Layers of Loneliness

Loneliness is felt in many different ways, each with different triggers. You can think of them as layers. Loneliness isn’t just one of these layers, it is all of them combined.

There’s horniness. I probably don’t need to explain that.

There is the absence of having someone to share your life with, someone to care about you. This is probably what most people think of when someone uses the word “lonely”. It comes at all times of the day, at all of those moments where you would normally share something with someone else. If you have ever been in a long term relationship, you have settled into all kinds of sharing habits. Hey, here is something interesting, something beautiful. Hey, I have good news. Hey, I’m feeling bad about something and I need consoling. Then, when there is no one around to fill that role, you’re constantly turning to empty air, sharing yourself with no one. What before was a constant link to someone special is now a constant reminder that there is no one there.

Beyond those layers, it gets complicated, because you begin to grapple with the reasons why you are alone.

First, you struggle to understand why you are alone. Other people make it seem easy to fall into the next relationship. If you can’t, then there must be something wrong, something wrong with you. Deep introspection is called for, and knowing yourself is difficult. If you’re like me, you’ll actually come up with a long list of reasons. Some of them aren’t necessarily bad things, but they still serve to keep you alone. Perhaps you can work to improve some of them. But sometimes you can’t, or you don’t want to, or you’ll feel like a fake if you change those things. Worst of all, however, is that you’ll never fully understand why. Some of the reasons you come up with will be wrong. Some may be overemphasized.

Even if ex-partners have given you reasons why they are leaving, you don’t know whether they are telling the truth, whether they are telling you something easier to spare your feelings, whether they are mistaken about you, whether what is important to them is important to everyone, whether their problem with you really stems from their own problem, or if they’re just saying things to try to hurt you.

Ultimately, you’ll never know. You’ll come up with a long list, but you have no reliable way to verify or confirm from an outside source which are correct, which are wrong, and which are the most responsible. It’s a list of possibilities with no conclusion. In the end, you just don’t know. Not knowing is something you have to find a way to live with, and that’s part of what it means to be alone.

(One of the problems with this part of loneliness is that you feel like you can’t talk about it with friends. Friends can see you from the outside, the way potential romantic partners might see you. However, it’s humiliating to ask people about the things that are wrong with you. More importantly, no one will be honest with you. What friend wants to be brutally honest with you about the things that are wrong with you? It’s what you really need, but no one will do that for you. It’s even harder for them if the things they see about you are things you can’t change. It’s harder for you too, but even if you can’t do anything about those things, it would still be better to know. Not knowing is just endlessly frustrating.)

The next layer after that is the way you feel about each of those reasons. How does it make you feel, for example, to know that you suck at talking to strangers? Other people do it, and they make it seem effortless. They even seem to enjoy it, and some of them even take special pride in their ability. Why can’t you do it? You’ve tried to learn how, tried to learn how to break past the barriers, but it’s so exhausting, and in the end you’ve really only managed it occasionally as a matter of dumb luck. What kind of person are you if you can’t do this basic human function? It makes you feel like shit, that’s how it makes you feel. Like you are broken.

Which is the next layer. You are broken. Honestly, everyone is broken in some way or another. So now you must revise your self image to include this broken aspect of yourself. Which hurts. And honestly, it’s hard not to dwell on this. Many people make a full time job of dwelling on their inadequacies, but even if you’re not one of those people, all of the constant reminders that you are alone are going to send you back to thinking about this.

Fine. You are broken, so accept it, right? Wrong, for two reasons. For one thing, as I’ve mentioned above, you don’t actually know which things are broken and which things you’ve maybe just over-thought. How can you revise your self-image with a set of flaws, accept it, and move on, if you don’t actually know which flaws are real? And secondly, accepting it and moving on doesn’t actually solve your loneliness. The best you can really do is stop worrying about while you struggle with your loneliness. “Moving on” in this case is just continuing to be alone.

And then there are layers of humiliation.

Every person you have met and desired, and with whom you are not now in a relationship, is a story of humiliation. They may have explicitly rejected you. They may have implicitly rejected you by having or showing absolutely no interest in you. Your own limitations may have prevented you from making your interest known to them. They may be in a relationship already and have, by implication, already chosen someone better than you. Your desire for them does not go away, and you think about them, perhaps often, and when you do, replay and relive the rejection and all of your failures and inadequacies.

Everyone can see that you are alone. Every time you show up at a gathering where everyone but you has brought a +1. Every time your friends are making small talk and make the innocent blunder of asking you if you have met anyone, or why you are still alone. Every time they ask you why you are still alone (!). Every time one of your friends tries to set you up with someone. Any time you break pattern and actually bring a date, someone new they haven’t met before, and your friends all want to know if this is going to work out so they can congratulate you on breaking your loneliness.

Your friends of the opposite gender, or their significant others, who view you as a threat and treat you reservedly because you’re single.

For men, who are attractive because of their confidence and therefore unattractive because of their feelings of inadequacy, these feelings just compound the problem and dig the hole deeper. For women, who view attraction through this lens, these feelings compound their own depression.

Eventually, it all resolves into a general and unspecific feeling of being a lesser person. Some people wake up in the morning and take stock of the good things in their life. That’s almost impossible for me, because when I wake up, the realization sets in immediately that I am alone, because I suck, and nothing I do today is going to change that. Every reminder of my loneliness now skips rational thought and goes directly to this vague feeling of being set aside by fate for special punishment.