Posted on

A Companion to Loneliness

Loneliness is something we all feel at some point in our lives. Of course we all employ many techniques to drown it out; from jam packed social calendars, television marathons and social media updates to over drinking, eating or exercising. It is easy to get trapped in cycles of self-criticism and fruitless goals of perfectionism to drown out the pangs of loneliness. If only we were different: more pretty or handsome, smarter, successful, popular, wealthy or lucky then we would feel less lonely. But the truth is that loneliness comes with the territory, that is, it is part of the human condition.

While I may be able to speak candidly about the topic, I am far from exempt from the aversion commonly felt towards loneliness. Born as one of triplets, being alone was a foreign experience for me for a long time. I shared my mother’s womb with my two sisters, shared a room with either one of them my entire childhood and positioned myself in life to be around people I felt content with. Consequently I have never managed well alone. That is not to say that I can’t do things independently and alone, it is just that I feel my most comfortable and safe with someone I know in contactable proximity. For me being alone and lonely are closely intertwined but they are in fact different experiences. It is very possible to be alone and not lonely and to also be in company and feel lonely.

Here on the Sunflower and Ivy blog I love  a dictionary definition and today’s result was, at its best, very factual. The Miriam Webster dictionary defines lonely as a) being without company b) cut off from others, c) a place not frequented by human beings and d) sad from being alone.  Not exactly a philosophical definition of a complex feeling that has plagued human’s for their entire existence. Loneliness can be many things, in many contexts and is really an existential concern borne out of awareness.

My personal view is that there is a strong relationship between loneliness and pain. Pain that goes unrecognised, i.e. is poorly visible lends itself directly to feeling misunderstood, overlooked, invalidated and isolated, and ultimately lonely. I think Vincent Van Gogh describes the visibility of our internal experience so well “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”. Whether our internal experience is that of pain and difficulty or of passion and love it is rarely experienced and shared with others, we may have a raging fire inside but people only see a wisp of smoke. This displacement from others is the root of loneliness.

Anyway the point of this blog wasn’t to endlessly ramble about the morbid aspects of human existence and to induce my own panic attack at the thought of how alone we all are in our experience. But it is in actual fact to suggest to you a companion for your loneliness, a way for the internal fire to be seen and in some ways validated. I say companion because it is not a cure for loneliness- unfortunately. Cure is a myth in the psychological realm.  But I have found loneliness a good companion, in a very intuitive and rather surprising form; creativity. I see some of you rolling your eyes but hear me out. Creativity sounds a bit ambiguous especially for those that don’t feel creatively inclined but there are many reasons art-making is a good companion for loneliness including:

  1. It won’t desert you. Sure you might have to go looking for some courage to begin with but usually you can find creativity where judgement is not.
  2. It can take all you have to throw at it. Art making is super absorbent this way. No feeling is too dark or too ugly.
  3. Creativity doesn’t require social networking and events. Which is great because in all honesty our social disconnection is probably what led us here in the first place
  4. You can meet your companion in your pyjamas, with a cup of tea, biscuits and your favourite music playing. Creativity is the care-free shirt tucked into track pants type.
  5. It assists you to change your perception whether that’s of yourself, your experience or your emotion. Art making is like your subconscious problem solving and processing externally. A shift in your perception might not rid you of loneliness but it will make you cope with it better.

All creative modalities can be great companions to loneliness. Maya Angelou is quoted to say that “music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness”.   If you have ever listened to a song 20 times on repeat you would have to agree with her that music can be an excellent tonic. But as I am an art therapist I am going to finish this blog post by talking about art-making, specifically journaling and its ability to keep you company by being a witness to loneliness and well, any other type of pain.

A journal can also be called a visual diary and is basically a book filled with creative expression. Like a diary it is private and personal. Everyone will do it differently and there really isn’t a right or wrong way. When purchasing a journal find something that suits your expression style. Do you prefer small and tidy, large and prolific, hardcover, disposable, pretty or plain? My two tips are to get something with reasonably thick paper if you’re likely to use mixed media and paint and to get something spiral bound if you’re likely to want to tear pages out (this is me).  You may use your journal a little every day, periodically or only when you are feeling lonely.

My next piece of advice if you’re going to get started with your first journal or you are getting reacquainted with the process is to ditch the self criticism. If this is extremely hard, then bring it to the party. Annotating (writing) your critical thoughts as you experience them (in your journal) gives you distance from your criticisms and deflates them of their power. Which brings me to the point of this whole journaling when your lonely thing. Any feeling that is overwhelming can be disempowered through distance.  Art making or writing can be the perfect way to do that. Channeling your feelings and internal fire as Van Gogh puts it into something physical makes it visible. Sure it may not be visible to other people, but it’s out in the world; separate to you. So that’s it, that’s my advice, when your lonely-get journaling. Below are 10 starter strategies if your not sure how to depict “lonely” in your journal.

  1. Choose a feeling or word (like lonely!) and draw it as a line OR Shape. Is it coloured, squiggly, curvy, rough, embellished?
  2. Sift through a magazine and find images that you’re attracted to or mirror your mood. Cut them out and paste into your journal
  3. Write 5 pages without editing or stopping to think. This idea (morning pages) is prescribed by Julia Cameron in her Book The Artists Way and is a great way to clear your mind of the endless chattering.
  4. Find a quote that either reflects how you feeling or one that you find uplifting. Write it in a creative way, using colour and pattern and the whole page
  5. Depict how lonely would look if it was the weather
  6. Wet a page and use watercolour or inks to create swirling patterns that reflect how you feel
  7. Find a song that speaks to your heart and use art materials to make marks while you’re listening
  8. Close your eyes and just draw/paint
  9. Find a handheld mirror and do a self portrait (without judgement). Google Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon or “contemporary portrait artists” to learn that quirkier is actually better.
  10. Write a letter to your loneliness, telling it how you feel.

Still stuck?

Periodically Sunflower and Ivy offers introduction to creative journaling workshops and we would love to see you at one! They are fun, with lots of tips and time to ask questions. If you live in Western Australia check the shop for dates. Or feel free to pop us through an e-mail with your interest or questions and we can work something out!

There are lot of online resources for general creative journaling prompts such as this one by April from Blacksburg Belle