rejection, it makes sense to try to describe (in writing) as clearly as possible the state of being alone before a relationship. What it is like, how you think about yourself, and what you do to take care of yourself. And then contrast that with the experience of being lonely. Answer for yourself the question: what is the difference between being alone or lonely.
Now realize that the fear that you are experiencing when a relationship ends is not rational and not in any way realistic.
Finally, take action. The only way of counter-acting the fear of abandonment is to not abandon yourself. To make sure that you take care of your emotional and physical health. Reach out to others. Reconnect with friends and family. And pay attention to exercise, healthy eating, and don’t get caught up in unhealthy avoidance – drinking, using substances, binge-watching videos, etcetera.