In 2017, I published a book called Loveable. It is a book about the healing of our shame, which is the belief we all pick up somewhere along the way that we are not good enough to be loved as we are, not worthy of companionship, if you will. I wrote the book because I’d spent almost three decades becoming ashamed and almost a full decade becoming more aware of it and more free from it. However, following the book’s publication, I discovered something a little disconcerting.
Though my shame was shrinking, my loneliness was still lurking.
For a while this confused me. I had been telling myself that shame and loneliness were essentially the same thing, and I assumed as one decreased the other would decrease as well. Perplexed, I bought a bunch of books about loneliness written by authors I respect, in the hopes of understanding why my shame seemed to be diminishing while my loneliness seemed to be thriving. The reading didn’t help. In fact, most of what I read also lumped shame and loneliness together by describing loneliness as an experience which invariably feels shameful. Then, one day, I finally came across the answer I was looking for in a book I already owned. In fact, at the time, I owned almost a hundred of them. The book was Loveable.
In it I had written, “Loneliness happens. It is as much a part of life as hunger and sunsets and funerals. It is simply what happens when we grow up and realize we have a universe inside of us to which no other person has access, and that every other person contains an unknowable universe as well.” At some deeper level, apparently, I had known all along that, though we tend to lump shame and loneliness together in our minds, they exist separately somewhere at the heart of us. Loveable reminded me, once again, loneliness is not an artifact of our woundedness. Loneliness is a fact of our humanness.
We can have family at home and friends in our neighborhood and followers online and still feel lonely, because loneliness is a constant—even in the midst of a crowd—and feeling lonely is merely a glimpse of that constant. When you feel lonely for a time, it is your loneliness surfacing and then settling into the depths again. It doesn’t mean you’re paying a price for something. It simply means you’re paying attention. So, why do we commonly lump loneliness and shame together, as if they are one and the same?
Because we’re looking for explanations.
I have a friend who, as an adolescent, told his mother he was going to a friend’s house and went to an arcade instead. When he got home, the tokens jingling in his pocket gave him away, and his mother began chasing him around the house with a ruler. My friend had been prepared to get grounded for his deception, but getting hit for the transgression had never crossed his mind. So he dodged and laughed, thinking his mother must be feigning her rage. Out of breath, his mother called his father into the room. My friend expected his father to be more measured. Instead, his father backhanded him across the face. His cheek stung, but the three words inside of his head stung even more.
“It’s just me,” he thought.
In other words, “What brings me joy brings them rage. What I think warrants punishment to them warrants pain. I’m all by myself. I’m all alone.” In the sharp sting of skin on skin, the fact of his loneliness rushed to the surface of him. Like abandonment, abuse has a way of suddenly bringing our attention to this inner reality. Indeed, any experience which reminds us that no one else is seeing the world through our eyes can trigger awareness of our loneliness. However, our minds aren’t satisfied with this awareness. Our minds are meaning-making machines. They want an explanation. They want to know why we’ve been abandoned or mistreated or misunderstood. Our minds ask, “Why do I feel so lonely?”
Shame is happy to provide the answer.
The voice of shame within us—and perhaps even the voices of shame around us—tell us we are feeling lonely because we deserve to be alone. Shame tells us no one can hear us shouting for help because we aren’t shouting loudly enough or pleasingly enough or articulately enough, or simply that we aren’t worth saving. Shame tells us we got slapped because our sense of justice is wrong or weird or bad. Here’s a simple way to expose the difference between your loneliness and your shame. Complete the following sentence: “I feel lonely because . . .” Shame is often everything that comes after the word because. Shame is believing your loneliness is a consequence for how badly or strangely you were made.
Shame is weaponized loneliness…
You and I, we may never totally get rid of our shame, but we can tell it to keep its hands off our loneliness, thank you very much. Don’t let your shame write the story about why your loneliness has surfaced. Try not to add a “because” to any moment in which you become aware of your loneliness. Your shame may pipe up within you, but recognize it for what it is. Don’t let it ramble on for too long. Tell it you’re not looking for explanations. Tell it you already trust the only real explanation: you are lonely because . . . you are human. Then, your shame will shrink a little more and, finally, you can be a little more alone with your loneliness. It’s so much quieter that way.
It’s the kind of quiet that can transform you.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.