I spent most of my life profoundly lonely, so I know a little bit about it. There are many ways to be lonely, and many reasons to feel lonely, and as we move through the normal course of our lives, it is natural and inevitable that you will find yourselves feeling lonely. While there’s no way to guarantee that you can avoid this, there are concrete steps that you can take to minimize its impact. Loneliness, particularly when extended for long periods of time, can cause us to create or maintain behaviors which don’t serve our best interests.
Fundamentally, loneliness is the gap we feel between our desire or need for connection, and the connection that we actually experience. Everyone’s needs regarding connection will vary, so you’ll need to understand your needs in this arena to understand if you are experiencing both the quality and quantity of connection that you need to feel satisfied and avoid being lonely.
I also think that loneliness comes in a few varieties, each a little different. The first, and one of the most fundamental types of loneliness is physical loneliness. Everybody has a certain desire for touch. To be very frank, as boys, your access to casual physical touch will be limited during parts of your life. You are likely to be hugged less, cuddled less,and casually touched less than your female friends. You will likely have fewer opportunities outside of romantic relationships to both touch and to be touched than you may like. Be both aware and wary of this. Because you may have less touch in your life than you might like, you may place an outsized importance on the need to connect physically with romantic partners. While needing to be touched by your romantic interest is fine, a lack of understanding of this need may cause you to remain in relationships that are not otherwise satisfying because they offer an outlet for touch. Don’t do this.
There is a difference between touching and being touched, each of which relates to connection. Touching someone else is, among other things, a signal of someone else’s acceptance of you. When you touch someone else, part of the reason this fuels connection is because it signals to you that your touch is welcome, that you, in fact, are welcome, and that the act of being touched by you offers that person something they welcome.
Being touched, by contrast, is a signal that someone wants you, and this allows you to draw comfort and affection from them. Both types of touch are important, and they are both different. Touch is important to your life. You will want to understand your desire both to receive touch and to give touch in order to understand your need for connection here.
Another way that loneliness, the connection gap, may be noticed stems from our need for understanding. Like touch, it is important both to have people in your life who understand you, and whom you understand. Again, both components are essential. You will need people in your life that listen to you, that see and hear you, and, importantly, have the tools and life experiences to understand how you think, how you feel, and where those thoughts and feelings come from.
Similarly, you are going to need to understand others to avoid a connection gap. You are going to need people in your life to care about, to seek to understand, to comfort and to praise. You are going to need people that you in turn are entrusted to see and to hear. You will need people to think about, to feel for, and to love.
Finally, I think there’s a kind of loneliness associated with physical space and shared goals. I think we need, to greater and lesser degrees, people to work with, to grow with, to play with, and to share experiences with. We need people that understand the work of our minds, of our hands, and of our time, and who find joy in the same pursuits.
Everyone falls somewhere on a spectrum with respect to loneliness. As you grow and mature, and as your relationships grow and mature, you may find that you move along this spectrum. That’s fine so long as you understand yourself well enough to identify any connection gaps you feel, why you feel them, and how, ideally, you would like those gaps to be filled and by whom.
There are things you can do about being lonely. There are, as with most problems, actions you can take once you understand yourself, that will lessen the connection gap. With respect to physical loneliness, you may find that long periods of time may pass where you neither touch nor are you touched. This can lead to a kind of touch starvation. Touch starvation is not good for your health, physically or emotionally.
If socially appropriate, hug your friends hello and goodbye. Even these brief moments, even the “bro-hug,” offers some contact. Get a haircut or massage. Touch is a need, and your body will release calming chemicals into your body when you are being touched. Your body doesn’t know that the masseuse or the salon-worker isn’t a friend. The calming environment and sustained physicality of the experience can help fill the need to be touched. Spend time with a pet. This really only satisfies part of the need for physical connection because you are the one doing the touching rather than being touched, but during a period of touch-drought, it can be very helpful.
If you are feeling like you are not being seen, heard, or understood, invest in your relationships. Practice listening, actively, to those you are connected to. Ask after their well being and attempt to connect with them on a deeper-than-surface level. Make note, physically if need be, of important dates and events of those around you. Without exception, celebrate other people’s victories with them, and remember too the times when they might need support. Don’t be afraid to care, openly and genuinely, about the people in your life. Taking an active role in the lives of those you want to connect with will encourage deeper relationships and increase the likelihood that others will invest in you.
There’s another secret I can share with you here. Many more people than you think are in the same boat. I think it can be tempting to think that, because we are lonely, we are the only ones feeling that lack of connection. The truth is though, that everyone at some point will feel this way, and that at any given time, many more people than you think feel this way right now. Most people will welcome your attention. Don’t be so afraid of rejection that you reject yourself first.
However, there may be times in your life where this is difficult, where you don’t have many friends, or when your friends are not available to you on a deeper level. There may be times in your life when you are short on deep friendships. During these times, you may want to talk with a therapist. While there is nothing that replaces a personal connection with a friend, there’s no shame in connecting with a professional whose role in your life is to listen. We need to be heard and to be seen.
If you are feeling a lack of connection around activities and shared goals, you will need to seek spaces where people who share your values and hobbies gather. Seek physical spaces whenever possible. We are bodily creatures, and being physically present does matter. If possible, seek to share activities and spaces with others repetitively. Being together frequently gives you more opportunities to learn about others, and frequency of interaction also lessens the stakes of each encounter. Building relationships and understanding others doesn’t happen by simply willing it into existence. The process of connecting over shared experiences is cumulative, which means you’ll need to put in a sustained effort.
Do things that give you an opportunity to be with the kind of people you want to get to know. Don’t blockade yourself into only connecting over a narrow set of interests. If you like games, think about what other spaces exist where people play games and attend those spaces. Expand your repertoire to include games you might not otherwise have played, and give everything a fair shot. Physicality and space matters. Common goals matter. Repetition matters. The more time you spend together, the more you will know, understand and appreciate someone, and the lower the stakes of any given hour will be. Try aspirational activities, do the things that people you want to meet do. Be willing to share not only what you care about, but also that you care about things. The loneliest people in the world are those who are too cool to care about things. Don’t be one of those guys.
Remember too boys, that you have family. As you grow, the role of your family will change, but your family is alway here for you. There is no world where you will ever want for a hug, for words of affection, or for my love and attention. Loneliness is something that can sneak up on us, and that can insidiously become a part of our lives. Watch for loneliness, know it when you feel it, and take action to correct it whenever possible.