Leaning into Loneliness Loneliness is something that all of us feel at one time or another. It is one of those gut gripping sinking feelings that we all try our best to run away from. We look for distractions to avoid it, message a friend, work harder or even turn to addictions to try and block it out. If that loneliness becomes a chronic issue then it can lead to illness such as depression and heart disease. Loneliness is a feeling that has visited me quite frequently over the last few months and it has given me the opportunity to explore this uncomfortable feeling. Until now I had lived with my parents, then my university mates and then my ex-partner for some 20 years. Although I was used to spending a lot of time alone during my relationship, when my partner left our home it was the first time in my life when I was really alone (aside from my cat companions)! However, loneliness was not an unfamiliar feeling to me before I came to live alone. I had felt lonely on frequent occasions during the worst years of my illness. I spent a lot of time alone at home and eventually possibly the worst loneliness I felt was when my relationship with my ex-partner started to fall apart. Acknowledging the feeling of loneliness So there have been days when I felt all alone in the world, but it was only in more recent times when I really lived alone that I decided to look at this feeling. I decided rather than to distract myself or numb myself to loneliness, I would lean into it. What I mean by leaning in, is to be aware and mindful of the feelings arising and not avoid them but actually allow them to come up to see what I would learn. Being mindful of your feelings without judgement or criticism allows you to embrace your feelings and notice how they come and go. Loneliness maybe a fleeting feeling or a black cloud that can hang over you for days, but by being mindful it allows you to look at the feeling and your situation. It may be that it is telling you that certain things in your life need to be reviewed or changed. We can re-frame our thoughts on loneliness When I started to be more mindful of loneliness, I started to look more closely at what I was thinking during those moments. Mostly, it was the feeling of being unloved, or that I had nobody to share things with anymore. So I decided to directly challenge that thought. Yes! I am loved and I know that. I have a loving family and some wonderful supportive friends, some of which I have had throughout my whole life. I knew that I could call on any of those people at any moment. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy this would be classed as a cognitive distortion. That is we create or believe certain thoughts that when really examined and acknowledged are not necessarily accurate. Examining the accuracy of our thoughts can be applied to any emotions. Once I was aware of this distortion I began to tell myself how much I was loved. It is important not to judge yourself too harshly when you start to notice your thinking patterns which do not serve you. Be kind to yourself and start to look at how you can re-frame your thoughts. By leaning into our loneliness we have a chance to learn more about our thinking patterns, our needs and ourselves. We can decide if changes need to be made in our lives and then action can be taken. You may decide to make new friends, address issues in a relationship or take up a new hobby, career or personal goal to help you out of loneliness. If the loneliness is attached to a bigger issue such as the grief of losing a loved one, then it might be worth speaking to a Psychotherapist to help you through those difficult times.
Some of us may relate to a moment or even several in our lives when we feel completely lost. We are floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean with no wind in our sails and no island in sight. What am I doing with my life? Where do I want to be? What do I want to do? What is my purpose? All of these questions and more keep coming up, but yet there is no voice coming back with an answer. In the busy lives we lead there is often little time to really look and reflect where we are in our lives. We run from job to job or even relationship-to-relationship without really reflecting on what we truly want or need for ourselves. Others may acknowledge that they are not in a good place in their life but turn to addictions to block out the pain. A client of mine, let´s call her Kate is currently in what feels like “no mans land” and is feeling pretty miserable. She describes her feelings as lost, lonely, confused and empty. “Each time I look for an answer, there is nothing”, she says. Kate has been stopped in her tracks. She knows she doesn´t like her job. She wants to get out and could easily find another job, but something is saying to her something has to change. She just doesn´t know what. This is what some people describe as a spiritual crisis. A moment in our life path where everything is thrown into confusion, our very identity is being questioned. This confusing and painful experience has led Kate at times to get angry with herself, why is it hard to decide on what I want to do? Grow up and get on with it! You are lucky with all that you have in life, so what is the issue? Yet with all of this “self-talk”, the answers do not come. I found myself in this place a few years ago, when I became sick. Everything seemed to fall apart and I wondered to myself, who am I? Where am I? Where do I want to be in my life? Why me? Yet the same as for Kate no answers came back, it was miserable. However, it was around this time when I started to enter into Mindfulness practice. So I decided to apply Mindfulness to my own lost situation. It was only when I was lost, that I could be found! Instead of castigating myself for not having the answers, I started to explore the feelings of being lost. Floating in that empty aimless place where no island could be found. It was a very uncomfortable and lonely place to be. The need to grasp at something, anything to make myself feel better would frequently come up. I would come up with yet another business idea for example, but when I really thought about it, I knew my heart was not in it. That´s when I realised that that was it, my heart was not in it! I needed to find what my heart wanted. So I started to observe my mind chattering, telling me what to do and at times getting angry with me, but I just observed with no judgement and no decisions. I stopped trying to grasp at every idea. I let myself enter into the feelings of loneliness, confusion and emptiness without harsh criticism and I really started to observe my life. It was really from this point that my life started to change in many ways. Yes I might have jumped off my raft onto some mini islands along the way and then had to jump quickly back on, but the aim was to stay present with my heart and trust that it will eventually become clear. In holding that empty space, over time things did become clearer and my heart was given space to communicate. Some of the changes I eventually made in my life were very difficult to face; however, I think they were necessary in my personal growth. And now I am doing what I love. My passion for Psychology, Psychotherapy and a deep interest in Spirituality has led me to where I want to be at this point in my journey. So my advice to Kate is this, float! And be with all of those difficult feelings. Don´t run away and jump onto the first island you see, go in and start to feel what your heart is telling you. This can be hard at first, allowing yourself to feel the difficult emotions your are feeling takes practice. Try to observe your thoughts and feelings without entering into the story of your mental chatter. Allow yourself to look without self criticism or the urgency to find a solution. Don´t judge yourself too harshly if the answers do not come up straight away, as this is important stuff and it can take time. Eventually the cloud of thoughts and feelings start to open spaces whereby your heart has the chance to communicate. Some people may view this as doing nothing to find a solution, but in fact practicing Mindfulness is an active practice. However, there are other practical things you can do too. Spend time with friends and family and do pursue some of the things you enjoy, try out new experiences, as one of these things might be the thing that lights up your heart. The process of seeking is a process we do alone. It can be a painful experience, but if you choose to turn towards that pain and learn to listen to your heart and your gut and trust yourself, you will not stay floating aimlessly at sea forever. No matter how uncomfortable it might seem; eventually your island will come into sight. The answers are within you! Ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. Does this path have a heart?
If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, the path is of no use.
Both paths lead nowhere, but one has a heart; the other doesn’t.
One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it.
Carlos Castaneda (1968) Good luck and have faith
Dear newly diagnosed Fibromyalgia and CFS companion, After what might have been a very long time you have finally been given a “diagnosis” for that elusive group of symptoms you have been experiencing. At last, you feel that you are not going mad and that it is “not all in your head” as some may have told you. You now belong to a “group” because actually there are so many others out there going through the same or similar experiences to you. This to some degree will give you peace of mind, there is some sense of certainty once you get a diagnosis, now you have something to work with, something to treat and a label that you can use to explain to everyone why you have been feeling so awful. This is a positive thing, but in other ways it is just the start of another journey, a labyrinth we are all trying to navigate. We live in a world where we want instant fixes. We live within a medical system where doctors are used to treating just the symptoms. You will find that living with Fibromyalgia (Fibro amongst the “in” crowd) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a full mind-body experience. You will have maybe a range of symptoms, which confuses doctors, as they do not always know how to go about treating you. Most of us turn to the world of complimentary medicine because it´s philosophy is to treat you as a whole. You might also find that you do not get the support from your family and friends in the way that you would like. It is to some extent an invisible illness where all the suffering happens on the inside, because you may not look ill, people will struggle to empathise. This will likely make you feel lonely at times. What you will find is that really nobody is sure what causes Fibro or CFS and therefore, how to treat it. After all, it is a syndrome, which means it is a group of symptoms and not a defined illness with a defined root cause or cure. It will be a case of trial and error to see what helps you. You will see that there is a lot of advice on the Internet and there are many people who may not have the exact same symptoms as you yet they have the same diagnosis, all of us fighting for answers. Having spent literally years researching this illness online and after trying many different therapies and spending more money than I care to acknowledge, I have to tell you I still have Fibro and CFS. However, I am much better than I was a few years ago. What has worked to improve my health may or may not help yours. Do the research and try the methods that appeal to you, but be prepared for a lot of failures and of course some successes too! However, the one single thing that cannot be promised is a cure. This can be very difficult to accept, knowing that you may live your whole life navigating ailments that can keep evolving or changing over time and that impact every single day of your life. Acceptance was a tough call for me. Initially I refused to accept that I had to live with this. But when I say accept, I do not mean give up, it is to accept that this is part of your life experience and it is not just something to be removed. In fact, the more I furiously fought hard against the “enemy” the more tired and sick I became. After 10 years, I am still working on my health everyday, but not as an exhausting battle to be won. Once you come to accept your journey then the good news is there are so many blessings to be found in living with Fibro and CFS. In fact, in some ways I see it as a gift, or at least it has brought me gifts. It might be hard to imagine this, but bear with me. You will notice that the daily strains of our modern lifestyle put a lot of pressure on you and your symptoms will act as a barometer. When you have too much stress in your life, your body will tell you, when you are running around too much, your body will tell you, when you have emotional difficulties, your body will tell you. Your body in a way is demanding balance. Before I started getting my symptoms I was what is classed as an A type personality, I was very hard on myself and on the go most of the time. The gift I have received is that of finding a better life balance and improved self-awareness. I have learnt to notice the messages my body sends me and I have learnt to honour them and slow down and I have also learnt how to improve my emotional health. Then there is the gift of resilience; you will have to get up pretty much everyday, even when you might prefer to just stay in bed. You might become an expert in time management too, because you will need to preserve your low energy bank. But quite possibly one of the biggest gifts and one that I am still working on is the gift of self-love. This has been particularly hard for me to learn. My natural inclination like many others is to focus my care and attention outwards towards others rather than towards myself. After facing several challenging life lessons, I finally realised I did not have enough compassion for myself and I now try to focus more on nurturing myself both emotionally and physically. In fact, it was when I started doing this that my health really started to improve. I must point out that I am not stating that we should become selfish; we just need to learn that we have only got so much love and energy to pass around and some of that has to be kept for ourselves. As you may have heard somewhere before, treat yourself in the way that you would treat a loved one. Finally, leading on from self-love, I found my sense of empathy deepened; suffering gives us the capacity to deeply empathise and have compassion for the suffering of others. This can lead onto beautiful things. For me I eventually became a Psychotherapist so I could help others in their journeys and I also became involved in animal welfare. So fellow Fibro and CFS companions, please do all you can to find the treatments that can help you, look at the forums, and speak to the doctors. However, above all do not forget to love and nurture yourself both physically and emotionally. My experience became not a “me versus Fibro and CFS battle”, but a call to self-care, and if you look out for them, it will also bring you gifts along the way, I am most grateful for mine. Good luck.