I consider myself an ambivert — a mélange of an intro- and extro- person. I can burn the candle at both ends or I can contentedly sit alone in a quiet candle-lit room. Recently, though, I’ve been spending more time alone than normal. One major factor is that I’m trying not to spend as much money every week — in New York, a quick, casual lunch date with a friend can set you back over $50. But, I also like being on my own. I am someone who prefers to go to the movies alone and I have no problem eating a full 3-course meal solo at a restaurant.
I’m a guy who lives in his head (and has always done so) — sometimes to the detriment of productivity. But most of the time, solitude is an excellent way to find clarity and peace of mind. I can easily sit quietly and just let my thoughts wander.
Several weeks ago, however, I had a momentary, yet overwhelming, feeling of loneliness. It’s not as if that was inconceivable — I’ve felt lonely before — but it came on with such force, that it made me take notice. Yes, I was spending more time on my own, but I wasn’t a hermit. I had plenty of social engagements and activities. But it was a strong feeling, nonetheless.
Of course, being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. Solitude that is intentional can be enlightening, restorative, and peaceful. Loneliness, on the other hand, can be debilitating, overwhelming, and destructive.
“Indeed, the world has plenty of lonely people. About 20% to 50% of people feel lonely at least some of the time, and 5% to 10% feel lonely frequently,” says John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, citing findings from studies across the globe.
“Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” writes Professor Cacioppo. Yet society can turn a blind eye to loneliness, just as it does with other uncomfortable and “weakness-implied” conditions. Yes, loneliness is a state of mind, a powerful feeling, but it is changeable. First, you need to be aware of your feelings of loneliness and acknowledge them — my motto: (FEE) Face it, Embrace it, and Erase it.
So what are some techniques to activate FEE, you might ask? In my research, I found that there is an inordinate amount of information on the subject, so instead of creating another long list, I will, once again, cherry-pick (and edit) a few of my favorites.
1) Know the Difference between Loneliness and Isolation
Loneliness is an emotion, mostly triggered by your current circumstances or unhappy memories. “Unfortunately the brain loves to over-analyze things, so even momentary loneliness can escalate to longer spells because of thoughts like, ‘Why do I feel so alone?’ and ‘Am I a loser no one loves?’ When this happens, just acknowledge the feeling, don’t overreact, and move on.”
2) Seek Out Like-Minded People
It’s often easier to establish a relationship with those who have things in common with you, wrote Cacioppo. Finding subjects you can align on will “increase the likelihood that you’ll find someone who you can relate to in a positive fashion.” Meetups are a great format to meet people with common interests.
3) Be Aware of Your Thinking
Another tip from Cacioppo: “When you feel isolated, you feel as if there is no one whom you can trust,” he wrote. In your pursuit of new relationships, do some introspective thinking to see if “you are simply being overly protective and overly focused on yourself,” instead of being open to a new connection. Try to be positive and “expect the best” from each new encounter.
Volunteering is a great way to meet people who support a shared worthy cause. Not only will it make you feel like you're contributing positively to your community in an impactful way, it’ll make you feel good! I’ve volunteered for years and I’m still friends with people I met along the way.
5) Watch/Listen to Ted Talks or Lectures
Ted Talks, in particular, are inspiring, informative, and short. I always learn something new and feel positive afterward. But there are many inspirational speakers that are accessible online and through podcasts who can have the same effect. Search around and find your own “guru.”
6) Join a Physical Activity Class
There are a multitude of “physical activity” classes available to every level of ability and interest. For example, classes can range from fast walking, tai chi, running clubs, or swing dancing to the more adventurous like aqua cycling, aerial yoga, or animal flow. The particular activity can be anything, the point is to get moving, activate some endorphins, and meet new people.
In my particular case, the overwhelming feeling of loneliness I'm writing about is fading. I realized that in my effort to cut back on spending and stay home more, I fell into a mundane routine that began to feel like a trap rather than a choice. I had short-term tunnel vision concerning my present circumstances — and as I often say — I was “slipping into a lifestyle of default rather than design.” It made me realize how easy it is to do. The descent is as stealthy as it is insidious. Fortunately, I have a powerful toolbox of strategies, techniques, and beliefs at the ready, so that I was able to stop the descent dead in its tracks.
And just like Persephone rising from hell, I too came back up to the light.
Cooking for Joan
I love spicy Asian food and I recently made one of my favorites — a Thai chicken dish called Larb Gai. This popular salad of highly seasoned ground meat and herbs, is a favorite of mine. The dish combines skinless, boneless chicken breast halves in a food processor with pungent ingredients like garlic, spicy peppers, and curry paste. You can also substitute ground chicken or turkey if you don’t have a food processor. It’s meant to be really spicy, but you can adjust it to your liking.
- 2 tablespoons red curry paste
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1/3 cup chopped English cucumber
- 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 8 cabbage leaves
- Thai chile paste (optional)
Combine curry paste, chicken, and salt in a food processor; process until smooth
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat
Add oil to pan; swirl to coat
Add chicken to pan
Sauté 6 minutes or until done, stirring to crumble
Remove pan from heat
Stir in cucumber and the next 3 ingredients (through juice)
Place 2 cabbage leaves on each of 4 plates
Divide chicken mixture evenly among leaves
Serve with chile paste, if desired