now that the academic year has restarted in right earnest, as classmates get back into their groups, many are discovering that in the few weeks that people have been away, somehow, quite magically, so many have coupled up. People suddenly have boyfriends and girlfriends, or are seeing someone though they haven’t labelled anything yet or are just chatting.
If you are one of those that didn’t get coupled up, and haven’t yet for a few years though everyone is coupled up around you, h probably have mixed-up feelings about it. Your best friend barely has time for you, and when you do meet up, all you get to hear is about the lover and no real interest in your part of the story. Even if you say you got into your dream college, you might get a “That’s so great! I am so happy for you!” before segueing back into talking about the special someone. You look around and you notice everyone around seems to be interested only in hanging out with their sweethearts, and when you get invited or tag along anyway, you get quite conscious of being the third-wheel that it gets tiresome.
Sometimes, you even have fights with your BFF over how little your friendship seems to means now, and you say hurtful things like ‘Did you ever even like me? Was I just a stopgap till you found someone?’ There are cycles of feeling upset, fighting, crying, making up, and again feeling distant. You are good for about two days before it is back to the same old pattern. It is a mess.
Being single never feels as much of an issue as it is when surrounded by coupled up people.
While for most, it is a mere annoyance and a change in social circumstances that need some adjusting to, for some, it can become really, really painful as they tell themselves that they have somehow got left behind, that they ought to have been coupled up as well and that they now are not good enough. Meeting someone and becoming a couple gets treated as if it is a race, or a competitive exam and not being paired up becomes a social nightmare. There is an urgency to then meet someone, and more often than not, the urgency leads to less than great choices, and that leads to cycles of its own misery, including breakups and patchups, neither because you really want the person, but because “something is better than nothing.”
If you really question that idea, you’d probably hear a more rational voice saying something is definitely not better than nothing when it comes to these matters. Being by yourself is not nothing, and just being coupled up is not something special and can even be something horrible.
What we need is to respect that if people are coupling up, that’s fine – we each have our own life paths. It is not a race.
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We in India are entering our peak holiday season - Ganesh pooja and Id are over, Dussehra is just about done, and it will be Deepawali in a few weeks and Christmas soon enough. Much of these holidays are based on religious occasions and come with their own rich and particular cultural flavour and heritage.
For many of us, especially those who have moved far from our home towns and original communities, it is a time to reconnect with our families of origin and extended communities, which explains why for almost all major modern cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, the festive season means a mad rush at the bus and train stations as thousands of us rushing to get to our home towns in time for the celebration.
All the loud, colourful and festive celebrations are great for those who feel celebratory, but it is an especially difficult time for those who are going through painful losses, have suffered the passing on of a loved one, or have not had such connections. Festive occasions and holidays are especially stressful for those in such circumstances. It can be depressive and a reminder of what one does not have and a source of pain, loneliness and suffering, as much as it is a source of joy to others.
Which brings us to the conversation: How can one protect oneself in festive times, when the whole world seems to be joyful and we just cannot?
Remember the last time you read an article where it was mentioned that “The neighbours had no clue as they had never spoken to this person who lived right next door” or “This person was staying here for 2 years but had no friends”? When we hear of neighbours being strangers (especially n the urban context), the word “lonely” is often loosely used to describe how life is today. I say loosely because people often tend to confuse being lonely with being alone. And yes, there is a distinction. Being alone can be a choice and it can bring happiness.
For instance, a lot of people enjoy watching a movie by themselves or spend an evening reading a book. In fact alone time can actually be quite relaxing. Loneliness is when there is an associated sadness – an empty feeling that could be triggered by several factors.
For many, the loneliness is so uncomfortable, that denial of the feeling seems the easiest way to cope – in fact sometimes this reaction is almost instinctive. One tries to superficially engage in interactions/work. However it is difficult to sustain and sooner or later the hollow empty feeling comes back.
To really cope with loneliness, the first step would be awareness; to go beyond the denial and superficial engagement. However, that is not always easy to recognize and we keep ourselves too busy to even be aware that we are lonely.
Once aware, acknowledging and accepting the lonely feeling logically follows. In that awareness, sometimes loneliness makes people feel more critical about themselves -they criticize themselves for being unworthy of others right when the need really is for more self-compassion. It is ironic that while we are aware of our need for compassion from others, we often don’t extend it to ourselves!
To really engage with your loneliness, you can ask yourself a few questions:
Strange as it might seem, there are some benefits to loneliness. Your loneliness could be telling you that you don't feel too good about yourself, and could benefit from working on your own emotional state. Your loneliness can be a crucial signal that your relationships are not as emotionally close or supportive as you really want them to be. It gives you an opportunity to engage differently.
So, go ahead. If you are lonely, listen to your loneliness - It might be telling you something really important for you.
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.