Creating LonelinessBy Phyllis Stein, Ph.D.
November 10, 2008
The feeling of loneliness is one of our most profound gifts. Avoiding it creates the very thing that we are trying to prevent.
When I was a child, I was completely unaware of how lonely I was. I remember clearly, when I was about 14 and at summer camp, hearing someone say that they felt lonely and puzzling over that because I could not remember feeling that way. I was never homesick or scared to go to school, even when I started kindergarten at 4 ½ years old. In fact, even then, I was puzzled when I saw other children sobbing and clinging to their mothers. I knew that I did not feel that way at all. Remarkably, I often felt completely unable to connect with other kids, completely unacceptable, but I never named that feeling as loneliness.
At a recent intensive, Margaret talked about naming the feeling of loneliness for our inner child - holding him or her and saying "I know you feel lonely right now." At the same time, many people at the intensive were dealing with how they protected against loneliness, and it was so clear that this is one of the most fundamental jobs of the wounded self. Still, I was just observing and saying to myself, "Yes, I know that." It took another day.
Suddenly, I was stunned to realize that the reason that I did not feel lonely as a child was not that I was not lonely, it was that I was TOO lonely to allow myself to feel it. I had completely numbed out, very, very early. I realized that my wounded self WAS completely devoted to protecting me from the loneliness by not going there. I saw too that numbing out my loneliness was like losing one of my senses, losing feedback. It was as if I could not know if something was too hot until I noticed the burn on my skin and then I would not understand why it happened or what I could to to keep it from happening again. I could not notice the effect I was having on people, not notice when they were pulling away. I could not tell who was available and who was not. I kept touching the hot surfaces and getting burned and and not understanding why.
I was filled with sadness as Irealized that, just as with all of our protections, not feeling my loneliness at the moment it happened had actually created enormous loneliness in my life. Instead of noticing the instant of loneliness, instead of being able to say to my little girl "You feel lonely now, what am I doing to cause this?" I had always disconnected immediately, gone to my head, tried to get connection by trying to control others in different ways and often winding up, as I said, getting "burned" and then finally noticing (with Inner Bonding) that my little girl did feel lonely. I even knew that I was missing her signals but could not understand why.
Margaret was completely right about the power that NAMING the loneliness has. It tells my little girl that I hear her and it tells my wounded self that I am on the job, that she does not have to handle this anymore. The result was extraordinary. I noticed in the last day of the intensive that often when someone was working and they were in their wounded self, I would experience them as not being "okay." I finally recognized that when someone felt "not okay" to me, i.e.,not open and connected, my little girl was telling me that she was feeling lonely. Now, when this happened, I was able to turn to her and say "Even though they are not okay right now, we can still be okay." Every time I did this, my little girl, now reassured, went to joy. It was amazing to realize that when someone felt "not okay" to me, instead of it causing me to feel more alone, it can actually be an occasion for me to joyously connect with my child. In the old paradigm, I would try to fix them, something that in the end always created even more of what I was trying to avoid.
So I have been blessed by the realization that feeling lonely, rather than being something I need to automatically and unconsciously avoid, is actually a sixth sense that I need to cultivate. That avoiding feeling lonely is a way to put on a blindfold and then get behind the wheel. I have realized that, ultimately and seemingly paradoxically, feeling my little girl's loneliness, the very huge feeling I could not afford to feel when I was little, is actually a profound gift for which I am extremely grateful, because feeling my child's loneliness is the very thing that allows me to finally take care of her in the present moment instead of letting her get burned over and over.
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