From the moment you are born, being fed is strongly associated with comfort and love. For infants, food and hugs go together, and that emotional imprinting stays with you for life. Cooking for someone is a way to show love. A box of chocolates is a traditional gift of love on Valentine’s Day. So it’s no surprise that loneliness is one of the most common triggers for emotional eating. Food is an emotional surrogate for love.
Everybody feels passing loneliness now and then, but that’s not the kind of loneliness that people eat over. The kind of loneliness that you eat over is the aching kind that feels never-ending, and grows out of another problem that needs solving. Sometimes loneliness is situational – for example, moving to a new place. But if you’ve had plenty of time to develop social contacts and you’re still lonely, you’re "chronically lonely". That’s the hardest type of all, and the subject of this article.
Why do chronically lonely people often feel lonely even when they’re with other people? Why do they often resist spending time with others? Why do they often find it so unbearable to be home alone in the evening? And what is the solution?
The Problem of Not Liking Yourself
When you’re chronically lonely, just being around other people doesn’t fix it. You can be married and lonely; you can be lonely in a crowd. If you’re chronically lonely, what you lack is authentic connections with other human beings, and generally that’s because you block these connections by not sharing your authentic self. Why?
People who are chronically lonely almost always have as a core problem that they don’t like themselves very much. The give-away is that they generally find it almost unbearable to be alone – especially at night when the distractions of the day are over and it’s quiet. They may even dread turning off the light to go to sleep at night, and procrastinate on that.
Chronically lonely people often have an almost phobic reaction to being by themselves. It feels like falling down a black hole – an awful "dust in the wind" feeling of utter emptiness and alienation from everything and everyone, as though you’re the only person on the planet. If you live alone, you probably avoid going home at night because you can’t bear to be home alone with that feeling. You call it loneliness, but it’s really something else. It’s the horrors; it’s existential alienation. The Big Empty.
Quiet evenings alone are often when emotional eaters binge, perhaps numbing out in front of the TV. They may stay awake until so late that they practically drop from exhaustion, or they may use alcohol to go to sleep so they don’t have to experience their own thoughts lying in bed in the dark.
What is this about? If you can’t bear to be by yourself, it essentially means you can’t bear yourself – you can’t bear your own company, you can’t bear the experience of being "you". That is a huge problem, and it’s also a big block to developing healthy relationships. That’s why it goes along with loneliness and people call it loneliness, but it’s not exactly the same as loneliness.
You can’t stand your own company without distractions because you don’t like yourself. And because you don’t like yourself, you assume no one else will like you either, causing you to shun social contact, making you lonely.
Here’s the good part. I can tell you this for sure. That awful feeling you have about yourself? That horrible feeling that you are flawed and not the same as everyone else? It’s just a feeling. It’s not reality. You are fine! There is nothing wrong with you.
I have worked with many clients, both in the Normal Eating Support Forum and private one-on-one sessions. I’ve known many people who feel worthless, but not one of them ever was worthless – never. They were all beautiful people who were sadly mistaken in their assessment of themselves. The three reasons I see over and over again for serious self-esteem problems are:
- parental neglect or abuse (sometimes not recognized for what it is)
- childhood bullying (most commonly during middle school, ages 12-14)
- growing up gay (because of cultural prejudice)
What these situations (and others like them) have in common is that an innocent child is being told repeatedly that they are wrong or worthless at a time when they do not have the emotional resources to argue with the verdict. That damages self-esteem, but it does not make it true! As an adult you need to recognize this and argue with these old tapes.
You Need Authentic Human Connection
Just being in the proximity of other humans does not cure loneliness. Married people can be lonely. Going to bars and engaging in superficial chit-chat doesn’t cure loneliness. Picking up strangers for sex doesn’t cure loneliness.
The only thing that cures loneliness is authentic human connection. That means allowing another to see you for who you really are and experiencing their acceptance, and seeing another for who they really are and accepting them.
If you don’t like yourself much, it can be scary to let others see the real you. Your impulse will be to hide your real thoughts and feelings under the mistaken notion that the real you is unacceptable and will be rejected. But you’ve got to get past this and take the risk because if you never let anyone see you, you will stay lonely.
That’s not to say you should wear your heart on your sleeve and open up to everyone you meet. Part of good self-care is exercising good judgment and keeping yourself safe. Test the waters with people – make sure they can be trusted with your vulnerable inner self before you reveal too much. Share a little and see what they do with it before sharing more.
One very safe place you can start is the Normal Eating Support Forum. The forum is unique – truly the best support forum on the internet. There is no flaming of any kind, and not a lot of shallow chit-chat or off-topic posts, as in most forums. People talk from the heart about deep personal issues. You can be authentic here, and you can connect. Plus I moderate the forum so you’ll find some good recovery from emotional eating. It’s not just a lot of whining; people make progress. Unlike the blog, the forum is private. Only members have access, and the forum is blocked from all search engines; nothing you type will ever appear in an internet search.
12-step groups are another safe source of support. People are most familiar with AA and NA for alcohol and drug addiction, but there is also a 12-step group for dysfunctional interpersonal relationships such as CoDA, Al-Anon, and SLAA, to name just three. 12-step groups have rules against cross-talk (commenting on what someone else says) and personal attack.
Other types of organizations and groups may offer safe forms of authentic human contact as well. Explore what’s available in your area. The important point is this: Just signing up for activities will not do it. To break through loneliness you need to find places where you can have real heart-to-heart conversations with people who can hear you, understand you, and support you. They do exist!
Have you experienced the kind of chronic loneliness I describe here? Please share your experiences. I’d love to hear from you.