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Trying to find the upside of loneliness

My personal experiences of loneliness after immigrating to a new country

Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, and so they don’t find themselves at all.” –Rollo May

To a lesser or greater extent, this quote is probably true of all of us – even introverts; or perhaps even more of introverts. Extroverts have other people to drown out the noise in their inner space. Introverts find activities. We think, we mull, we research, we brood, and we stay busy too avoid having to look inward.

The psychology of solitude studies how human beings are social creatures and how we struggle to deal with long periods of social isolation. If we are alone for too long, our mental faculties degrade, leading to deep despair, and even insanity. This explains why solitary confinement is such an effective punishment and/or torture method. As social animals, we cannot bear to be cut off from social interaction for too long. All of us recognise inside ourselves the need to find the balance between doing our own thing, and building relationships with others that can sustain us. Even if we only recognise it subconsciously. We all struggle to find this balance, because although we want and need relationships, they are also often the source of our greatest stress and suffering.

Hard-wired for connection

So why do we do it? Why do we keep pursuing relationships even though sometimes they make us miserable? It’s simple. We are hard-wired for connection. When a women gives birth, her brain secretes a hormone called oxytocin that allows her to establish an emotional bond with her baby. When the baby receives skin-on-skin contact from its mother, the same hormone is released in the baby’s brain and the baby’s brain starts forming neural networks about bonding, connection and love. When we hug or kiss a loved one, or establish a deep connection with a friend while chatting over coffee, our oxytocin levels increase. For this reason, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone also plays a huge role in pair bonding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust and can even be an antidote to depressive feelings. And we are all addicted to it. We can’t help it, because once we have experienced the effects of oxytocin, we want more. This explains how people become addicted to sex for example. If they perhaps did not experience the effects of oxytocin in other ways, because they were not held enough as children or did not bond with anyone, they still need the boost from the hormone, but don’t know how to obtain it in another way.

So being cut off from the source of our connection and bonding, can be hugely debilitating and can lead to severe depression and deep sadness. However, there is a huge difference between loneliness and being alone, because being alone is often a choice. Lena Dunham said on her Women Of The Hour podcast, “I personally love being alone … what I don’t like, is being lonely. For me, loneliness, that cottony separation from the world, hollow-stomached, soul disease is most acute when I’m surrounded by people who don’t or can’t see me“. And she is right, we can feel lonely, even when we are surrounded by people, because the wrong people – people who don’t know you or who don’t particularly care about your personal wellbeing – can actually make you feel isolated and alone. It is only when we spend time with those that genuinely know and love us, that we actually feel connection, and experience the burst of the oxytocin hormone, because we then feel we belong and we are not alone.

Discovering the upside of loneliness

However, we have all experienced being alone and we all know that sometimes, being alone, can be beneficial; that is, if we can face our own demons. Spending time alone can force us to do some introspection, to discover the benefits of meditation or help us be more productive.

When you immigrate to another country, you actually volunteer to be alone and it can be hard sometimes, because being alone for too long, can lead to despair and loneliness. So how do you reap the benefits of being alone without falling into the pit of despair that is loneliness? That is what I have been trying to figure out since we moved to Canada. And I haven’t mastered it yet. I still find myself falling into deep pits of despair and loneliness and crying for hours on end about loved one’s back home. And even though we chat and maintain regular “contact” thanks to technology, it is not the type of contact I crave. Hugs and kisses are impossible, so my oxytocin receptors are not firing. Looking into someone’s eyes, holding their hand, talking face to face, sharing a meal or a cup of cofee… none of these things are possible and you have to make due with cyber coffee chats when the massive time difference allows for a sliver of time to catch up with what’s going on in their lives.

So, I research and I try to find answers and I try to make sens of it. And I read article upon article about loneliness and the benefits of loneliness and/or of being alone and none of it resonates. Until I find two articles: Kimberly Gillan’s “The Surprising Upside Of Loneliness In A New City” where she recounts how it felt to move to another city, where she and her husband did not know anyone, and how they desperately tried to slot into the new environment they found themselves in by visiting locals bars, hoping to make some friends. She says: “I now wish I’d been more mindful of the positives of quiet time and spent less time lamenting my lack of friends in that lonely year. There’s a lot to be said for a blank calendar that can be filled with anything you damn well like. You learn to back yourself in a way I don’t think would be possible if you stay in your comfort zone. So if you’re new to a city, can I suggest you utilise your loneliness to learn a new skill, soak up your surroundings or go out on a limb? You’ll quite possibly have the best experiences of your life.”

Ok Kimberly, quiet time, you say. I used to spend a lot of quiet time by myself. I am used to working from home and have no problem staying busy and being productive when I am alone. However, with a toddler in the house, it is now almost impossible to find quiet alone time. So I upend my schedule. I wake up at 04:00 or 05:00 and try to think, write and work when baby is sleeping and I end up working until the early hours of the morning after baby has gone to bed. This definitely increases my productivity, but it isolates me even more, because now I spend less time talking to my husband – the ONLY person I have here that I can connect with – and I am also a zombie during the day when I have to give my little girl my undivided attention. So what to do?

As for the blank calendar, that means nothing when you are still in limbo, trying to find a permanent place to live, trying to establish some sort of routine and still figuring out what your life is going to look like now that you cannot visit family and friends as often as you used to. I must admit the idea is not exciting to me at all. I loved spending time with loved ones simply because they were a welcome break from my busy life. I spend a lot of my time in my head and I work long hours, so taking time out to visit with friends and family was like taking a vacation.

And then there is Karan Bajaj with his beautifully written inspirational piece entitled “The Incredible Upside of Loneliness” where he discusses the rules of the ancient Yogis and proposes that loneliness could be a journey of self-discovery. He explains that you can choose loneliness by moving somewhere where you don’t know anyone and then not holding on to anything and not buying a house. Almost adopt a nomadic lifestyle then. To my adventurous 7 wing this of course sounds promising. It could be a little experiment in self-reinvention. But then he gets to the juicy bit… how you can use loneliness to change the world… 

Bajaj suggets that loneliness can help you tap into your creativity. He says: “You tap into a reservoir of completeness when you create, touching the universal and forget your limited self. Use your loneliness as a catalyst to creation–a book, an organization, a idea, a new business process– whatever your medium and feel silent and complete once again“. And of course I had discovered this to be true even before I stumbled upon Bajaj and his writings, because I suddenly had this urge to write. I find my writers block that had developed after my arduous PhD journey had suddenly lifted and I felt I not only wanted, but needed to write. So finally, I can see my way to writing a book after years of wanting and intending to write one, but never actually sitting down and typing the first page.

Bajaj also recommends meditating in times of loneliness. In my yoga practice, I had discovered the wonder of meditation. But I have battled to get back to that quiet space for more than a year now… It is as if it is simply inaccessible right now with worries and concerns wreaking havoc in my internal space. Bajaj insists though: “Don’t fight your loneliness. Instead, use it as a catalyst to internalize that everything is a passing mind state. The sadness of loneliness, the warm glow you feel in companionship, pleasure, pain, nothing lasts. Everything is in flux. Don’t make my mistake. Fast-forward your journey by learning how to meditate or consider this incredible, accessible experience“.

So, I have decided to immerse myself in my loneliness and embrace it as a time for contemplation and self-discovery, because Bajaj also says that at some point your journey into self-discovery, meditation and contemplation will end and you will rejoin your loved ones, but with wisdom and insights to share and with the gift of your learnings from your journeys.

Originally published at breytiestakeoncanada.com

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