What’s the Difference Between Feeling Lonely and Being Alone?


As humans, we’re social beings, wired for connection and longing for a sense of belonging. Even our ancestors knew the importance of being together and finding safety in numbers. In fact, it was essential for their survival. It’s no wonder then, that today, loneliness can have a hugely detrimental impact on our well-being, both physically and mentally.

So explains Dora Kamau, a meditation teacher at Headspace App and one of the voices of the app’s course Reframing Loneliness.

“Most of the time, it’s not the feeling of loneliness that’s the problem, it’s the way that we relate to our loneliness, the different stories and thoughts the mind can create in response to feeling lonely,” she says.

“It’s our thoughts about loneliness and this idea that we are separate from others and the world around us that further creates that sense of loneliness. However, once that thought is gone, loneliness can’t exist. So, it really does come down to our minds and how we perceive the experience of loneliness.”

But as we all know, controlling our thoughts is easier said than done. Ahead, Kamau shares four other strategies you can use to help tackle the feeling of loneliness and to feel better, overall.

Know the Difference Between Loneliness and Being Alone

Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between loneliness and being alone, as it’ll help us relate to both feelings in a more kind and compassionate way, explains Kamau.

“Loneliness is more about the quality of our relationships and not the quantity,” she says.
This is why, in a room full of people, you can still feel a sense of loneliness and isolation. So, it’s not only physical connection that matters but if you feel seen, heard, understood and share the same values.”

Aloneness, on the other hand, can actually be a good thing. “It can help us to cultivate a sense of presence,” says Kamau. “It can be a time for self-reflection, rest and can even spark creativity and inspiration.”

Make Your Alone Time More Meaningful

Kamau points out the words of writer Henri Nouwen on solitude and being alone in his book Out of Solitude.

“Somewhere we know that without a lonely place in our lives, without listening, speaking no longer heals, without distance, closeness cannot cure… our actions quickly become empty gestures,” Nouwen writes.

“We can make our alone time more meaningful by setting an intention, defining our purpose for seeking out alone time and what we hope to experience, and then let go of everything else,” says Kamau. “You don’t need to do solo travel or something extravagant in order to find meaning in your aloneness, you can do it by being present in those times you find yourself alone and see what the present moment has to offer.”

Kamau herself loves to read fiction novels, journal, listen to podcasts or do something that’s hands-on, like painting or any other craft, when she’s alone. She says she’s found that doing the things that bring her joy help to strengthen her connection to herself, which is important as loneliness can arise from being disconnected from yourself.

“Attending a silent retreat can also be a great way to make alone time more meaningful,” she says. “Whether you find a retreat that is online or in-person, spending a half-day or a few days in silence can be an expansive time alone. I find after being on retreat I’m more awake in my everyday life and it’s like my senses have been restored.”

Use Your Alone Time to Learn About Yourself

If you can approach your time alone from a growth mindset, this will change the way you relate to your aloneness, says Kamau.

“What I’ve learned from honouring this season of being alone is that this is a time to catch up with myself,” she says. “What do I like? What don’t I like? Who I am behind closed doors and how can I bring more of myself when I’m in public spaces? What thoughts are mine and what thoughts are others?

“By being alone we can start to detangle ourselves from other people and come back home to a sense of who we truly are. It can be hard to hear ourselves or distinguish ourselves from others when we’re in a crowd.”

Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself

In the past three years, we all have lived through something that required us to spend ample amounts of time alone, says Kamau.

“For many of us, being alone with our minds wasn’t something that we were used to,” she says. “This is where compassion can be supportive. Giving ourselves grace. Again, we’re wired for connection and realising this, we also can understand that loneliness is a shared human condition.”

We’re not alone in how we’re feeling and, by remembering that, we can start to shift our attention away from judging our experience or labelling it as good or bad. Instead, Kamau suggests aiming to connect to a greater sense of compassion and kindness not just for ourselves, but for others, too.

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