Are You Lonely When You’re Alone?

Asking ourselves the right questions can bring us home
November 21, 2019 Updated: November 21, 2019

While our use of technology has profoundly changed our relationships with other people, it has changed our relationship with ourselves even more, and this is the most important relationship of all.

We no longer see our self as a destination. Our self is a void to be filled, with entertainment, information, or anything else that feels good. To be alone is to be lonely, as if our own company is worth nothing. The instant our friend gets up to go to the bathroom, we’re waiting in a line, or we’re between activities, we grab our phone to check whatever we can check—anything but to be with ourselves. We relate to ourselves as the hole at the center of the donut.

As a result of our disappeared sense of worth, we survive on validation as our source of meaning. “Does anyone else think this matters? How did I do in other people’s eyes?” We offer our experience up to social media to find out what it means to everyone else so we can know what it should mean to us. In so doing, we effectively give away our experience and its corresponding value. We deprive ourselves of the nourishment that could come from our own life.

Furthermore, we create a persona, a brand, the person who stands in for our real self who’s gone missing. We then use life to support and defend that persona, capture our experience on our devices to prove that we are indeed the person we’re advertised to be, the person the rest of the world thinks we are. Life is not lived directly but rather used as evidence to support our identity. As a result, we have a photo library that’s full, but our inner well is empty.

It’s also no wonder that we struggle with self-esteem these days. Our new value system places ease and immediacy above all else. But a true sense of self-worth doesn’t come from what’s easy. It’s built on hard work, effort, and time. We can get to the top of the mountain by helicopter and even take selfies once we’ve arrived, proving that we’re a hiker and that we travel to mountain tops. But none of that branding will build self respect like walking and sweating each step to the top.

In one study, young people were faced with an empty room with nothing in it but a small shocking machine. With a choice between doing nothing and giving themselves mild shocks, 70 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose to shock themselves rather than sit with their own thoughts and feelings. The goal in life seems to be to entertain ourselves and stay busy all the way to the grave so we can avoid bumping into ourselves along the way.

Moreover, we have forgotten our own inner authority, our own wisdom. We no longer trust that the answers to our questions might come from inside us—not Google. We’ve stopped asking ourselves what we think is best and what we want. We’ve given up on ourselves as our guide in life. We’ve discarded our greatest source in exchange for an algorithm.

The important thing is no longer what we think of ourselves, but rather what we think others think of us. Comparison is the gauge by which we experience ourselves. Are we measuring up to everyone else’s Instagram feed? Where do we fit in the greater cultural photograph? Rather than ask “Who do I want to be?” we ask “Who do you (or they) think I should be?”

We need to remember that we ourselves are a destination. And, what matters to us matters, what we think, feel, and want is something to discover. We need to start consulting with ourselves again, not just Google, rediscovering our own inner authority—the real source that knows what’s best for us. We want to start spending time in just our own company, being curious about how we are in the midst of this wild ride called life.

We need to remember what it feels like to have an experience and keep it for ourselves, without asking anyone else for their commentary and approval. So too, we must get back in the habit of doing hard things, things that take time, but build true self-esteem. We need confidence that’s reliable and doesn’t come and go with likes or followers.

We need to get back in the habit of inviting our own wisdom to the table—asking ourselves the important questions. “What do I think? What do I want? What matters to me? What’s the most important thing to me? Who do I want to be?” Ask yourself these questions—every day. Spend time in just your own company. While it can appear that we are focused entirely on ourselves these days, in fact, our relationship with technology has led us to abandon ourselves at a profound level, to make our own presence invisible. Starting today, now, I invite you to come home to yourself, to remember that you are a destination deserving of your own attention. Indeed, you are your own best company.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com.

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