Alone vs. Lonely

July 3, 2014

lone tree


Alone vs. Lonely


Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, reposted one of her own essays on her Facebook page yesterday.  I will admit it:  I hate the essay…not because of the writing—she’s a good writer—but because of the content.

Her thesis:  Women need to learn to be lonely.

OK, in the context in which she’s writing, it makes sense.  She was speaking to a newly single woman who was itching to get right back out there and find “someone better,” and Gilbert was telling her to take six months just to be by herself, despite the danger of loneliness.

She says, “We have to learn how to endure our own company and hold our heads high. And sometimes, after enough time alone, we might even learn to enjoy ourselves. And best of all, after enough time and practice, we can sometimes even learn to revere ourselves.”

She advises those who are “rushing to fill the empty space with ANYTHING or ANYONE” to pause and think:  “Don’t be afraid of yourself, OK?  Don’t be afraid of the lonely.  Sit through the lonely until you get to the good.”  (You can find the entire text of her essay here–look for Learn to Be Lonely.) 

In that context, her argument makes sense.  And yet…

I’ve always believed that if you weren’t happy to be on your own, with yourself, then you weren’t ready to be with anyone else.  Doesn’t that sound good?  And I even tested that.  I had essentially given up hope of finding anyone to love and decided I could be okay with that, be okay with being on my own, with being independent…and then my partner showed up out of the blue.  It was amazing.

And yet…

…I find myself in the throes this year of learning some things about myself that I do not like very much.

I. don’t. do. lonely. well.

Like, at all.

loneliness bird

Let me qualify and clarify that assertion.

I am an introvert (which shocks many folks, given that I’m a public high school teacher and can often come across as an extrovert).  As an introvert, I need solitude—alone time, quietude, some space—in order to recharge.

However, I would draw a distinction between voluntary solitude and enforced isolation.

The former is something I value, appreciate, choose, and, yes, even enjoy.  The latter, however, smacks of a solitary confinement cell in prison, which I hope never, ever to find myself in, because I would lose my ever-loving mind.  I’m really not kidding.

As I said, I’ve been discovering things about myself this year—it has been a year of momentous change for me, not the least of which was the ending of this almost 18-year relationship—and I have learned one crucial fact about myself:  I don’t do enforced loneliness well at all.

In the past couple of months, I’ve had several “episodes” of life-pausing Loneliness Anxiety, which spin me into tears, desperation, and a state of what I can only call manic depression—meaning that I feel both high-strung and depressed simultaneously (until this year, I didn’t even know that was possible).

I am only just discovering this about myself—I, who pride myself on knowing myself fairly well—am only just now learning this about myself; and I was going to feel bad about that, but my good friend of fifteen years reminded me the other night, through a well-placed question, that I actually have never lived alone in my entire life.  There was always family, college dorm roommates, or my partner.  That realization helped soften my own anger toward myself.


Near the middle of her essay, Gilbert notes,

The first time I was alone as adult was in the year leading up to my Eat Pray Love journey. In the space of that aloneness (which was very lonely, believe me) I was finally able to hear my own inner voice. […] I crossed this threshold where suddenly I realized, “I am going to treat myself like I am my own amazing boyfriend. I’m going to be SO GOOD to me. I’m going to take me to the most beautiful places in the world. I’m going to say the most comforting words to myself. I’m going to feed me wonderful meals, and buy me wonderful books. I’m going ask me every day, ‘What do you need, dear one? What can I do for you?'” And we ended up having an amazing time together — me and me.

Her argument for self-care is vital and compelling.  The case she makes for discovering her own inner voice is important.

And yet…



At the same time, humans are wired for connection.  This is factual.  This is scientific.  It’s in our brain structure, our neurochemistry, our DNA.  Why, then, should I be satisfied to be lonely?

Alone I can do…and even enjoy…for a time.  But extreme alone, unmitigated and unmitigable alone, turns into lonely.

Maybe it’s just a lack of faith in myself, lack of faith that I might actually be able to be sufficient company for myself.  I know I probably need to test that a little further than I have done yet.

Most of the time—especially when I know it’s coming, that dark-night-of-the-soul kind of lonely—I can take steps to stay busy, to stay connected, to talk with friends, to devise activities for myself to keep my brain from eating itself.

lonely guy

But when it springs upon me unexpectedly, or when my carefully devised plans backfire—when no one is around, when all my friends are gone or in bed or unavailable for contact, when the busyness isn’t enough to distract—I grow weak.

I think I’m mostly mad at myself for not holding out just a little bit longer, for not pushing the bruise just another minute or two before waving the flag and calling an ex.  Let me explain what I mean about pushing the bruise by way of a movie.  In Out of Africa, Meryl Streep, as Karin Blixen, talks about “this little thing I’ve lately learned to do.  When it’s so hard I think I shan’t go on, I try to make it worse.  [She lists poignant memories.]  When I’m certain I can’t stand it…I go a moment more.  And then I know I can bear anything.”

Here’s to another moment more…I guess.


5 thoughts on “Alone vs. Lonely

  1. This is so revealing — in a good way, a great way. I am reminded of something Dag Hammarskold (sp?) said, “in a place like this where so many are lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.” I cherish my alone times, but I equally cherish time with my friends. As for intimate relationships, I strongly sense that will come. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Big hugs to you, Ros. I have been where you are, and even now, occasionally find myself frozen to the face of a sheer cliff of terror, wondering if the loneliness will ever be kept at bay. Love you. Call me…would love to hear from you.

    • Denise, my friend, thank you. You know I will. Thank you for your kindness and friendship, which you are so generous with despite your own moments of fear and paralysis. I know you and I will both continue to move forward in this epic journey of growth.

  3. Pingback: Alone? Or lonely? | Colouring Between the Lines

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