Learn to be Lonely

A few weeks ago, my 4-year relationship with my boyfriend and one of my best friends came to a close. No hard feelings, no big fallout or catastrophic scene of personal belongings being thrown from the window. Just an emotional and painful letting go. It was and is hard, but it was needed. This past Friday I also completed my 3-month Associate role at Techstars, which I moved from Boston to New York City for. It was a very involved, interactive, and fast-paced program that’s left me hyped but drained at the same time. I’m addressing now, and likely in a few ways in the future, the aftermath of all these things as it pertains to one specific, overlooked feeling: loneliness.

We learn from a very early age to seek out a place and a group of people where we belong. Be it through sports, art, business or something else, we are constantly seeking our space of belonging.

We seem to love talking about how society has lost the ability to communicate effectively, purposely, and empathetically thanks to social media and generally being caught up in our screens. We talk in circles, discussing the value of meaningful conversation and how life-changing it is. What we don’t talk about nearly enough though is loneliness.

I think we are led to believe that the cure to loneliness is connection. Connecting to others, finding your tribe, surrounding yourself with likeminded individuals so that you never have to feel alone. The world we live in today is incredible in the literally countless opportunities it gives us to connect with each other on any topic at all hours of the day with almost anyone in the world. It’s remarkable and inspiring and most definitely a good thing. However, when it comes to loneliness, what seems to be the cure is simply being ok with being alone and not necessarily connecting with others.

I’m not the first person to say this out loud. People have been telling me left and right since my breakup that I need to spend some time alone and get comfortable with it but no one says anything beyond that. Nobody talks about what it looks and feels like to be alone. Nobody clarifies the milestones of meaningful loneliness. How do you measure your personal growth in loneliness?

I’m terrible at being alone. As I write this, I’m in Boston sitting across at a coffee shop with my best friend Sarah who I talk to at least once a day. I’m thinking about how we’re going to meet up with all of our closest friends in the area tonight and if I’ll make it back in time tomorrow for a meet up in New York City with over 50 people. I’m thinking about the 2 days I’ll be in the area before jetting off to California for a week with my good friend Peter. The urge to fill every waking moment is non-stop. What I haven’t thought about, even for a moment, is where and when I’ll set aside time to work on my loneliness.

I haven’t been alone for weeks or honestly even months. I’d venture to say that I haven’t been truly alone since before my relationship started and arguably even before then. I can’t recall a single moment, be it in school, during therapy, or in any other structured environment where I learned about loneliness. Nobody talks about loneliness. How it feels or what it makes you think about. The places it takes you to in your mind and the coping mechanisms you employ to distract yourself from the feelings of loneliness.

I want to learn about loneliness and share my experience with you so that you and I and others can learn how to be lonely. I don’t think everyone needs this but I know there are countless other “extroverts” out there who are really bad at being alone. If you call it chronic FOMO or masquerade your endless interactivity to seem like you’re networking or you only take time for yourself when you’re so exhausted from interacting that you physically have to be alone to either sleep or zone out, then we’re in the same boat. In reality, if you’re like me, you’re scared to come face to face with yourself, your life decisions, and the vast possibility of what could be. I have a strong feeling that real happiness comes from embracing yourself and thriving in your alone time. I haven’t learned how to do that yet but I’m going to.

Before I close out, I need to clarify. I’m not talking about depression. This isn’t a journey of self discovery that will lead down that path. I don’t mean to turn my back on people who are experiencing it but I don’t plan to solve for that and I don’t want to be misleading. This loneliness is the kind that people are experiencing without necessarily having any sort of serious problem. I’m learning to embrace loneliness and that’s what I’d like to focus on.

That’s all for now.

Have some thoughts on this or insights to share? Please leave them in the comments. This is going to grow, somehow, into something useful that I’ll probably work on, alone for the time being. If you want to share something more personal, send it my way: ninastepanov@gmail.com