I’ve been feeling a little bit bleak and blue lately, not just because I was sick for more than a week (and the cough still lingers), and not just from the recent introspective off-days (those have ultimately led to more productivity and inspiration). No, it’s been much more emotional than that. It sounds too petulant to even say, but I can paraphrase with the title of Mindy Kaling’s recent book: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? To put it baldly, I’ve been feeling lonely, and I’ve wondered if I really had as many friends as I thought. There, I said it — and it does sound childish and ungrateful and ridiculous, especially when I know I am surrounded with as much love as anyone could hope for. But to know something as an adult, and to convince the scared misunderstood child that lives deep within, are two different things!
I know why I’ve been feeling this way. It’s because I’ve been disappointed a lot recently, in ways that are almost too trivial to name, but taken together they add up to a strong, pervasive bad feeling. I sent out some emails that went unanswered. Friends had to cancel on events I was very much looking forward to. Someone neglected to convey a piece of information that was important to me. Nothing major, nothing I haven’t done myself on other occasions — to perhaps the same people. But a lot of these kinds of things happened in quick succession and over several weeks, and it just made me feel left out. My main grievance in all these episodes wasn’t that the person had insulted me, but that they didn’t do what I would have done — which is hypocritical, because “what I would have done” is completely relative! We always think that our own oversights are just that, aberrations, while we assume that other people’s are habitual. In other words, oh but I had a good excuse! The thing was: I had expectations (“what I would have done”), and they were not met. Woe.
I started writing this out in today’s morning pages, and realized that every bad feeling I get from every disappointment traces right back to my childhood (as does, perhaps, everything): I’m afraid people don’t care about me, or perhaps worse, that they care less than I do. It’s so painful to meet someone and get all excited about them, and feel like they’re my special friend, and then experience the shock of realizing that I am not to them what they are to me. I feel like this has happened to me all my life, and it never really hurts any less.
However, as I thought about what I was writing (this is a benefit of doing things longhand: it forces a certain slow pace), I started to wonder if it wasn’t me — and by “me” I mean my circumstances and expectations. As far as circumstances, I have and have always seemed to have more time than most people. I have an unusually good memory for all kinds of details, large and small. I’ve been fortunate to be the oldest child in a very caring extended family, and that means I grew up knowing that people would drop everything (or sacrifice anything) on my behalf. Perhaps because of these circumstances, I’ve developed high expectations for the other people in my life. I expect people to make time for me, because I forget not everyone has the kind of time that I do. I expect people to remember things, because for me it’s easy. But above all, I’ve expected people to show the kind of devotion that my family does, not recognizing that (a) parents and older relatives aren’t a suitable model for friendship behavior, and (b) my family is weird in a lot of ways.
As I continued thinking about this, I realized that if it’s me — if I am the reason I’m so often disappointed and lonely — then paradoxically, that also means it’s not me; that is to say, it’s not because nobody cares about me, it isn’t because everyone is hanging out without me! And if that’s true — if there’s no conspiracy for everyone else to have a great time and lots of friends and leave me out — then it probably means I’m not the only one who goes through life feeling hurt about this. Which means, doesn’t it — you tell me! — that this is a more existential loneliness, something that everyone gets, because of the mismatch between everyone’s circumstances and expectations. We’re all unique, so we all have a different kind of loneliness, and maybe we all think ours is the only kind (hence: everyone is hanging out without me). But surely it’s not. And we must all bring so many other levels of alienation to this basic existential loneliness; I, for example, have my feelings of marginalization as an Asian American, as a dorky/nerdy person, as an overweight person… I suspect we all feel, at one time or another, like we’re the only one in the world who ________.
I wrote last summer after VONA that I was determined to let myself love and be hurt. But this existential-loneliness insight goes deeper/bigger than that. Perhaps hurting is bound up with existence, so that we’re always bound to feel sad sometimes, just because — hey! I am me and you are you. I read once that suffering is the distance between our expectations and reality. I forgot this could apply to my friendships too. In other words, it’s not that I have no friends or that they intended to make me feel bad; it’s that I (largely unconsciously) was holding them to expectations that no human could meet, myself included. In so doing, I shortchange us all. When all I can think is this person doesn’t care about me, I have a harder time seeing just how much love and affection they’re really demonstrating, and when I’m busy thinking fine, then I can get along without them too! I bottle up the love I truly feel.
Anyway, I hadn’t intended to begin the week with a long riff on loneliness, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’ve been sitting around crying and moping and feeling awful. It’s more like every few days, my usual joie de vivre would get this damper on it, and every now and then the blue feeling would get big enough to drag me into it for a few hours. You know. The 3 AM feeling.
Truth be told, I almost didn’t want to write about this, because it started out so self-pitiful and down (and it’s so ungrateful to all the wonderful people in my life). But I figured if I’m keeping a record of my creative life, then loneliness should certainly be a part of that. But mostly I decided to post this with the hope that it might ease someone else’s existential loneliness. We may all be alone, but we’re together in that, and that’s part of why I create: to bridge that separateness, to foster greater recognition of the universal threads in our individuality.
I’ve spoken about my own loneliness before, so I do understand much of what you’re saying here, Lisa. In my own experience, it feels better as a person to acknowedge that I’m not alone in these feelings, but it hasn’t ever helped me to feel better or less alone. I don’t know why that is.
I believe it helps friendship between people when they’re this honest about how they feel — if the friends are the kind who want to work at relationships. Thanks for being honest. As one of those who owe you an email, I just want to add this: I’ve experienced you as a very busy person with little to no time to spare. When things got so much harder for me and I got behind in emails I owe to you and others, I believed you would understand without a quick note from me to explain. I broke my own rule about taking things for granted. And about saying thank you.
I’m feeling very nervous lately about a lot of things, but I’ll make Wednesday my day to let you know what’s going on. Until then, thank you so much more than you could possibly know. You know what for, and I should have said it sooner.
Aahhh, Ré, I didn’t write this to call you (or anyone) out. Truthfully, I wasn’t even thinking about you when I wrote this… I had other emails in mind. I feel like I know where I stand with you (and I hope you feel the same), but with other people I’m not always as certain, and their (lack of) emails were the ones that got me down. I’d love to hear from you on Wednesday, but I do understand if that turns out to not be possible. I really meant it when I wrote that I was being hypocritical; I’ve let so many emails (and other things) slide, myself.
I think, for me, it makes me feel better to know that other people get lonely too, because one of my fears is that everyone knows something I don’t. It’s weird; I can get obsessive about trying to be unique and different, but this is an area where I’m really afraid of being different. If I think other people are also afraid or lonely or sad, it takes away the “them versus me” feeling, and that removes a lot of my anxiety.
Love to you in your busy week!
Well, Lisa, I think we are all in the same boat, though not all at the same time. Which is good, right? And we all project onto others qualities/labels that we want them to have that have no basis in reality. Your nature is to be a giver. Giving brings you joy and as long as you have no expectations of receiving anything in return you will be fine. Don’t tinker with your innate lovingness — that would be a shame. Cut everyone some slack and carry on!! And having the gift of time is such a luxury, a blessing that most people don’t have. It’s always good to remember that.
Yes, I think that’s what I’ve decided! We’re all in the same boat but not at the same time, and yes, thank goodness for that.
It’s interesting because when I wrote that I have more time than most people, I felt like I was being disingenuous, because I’m always busy with more stuff than I know how to finish — but there’s more than one way to have a lot of time. It would be more accurate to say that I have more time than most people for doing what I want to do, and in that I am so blessed, yes.
By the way, after Erik read this post we had a little conversation about what it means to be lonely. It turns out that when I say I feel lonely, what I mean is that I’m afraid no one understands me (or that there are parts of me that no one understands) — which is a quite different thing than wanting company. I think that’s what I mean when I wrote that everyone’s loneliness is different.
Hi Lisa, you have left a lot to ponder and where to begin….I don’t “THINK” that I am lonely. I don’t feel it. I know it exist at times in my mind. I again and again “THINK IT” sometimes. I see it around me. It’s like, what do you use as a measuring stick to determine…am I lonely? what makes it relative? Defining something does not make it so. Seeing it, does not mean you believe it. Being attached to the idea of it, IS where the confusion arises. I try to always be aware of my attachments and follow the path that frees me from them. Seeing them for what they are, the extension of my thoughts, and not what really is. Loneliness is an attachment to self. All emotions are an attachment to self. I am not lonely because I breathe, I exist. That is and has always been the balancing factor in who and what I am…. I am not lonely.
I just thought I would give you a different perspective.
Walter, thank you for this! I’m replying quite late to your comment but I read it on the day-of and thought about it all day long. You’re right — lots of attachment to self there. I was driving around later that day and felt suddenly miserable, and when I asked myself why, I realized it was because I felt so bad that I wasn’t perfect. !! Once I’d voiced that thought, though, I realized how wonderful it is to be human and flawed and just exist as what I am. I’ve felt better ever since, and more at ease. 🙂
Mmm…I so know how you feel, and good for you for recognizing the whole attachment to expectations piece of it, because that was something I didn’t understand for so long, and it caused me a lot of unnecessary grief, to put it mildly. And I totally know what you mean about struggling with measuring how other people should behave based on how you would behave–augh! I battle that tendency constantly.
Well, let me just say that you are one of my absolute favorite people in the whole world, and even though we’re miles apart, I have thoughts nearly every day of, “Oh my god, Lisa would LOVE that,” or “I can’t WAIT to tell Lisa about this.” Sending you loneliness-dispelling love from afar! 🙂
Aaahhh, Mo, as I wrote to Walter above, I’m behind on replying to this lovely comment but I read it on the day-of and it made me feel so warmly loved. 🙂 Thank you!!
Yeah, I have a feeling these issues with attachment and self-comparison will dog me forever. Ah well, could be worse!! But I feel better about them for now (again, see my reply to Walter’s comment).
You’re one of my favorite people too, and ditto completely on seeing or thinking things daily that I want to share with you!!! 😀
(And as further evidence of our connection, you commented on another of my posts just as I was typing my reply to you!)
Continuing this theme of our eerily parallel experiences, my yoga practice and a recent massage have brought up a lot of stored emotions regarding control and my desire to secure specific outcomes, and it’s been fascinating seeing where in my body I hold this particular type of tension and how unbelievably HARD it is for me to let go in that area. So yes, I totally agree that this is something that will likely be a constant companion in our lives, for better or worse. 😉
Oooh, fascinating!! I recently discovered that I clench my jaw, which I didn’t know I was doing (to be frank, my body is tense everywhere). I wonder what that’s all about. It always amazes me just how much I can be holding on — muscularly speaking — without even noticing it, like when I think I’m “relaxed.” Lately I’ve been trying to notice this while lying in bed at night, and just last night I noticed that breathing deeply seems to invite true relaxation. Maybe I’m holding my breath a lot more than I realize.
I think we can all relate to what you say here. If we are going to be true to ourselves then feelings of isolation will occur from time to time because the humna psyche responds to affirmation, and, if what we are “selling” is our own identity, then as with any “product”, some people dig it andsome don’t. It takes a certain strength to accept that universal affirmation of oneself is not a given.
I would always champion the individual as an identity rather than the masses. You are a creative person who,as a consequence of that, responds more readily to changes in emotional currency. That’s what makes you who you are.
We moved into our current house about 2 years ago having left behind some great friends and a community in which we were very active. Fi gets her people kick from her work colleagues. I as you know, work from home on creative stuff which makes us feel warm but won’t put bread on the table. (“Work” is a euphomism ! ) I haven’t rebuilt that network or circle of friends that I had and there are times when, yeah, things feel a bit strange around here. I feel like a fish out of water.A northern boy in the south. (http://singlemaltmonkey.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/life-in-the-slow-lane/ )
I was once so low I asked Fi how many people would come to my funeral. She got cross and listed them off the top of her head. It kind of put things in perspective when she was still dribbling out names she’d forgotten half an hour later.
So, that said, we all get the blues and hurrumph sometimes and being the creative person you are remember, the blues often spawned some of humanities greatest works of art.
I agree with everything you have said here, and feel the same as well. “If we are going to be true to ourselves then feelings of isolation will occur from time to time because the humna psyche responds to affirmation, and, if what we are “selling” is our own identity, then as with any “product”, some people dig it andsome don’t. It takes a certain strength to accept that universal affirmation of oneself is not a given.”This makes a lot of sense. I am a transplant from the north to the south as well. Most of my friends I’ve left behind. With age things are left behind. And as a artist, I am often conveying my “dark” side as a means of catharsis.
Thanks Walter, and I can understand your last sentence totally. Long time since I checked you out. I’ll be over.
Alan, I absolutely love everything you’ve said here, and can really feel the truth of it in my bones! (Also, the funeral story made me laugh because it’s just how I feel myself sometimes! Except in my case it’s more like, “Oh, they’d come to my funeral, but they won’t come to this party I’m having!” kind of thing! Glad you’ve got Fi and I’ve got Erik to soothe or scoff, as needed!)
I’m definitely wondering how solitude and community are going to play out in my life once we head out on our travels. Well, we’ll find out! 🙂
Serendipty and a little quiet reading time drew me here now. This piece, amongst a few others but this really nailed it, helped me to feel less lonely now. Helped me to appreciate where I am at a time when I have been feeling the way you described above – somehow left out.
The comments are all part of it. Thanks, for articulating, and inspiring.
Pieces of a bigger picture are very pretty too.
Oh I’m so glad you got that much out of reading this post. It’s funny, sometimes I do feel like there are common themes across the blogs I read… yesterday’s were political/activist.
You’ve reminded me that I’m not sure I ever took photos of the finished big piece. Well, I will just have to borrow it back from the person it’s a Christmas present for, so I can get those pics! 🙂
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I just thought I would post a note to say I found this piece a while back and saved the link as I like to revisit it. I think it is relevant to everyone at some point. It is possibly more and more relevant as one gets older… I am now 45.
When we are younger friends do not have the responsibilities to family and ageing parents. Everyone has the time (and energy!) to drop everything and attend an impromtu evening. I have noticed that age and responsibilities do tend to take the spontinaity from people. I agree also that my own expectations are high and I often feel disappointed by others. Again on balance I have chosen a “lifestyle” change in career after years in offices in high responsibility positions. This now means that I too have more time, combined with the fact that I am not married nor have children, but have a loving partner who lives in his own home. I am therefore fortunate enough to have the luxury of evenings and weekends which I am sure so many of my friends do not.
I love this piece and thank you for the inspiration and balance this has given me in moments of feeling “aloof” and “different” from the norm. We are all unique and feel “separate” from others at times. This is normal and part of being human (-:
Thank you so much, Karen — it truly warms my heart to think my words resonated that deeply with you. And thank you for taking the time to write and say so. I agree; at times when I feel very isolated, a lot of it can simply be chalked up to friends not being at the same place that I am as far as time and schedule. I think that’s part of the “but that’s not what I would do!” reaction. Thank you for reaching out and making a connection across those feelings of separation that we all get from time to time. 🙂