Confronting Feelings of Loneliness When You Write

“… And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.” 

– From Beannacht by John O’Donohue

Loneliness, Do Your Best

John O’ Donahue, the late Irish poet and philosopher, once told the story of when he was studying in Germany and was incredibly homesick. Throughout his stay, O’ Donahue tried his best to avoid his feelings of homesickness by making himself as busy as possible.

Then, one day, he got the flu. Having no other choice but to rest, O’Donahue walked into his room and decided to confront the feelings of loneliness he was running away from ever since he arrived. He locked his door, sat in a chair, and told loneliness directly:

“Do your best.”

Then, O’ Donahue felt what he described as a “wave of held back forsakenness” that he had been repressing for months–or maybe even years. In that moment, he felt like the most neglected being in the whole universe.

But once the feeling had moved through him, it was done. 

From that day onward, O’Donahue was never afraid of being alone ever again.

What Is Loneliness?

It’s nearly impossible to describe what loneliness feels like. But as a writer, it’s my job to try. So here I go:

Loneliness feels like being a single, hollowed-out elephant tusk strewn across a desert floor.

For me, loneliness comes in waves, and yes, often times it comes to me when I write.

I heard it explained somewhere that there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. I tend to agree with this notion.

Being “alone” describes a physical detachment from other human beings–it means that literally, no one else is around. Being alone isn’t difficult to manage if you’re reasonably healthy. You can be alone and still feel fine. You might not even notice it.

On the other hand, feelings of loneliness are just that: feelings. And feelings have nothing to do with whether you’re physically surrounded by people or not. (For instance, you can be in a crowded supermarket and still feel very lonely.)

Nevertheless, feelings of loneliness can be very uncomfortable and scary.

Why else would some people avoid feelings of loneliness like the plague?

My History With Loneliness

I remember being in college and being amazed at how many of my classmates would go from one relationship to the next, as if they were going for seconds or thirds at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and not from one intimate human connection to the next.

I remember telling a friend that I felt terrible that I couldn’t do what most of my classmates did.

At the time, I had only a few serious relationships, and long periods of time would pass between one serious relationship and the next. I believed there was something “strange” about me that made me choose to spend months, and sometimes even years, without a partner.

Then my friend pointed out that those classmates that went from relationship to relationship, without a break, were doing so because of the fear of being alone–or, more specifically, they were afraid of feeling lonely. My friend was implying that this type of pattern was unhealthy.

I disagreed with my friend at the time: I still thought that I was the one with the unhealthy behavior.

But today, I am not so sure.

Me Vs. Loneliness

Recently, my fear of loneliness was getting to me.  

It was no wonder why:  more and more of my family and friends were getting married or finding partners. Around me, the ranks of those who were single were quickly dwindling

I don’t have any children either. So most of the time, I tend to fly solo.

Then, of course, there’s no time when my aloneness is more evident than when I sit down at my laptop and type. And when I’m alone, it’s easy for the feelings of loneliness to creep in. These feelings puncture little holes in my writing process that make it that much harder to trudge along.

Usually, I manage pretty well, but recently, these little holes of loneliness were getting deeper and wider, until finally the loneliness was getting so big that I decided to lock the door of my room, sit myself down on my chair, and take O’Donahue’s lead.

As I sat there, I stared directly at the hollowed-out, dry, expansive loneliness in front of me and said:

“Do your best.”

Then I waited for a response.

It wasn’t a split-second before an awful feeling came over me, as if my gut muscles were being tugged on and flattened out.

I was scared at first. But after several moments of the loneliness overcoming my body, I realized something.

I wasn’t dead. I was okay.

After a while, that awful feeling subsided, and I felt at peace.

Then I asked myself:

“Why are people so afraid of loneliness? Why do we spend so much time running away from being alone? Running from relationship to relationship, without a break? Why do we run around and try to make sure we’re constantly surrounded by people who we have a close, emotional connection to and avoid loneliness like it’s a disease? What are we so afraid is going to happen if we just walk into our room alone, lock the door, sit down, and do nothing expect ask loneliness to do its best?”

I didn’t find the answers to those questions that day. But what I did realize was that my feelings of loneliness were nothing to be afraid of; and that the only way to overcome those feelings was to confront them head on.

After all, loneliness is part of the human condition, and no matter how fast we try to run away from loneliness, sooner or later, it’s gonna catch up to us. So why not lock the door right now, sit your butt down, and just get it over with already?

much love,

Ollin

How do you deal with feelings of loneliness when you write? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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25 comments on “Confronting Feelings of Loneliness When You Write

  1. I accept moments of lonliness as the price paid for being a recluse who loves the silence of being and working alone. After raising four children, silence really is golden. I love them eternally, but love the present solitude.

  2. “there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely” I agree with this. I don’t mind being alone, and sometimes I want to be alone. Loneliness is separate and can hit anytime, no matter who I’m with. I think part of the reason I write is to deal with the loneliness. It fills the hole a little.

    • Ollin says:

      Interesting. I personally don’t write to fill in the hole, but I can see how that can be the case for some. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Conor Ebbs says:

    Ollin,

    Insightful, and honest. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    Being alone and feeling lonely, as you said, are two very different things. As long as I’m close to nature, loneliness rarely gets the chance to sink its claws in too deep. City living, for me, usually catalyzes those feelings more quickly.

    Loneliness is subjective, and probably more to do with a lack of shared values, beliefs, and principles.It’s easy to feel lonely in this world when it’s not the one you dream of, but dreams may be the key to keeping loneliness at bay.

    And, of course, great communities such as this one.

    Conor

    • Ollin says:

      “Loneliness is subjective, and probably more to do with a lack of shared values, beliefs, and principles.It’s easy to feel lonely in this world when it’s not the one you dream of, but dreams may be the key to keeping loneliness at bay.”

      Wow, beautiful and poignant as always Conor. What an interesting perspective on loneliness. I never thought of it that way, but you are right, sometimes we are lonely in that we feel our values are not shared or that who we are and what we dream of is not validated or respected by others. Or that we feel misunderstood often.

      What a great additional insight to this discussion of loneliness. Thank for sharing!

  4. Jarvis says:

    I’ve never felt lonely writing, probably because I’m pretty independent. Although solitary writing can beneficial and detrimental. You need that space to open your mind without distraction but you also need interaction for peer review to make your work better.

  5. Victoria says:

    Ollin, you are such a dear one. I love your personal entries that deal with feelings. Loneliness has been a big one for me. I have an amazing life mate and a grown daughter and students I adore. Still I struggle with loneliness. Since I try to be a writer my loneliness is magnified, but writing seems to be my cure. Like many writers I struggle to write and yet when I do finally put my butt in the chair this aura of peace surrounds me. I do believe writing or any form of creative expression is telling loneliness to come have a seat next to us and we’ll figure this life out together. Thanks for the thoughtfulness and wisdom of your blog entries.

    • Ollin says:

      Thank you Victoria, for your very kind and sweet words. I love how you talk about the “peaceful aura” that surrounds you. That’s wonderful. I know what you mean. There are times when I feel that too. Not all the time, but sometimes. I love those moments when everything seems to flow effortless and you truly feel at home. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. winn taylor says:

    In my early twenties, I moved to Boston, where I knew no one. The loneliness summoned images of being a fish inside of a fish bowl, somehow separated from the world around me. Loneliness seems to happen, for me, during those moments when I have become lost within myself – my thoughts. When I have forgotten that I am connected. But sometimes, that’s just ok.

    • Ollin says:

      Wonderful description. I remember going to college and feeling that same kind of loneliness. When you don’t know a soul, it’s so weird. You get so used to knowing at least some people from elementary to high school. Then you go to this place far away from family and friends you knew, and suddenly you’re surrounded by strangers.

      Here’s to you and me and our journey to find peace with loneliness.

  7. soadh says:

    why? When I write I just feel that I am going to meet my true self, my true friends. Perhaps I feel loneliness whenever I do not write.

  8. Remember what John Steinbeck wrote about loneliness/aloneness in “Travels with Charley”:

    “Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present, and future all flow together. A memory, a present event, and a forecast all equally present… A number of years ago I had some experience with being alone. For two succeeding years I was alone each winter for eight months at a stretch in the Sierra Nevada mountains on Lake Tahoe. I was a caretaker on a summer estate during the winter months when it was snowed in. And I made some observations then. As the time went on I found that my reactions thickened. Ordinarily I am a whistler. I stopped whistling. I stopped conversing with my dogs, and I believe that subtleties of feeling began to disappear until finally I was on a pleasure-pain basis. Then it occurred to me that the delicate shades of feeling, of reaction, are the result of communication, and without such communications they tend to disappear. A man with nothing to say has no words. Can its reverse be true–a man who has no one to say anything to has no words as he has no need for words? Now and then there appear accounts of babies raised by animals–wolves and such. It is usually reported that the youngster crawls on all fours, makes those sounds learned from his foster parents, and perhaps even thinks like a wolf. Only through imitation do we develop toward originality…”

    Loneliness, I think, is feeling bereft of human companionship. Aloneness is sweet when we are comfortable with ourselves. If we love ourselves, we feel comfortable being alone. Loneliness happens, I think, when we find we don’t like ourselves and wish to escape to the company of other people in order to forget ourselves for a moment in time. By our affect as self-haters, we push others away, thus the void in relationships with other human beings, indeed, isolates us.

    Is that too complicated?

    • Ollin says:

      No, I believe that what you are saying is that we need to learn to love and enjoy our own company and not feel like we need to cling to others for happiness and peace. In fact, I have had some incredibly memorable moments alone and away from others. There is a wonderful beauty in being alone and lacking any feelings of loneliness.

      Now, I’m not recommending to isolate yourself from others. Not at all. That would be as unhealthy as running scared from loneliness itself. We all need a healthy dose of community in our lives. But I think a healthy dose of solitude is just as necessary.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. kaleba says:

    Facebook and Twitter are great ways to connect with others, therefore to fight loneliness. They’re also fantastic ways to procrastinate on anything you do, especially writing, which can, as you said, be one of those times you notice you are very alone.

    I live alone, and pretty much never get lonely, except when I write I find myself gravitating towards FB and Twitter as distractions. Maybe I’m feeling lonely then? Could be. But I never thought of it that way. Will have to explore that some more.

    Great post as always!

    • Ollin says:

      Interesting. If I spend too much time on FB and twitter attempting to find connection through these sites, I feel very lonely and I often leave the computer and go meet up with a friend or family member. When I am just looking for articles to share then I don’t feel lonely.

      I think extensive time on any social network, including blogging, can be unhealthy. Everything in moderation, as the Buddhists say!

  10. I love to be by mself but it can’t go on forever otherwise gets downright depressing. I need to be around people and slowly it will remind me how much I love to be on my own as well. Its a balance of both really.

    I usually have some quite time to myself in the day when my kids are at school/Kindy and I am working from home – feel so lucky to be able to do that. I guess its in your disposition, some people can’t imagine being alone, for me sometimes it can get awfully lonely being surrouned by tons of people. Sorry – I am rambling

    • Ollin says:

      No need to apologize. I encourage insightful ramblings.🙂 Lovely thoughts. Yes, I think we should maintain a balance between being alone and being around people.

      But here I am mostly talking about the feeling of being lonely, and how we deal with this, because sometimes being around people may not remove the feelings of loneliness. Not sure if many people feel the same way as I do, but thought I’d just put my thoughts out there. Thanks for sharing yours!

  11. Lesley says:

    I’m not sure about loneliness. I know others who’ve had the experience you describe, dreaded the emotion and then found that actually they survived, and I’ve come to the conclusion that in some cases we fear loneliness and being alone because we think we should.

    Of all the comments you’ve received, the one that resonates with me Is Marya’s, that it can be very lonely being surrounded by people.

    Is it possible that only those who are comfortable with themselves enjoy being alone? If so, then that feeling of comfort, rather than an absence of loneliness, is surely what we should all be aiming for?

    • Ollin says:

      Fascinating point. Maybe we are all just looking to feel comfort with ourselves, our bodies, our minds, our spirit?

  12. Oh, Ollin, I remember those feelings, but come sit in my chair now. I’m almost 40 (in one month), I have two kids, a husband who’s grouchy all the time, and no time to lock myself in a room let alone a bathroom to write or just feel alone. I can’t even go to the bathroom alone. I leave for my writer’s group and there are tears and hands gripping my legs. I write in spurts, and generally with angst. They call me the angry writer because I feel suffocated and I cannot find the time to be free and alone and lonely and write about it.

    Cherish this time — seriously! You’re young — just keep writing because once the relationship comes — the one you’ll settle down for — the kids will come — and the full time job with which to support them all — and you’ll miss all this alone time.

    Maybe we can switch lives for a week or two? How quiet is your place?

    I love the reflective stances in your posts. Very thoughtful.

    • Ollin says:

      Haha! That WAS wonderful. I love that all you give me some much needed perspective. Who knew that my lesson was that I needed to BE GRATEFUL for this feeling of loneliness!

      We don’t know what we have until it’s gone, eh? I’m up for switching place. I think then you might realize how lucky you are to have the spirit of a child light up your life with their love every day, or have your partner just hold you and tell you that everything is going to be all right when you are scared. Without children I forget that there is wisdom in play and fun, and without a partner I am always reminded of how precious an unconditional embrace from someone who knows all your secrets is.

  13. […] Blog post from Courage 2 Create: Ollin Morales on “Confronting Feelings of Loneliness When You Write”: [T]here’s no time when my aloneness is more evident than when I sit down at my laptop and type. And when I’m alone, it’s easy for the feelings of loneliness to creep in. These feelings puncture little holes in my writing process that make it that much harder to trudge along… Read More […]

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