Traveling on from the first stop of this tour; a magical, sunny, adventure-filled and straight-up fun Austin experience, I rolled into Colorado, greeted with FREEZING temps and several mishaps that made life thoroughly difficult. It also just happened that I think I connected with a new person/group everyday for the first two weeks. No routine or regularity - just NEWNESS everyday. New place I had to find. New group I had to introduce myself to. Another get-to-know-you situation. While I’m not afraid to meet new people and travel to a new place, there’s always a little bit of background anxiety present. I had a morning in meditation where the feeling of loneliness came up on me like a huge ocean wave rolling in and crashing to the shore. There was nothing that would allow me to stuff this one back down. I was overcome with intense emotion coupled with my least favorite thing in the world: pain. I actually can’t think of anything worse than experiencing the pain of loneliness.
Part of the reason, I set out on this journey is to grow, although I’d prefer to gather all the wisdom and grit without having to feel any pain (who’s with me?!). But ya know, that’s not how it works. My two biggest fears hopping on this year long tour were, first, not ever being able to get back the things I was traveling away from and, secondly, being single and lonely.
That morning when those intense feelings came up prompted me to do some reading and research about loneliness. Primarily, I honestly wanted to make sure my mental health wasn’t being damaged by moving to a new city twelve times over the course of a year. I hoped to be stronger after this tour, not emotionally wounded! What was reinforced is that human beings need connection to survive. Loneliness is a primal alarm system we have developed to survive as infants. It’s an emotion that tells us we are in need of something that allows us to feel whole: connection.
“Great. So pretty much I’m going to DIE,” were my thoughts.
As I kept reading (namely, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John Cacioppo, and a few others) I also discovered every individual’s need for social connection is actually very different, and is dependent on so many factors including genetics, attachment style, environment, and culture. One person may be totally content traveling around the world making friends more transiently, while another person may thrive better living in a small town where they see the same people everyday.
“Shiiiiiiit! What if I’m one of those small town folks that needs daily familiar connection?!”
THEN I read that a sense of isolation or chronic loneliness disrupts not only our thinking abilities and willpower but also our immune systems, and can be as damaging as obesity or smoking. It can also distort behavior patterns creating situations that reinforce isolation and loneliness (self-sabotage).
I immediately called my friend Kate and told her she needed to insist I come home if I started acting crazy. She reassured me she didn’t think that would happen. (I believe her. She’s pretty smart.)
The feelings of loneliness passed fairly quickly but the curiosity about the emotion did not. I knew that lack of connection triggered the feelings of loneliness, but what kind of connection did I need to not feel that way? As the research noted, everyone’s need is different. Further, at what point is it actually more healthy for me to practice being alone?
Today, the answer is, well, I don’t exactly know yet. This year is a pretty fascinating self-study. There is definitely something to quality over quantity. Meeting a new person every day or being surrounded by people all the time certainly doesn’t equal not lonely. In fact, I have found I don’t need to spend a lot of real live time with someone if I feel more connected to them. For example, I experienced I feel more connected to people with similar interests. Runners. Yogis. Dog Owners. I also notice a stronger connection with people that fall under the same “identifier” - maybe another Rhode Islander, or they are a Pepperdine Alum, or they are sober, no matter how different we are in other ways. A single dinner with two girls from my hometown and it was as if I had filled up my gas tank for the month. I didn’t need more than that! Also, as a result of quality connection (even brief or fleeting), my time alone has been more empowering and nurturing.
One last thing I’ve noticed about myself is that physically meeting up feeds the soul in a totally different way that phone calls, texts, or good ol’ snail mail. These are all lovely, and I make it a priority to keep nourishing my long distance friendships through these outlets, but in truth, it doesn’t seem to be the same.
As I travel onto the upcoming cities, I recognize the need to join a running club, hit the same yoga studio every week, reach out to the friends I already know there, and you know, do some swiping on the dating apps (yes, this blog is totally coming, LOL). It’s exciting to keep learning and questioning things about myself. My intention for sharing this process is the hope that it will inspire some of you to do the same. What type of connection do YOU need in your life to feel whole and happy?