I look at the face that meets me in the mirror. There I am. The face staring back when I have no one but myself to be accountable for. Today I want us to reason about loneliness.

Photo: Louise Forslycke Garbergs (for FM Mattsson)

Loneliness can be self-elected, there are people who love to be alone and gather energy in the silence, without other people present. Then there is the loneliness that arises in lacking connection with other people. When nobody else understands. Today I propose the differences between voluntary loneliness, involuntary loneliness and existential loneliness. How they touch us over a lifetime and how hiking can be a way to make friends with oneself and with others. My call to anyone who goes through the involuntary loneliness is to work a little every day to break it or become friends with it. Checklist for how at the bottom of this post.

Why does it hurt so much? Research explains physical reactions to loneliness.

Belonging to a group has strong advantages for human survival, it is rooted in us. We feel best when we can share experiences, feel understood and share relationships with other people. The flock protects us. Scientists explain the strong anxiety that may arise in connection with involuntary loneliness as the body’s warning signal to re-seek fellowship.

The brain reacts in the same way to loneliness as physical pain. Those who experience loneliness have increased blood pressure, inflammation and depression compared to people who do not. Alone is not strong position to be in. To protect us, hormones such as oxytocin are released by skin-to-skin contact. We are created to be with each other.

Read more: Loneliness – A threat to our health (Karolinska Institutet)

To meet yourself – 3 kinds of solitude we do not come from

There is such a duality in solitude. I love it and need it very strongly. But there are times when feelings of loneliness have come where they should not exist, and sometimes I applied for it but was surprised that it had not been found.

Today I live alone, but I could feel just as lonely when I was living together with another. I could feel it in a crowded room of colleagues or schoolmates, where there were few common denominators. I went out on El Camino de Santiago for the purpose of still contemplating in my loneliness – but I was far from alone among the many thousands of fellow citizens who overtook me. Ironically, there were moments when I got an almost omnipotent feeling of being part of such a much larger whole among total strangers out there on the trail. A feeling that came from of all the total goodness along the way, from all the warm encounters. Where I was looking for community, there was only loneliness and where I was looking for loneliness I found my connection.

1. The voluntary solitude.

Wanting to be alone. There are few times I feel so full and so present in myself and existence as when I am out in nature by myself. There is no one else I need to account for than myself and my own being. Over the years, I have learned that it is the key to balance for me as an introvert – my body must seek the loneliness to charge energy for messy days in the urban environment. The moments in nature are for just me. Where I’m just me. Where the thoughts become quiet for a while in line with the rhythmic steps of the boots along the path. Many people share this need to find space for their own time. It is an absolute necessity.

When you can use hiking to develop yourself and find your own self. A reader question that came in: “I want to walk by myself, but I do not dare for the unknown scares me.” I am looking inward. Is it perhaps that nasty stretch that screams in the body? When you walk a little out of your comfort zone, you grow by coping with yourself. You know that you have an exit plan for if needed. Yes, then I would instead say that you almost owe it to yourself to face the loneliness. To meet the unknown. It’s as we grow as humans. It is so that we can start thinking for ourselves, feel the small signals that tell me who I am and what conditions I need to feel really good. Do you enjoy your own company? Have you considered why or why not?

2. The involuntary loneliness

The days when there would be someone to sit next to on the wooden pier and dangle feet with. Maybe in silence. Maybe with discussions about everything and nothing. I feel that longing so strongly now that I have been self-employed for two years and lived for a year by myself. I travel around to the most magical places that exist, but rarely have anyone who shares the experience with me. One is tormented by the many decisions to be decided every day. Such as at the supermarket, when I stand with a green basket in one hand and have to come up with what to eat for dinner, to say the least. I do not know what to buy. I miss going to a workplace and being a context where one strives for goals together. That someone who breaks the infinite silence. The one sitting on the other side of the breakfast table. Just being able to laugh a crap day away and move on.

Reader Question: “Is it okay not to want to discover the world on my own?” “The only thing I want is to share the hiking trails with someone else, I really don’t want to walk by myself. But I have no choice, no one else I know is interested.”

Advantages of hiking society – safety, security and community. I think it’s a very healthy question to ask. To consider what needs, conditions and opportunities you have right now. First. Think of risk assessment, if you have uncertain moments out and about, for example, navigation or planning, it is a huge security to be with others. I would even advocate to go with a group (such as these on Facebook and via STF and Friluftsfrämjandet mfl) and look for others who more experienced to walk with, rather than to go out into the mountains alone, which (touch wood) can become a dangerous situation. Read more: So you want to find new hiking friends

3. The existential loneliness

This is often discussed by people in the final stages of life, in the elderly or cancer victims. When they are faced with the most inevitable thing that exists but are unable to share it with someone else – no one else understands. In that feeling there is the existential loneliness. Relatives, friends and acquaintances can be close, they can ask questions and want to understand – but one who has not been in the same situation will never fully understand. “I will soon die, but everyone else will live. We will not share the future together. No one else can join this last step with me. I have to do it myself”.

This existential loneliness is also described as the mother of all loneliness. We are born alone, are lonely through life lined with different relationships and then we die alone. The feeling of existential loneliness can show up at a party – even in a nice community where you still get the feeling of not really belonging. The feeling that arises in the realisation of having rushed through life and been stressed during relationships and situations where one should have been present – perhaps worked past the early childhood years and then realised the social and existential loneliness that then awaits.

3 Tips for those who want to break involuntary loneliness

There are so many parts to this thing being human. Some times are all crystal clear. In other times we fail. The only thing we really can hold on to is whoever we are or where we are right now. Now is not always. There will be another time.

  1. Search for contact. Be available for contact with other people. Smile kindly to those you meet, invite, ask interested questions. Believe in the goodness of other people and choose to trust them, that they wish you well.
  2. Choose new contexts. Create new interests, find groups with those who have similar interests to yourself. It can be a book club, parenting group or hiking group near where you live.
  3. Who do you feel good about spending time with? Those you let in most of the time should be people you can trust, where you both give and take. Thus, the quality of the relationship is important and not the quantity. It is better to choose a few people that you can create really close friendships, rather than with than hundreds of superficial acquaintances you occasionally throw a remark to on social media.

 What is loneliness for you? When do you feel it and what thoughts and feelings does it provoke? Please share with me here in the comment field or on Vandringsbloggen Community’s group on Facebook where we can discuss together.

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