The Difference Between Being Lonely and Being Alone

I’m alone a lot. I’m in a new city with a new job and I know no one – so suffice to say I spend a decent amount of time lately mono a mono. I don’t notice it really, I grew up mostly an only child (I have a half-brother who I would see in the summers and during the holidays I spent with my dad) and was always very independent. I could lose myself in books, and when I was truly bored would create stories in my journal with characters that had such rich dialog it surprised most people that I had made it all up. I never viewed being alone as a punishment, nor an oddity at any point in my life.

That is until I reached adulthood. Once I went away to college everyone was always around and doing things on my own was looked at as disassociated and lonerish. I couldn’t take myself out to lunch, or shop, or even see a movie without a gaggle of floormmates or friends surrounding me. “We just don’t want you to be lonely.” They would say as the invited themselves with me to the gym. I was never afraid of being lonely because I never associated being alone with loneliness. Loneliness was an emotional emptiness. A void that couldn’t be filled with people but yet having people always around made me feel lonely, like my own personal well being was lost in the voices of everyone around me.

Women especially start to forget the difference (though this isn’t necessarily a gender problem, in generally women tend to feel less comfortable by themselves than men for obvious reasons). We go everywhere with our friends, even to the bathroom (I mean seriously we can’t even be alone to go to the bathroom?!). We start off with hordes of college friends who seem permanently attached to our sides, to a smaller group of friends who then become roommates later in life. Then we go from our houses with our roommates to our offices with our co-workers (where we all go out to lunch together, of course) then from our offices to the gym or happy hour where we inevitable meet more friends before going home to our significant others. We get married, then we have kids and then, we regret not spending more time alone because we are literally surrounded by people ALL DAY EVERYDAY FOREVER.

It can be scary thinking of doing things by yourself. But you just have to get over the awkward stigma that being alone means you’re lonely and go for it. I spent all day Sunday exploring my new city, popping in and out of restaurants and stores, enjoying the company of my own thoughts. When I stopped for lunch (a little after the brunch rush, around 2) I found myself firmly saying, “just me” to the hostess with a smile. I had a beer, whipped out my journal, and sat there all afternoon observing the families and couples as they walked past. Taking the time to think solely about your own wants and needs without having to curtail them to someone else is a powerful thing. There are certain things you have to be comfortable doing alone before you can explore them with other people.

Do I get lonely? YES! But I alway ask myself, do I feel lonely because I need human connection or am I lonely because of some other emotional hole that I’m not filling? Am I lonely because I crave intimacy? Am I lonely because I miss someone specific? Am I lonely because I need attention? Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. Having more people in my life to surround me and go with me places won’t make the latter go away. The main difference between being alone and being lonely is that one is the pathway to self-discovery – and that is what you’re twenties is all about.

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