Emotional Loneliness + The Holidays

I’d like to propose the hyper-awareness of singleness during the holidays actually has nothing to do with wanting a romantic partner and everything to do with the odd loneliness that often accompanies longer periods of time with family.

Tonight I am in the throes of loneliness, and for all logical reasons, I have no business being lonely. On a day off from a rather stressful workload, I spent an entire day with family members who love me and know me better than most. We ate, drank, and there were even dogs involved.

What makes loneliness more poignant during the holidays is exactly because we are around people who are supposed to know us best, and often it feels like they barely see us. Despite 20+ years of history, the deep human urge to be seen and known is even stronger around loved ones and regularly left unfulfilled. I notice a tension to both seek ways to be seen while also letting others know how seen and loved they are. And somehow, both attempts fall short.

I know this isn’t the case for all families. I know families that love each other well–for them, getting together for the holidays is a rare joy. But I would venture to guess that many family get-togethers leave participants a little on edge, asking themselves, “Why am I voluntarily going back to the place I’ve spent years successfully individuating from?”. Yet we do go back, and each time hoping our families are a little more like what we imagine they could be.

If you’re in one of those families where loneliness springs up for you during the holidays, chances are these feelings began long before adulthood. Many of us did not have our inner lives validated as young children. Our childhood environment discounted our feelings, making feelings of emptiness our own private, strange experience. The world told us our feelings weren’t important, which made us lonely, and on top of feeling lonely, we felt totally alone in our loneliness as if no one else was experiencing this.

The truth is, the majority of us have experienced this kind of loneliness. As PsyD Lindsay C. Gibson explains, “This type of loneliness… [is] the predictable result of growing up without sufficient empathy from others.”

The other aspect to loneliness during the holidays, is the tendency to regress to younger versions of ourselves around people we primarily spent time with as young people. We may be the most professional, good-natured versions around coworkers and friends, but around parents and siblings, immature 8-year-old Ilsa rears her ugly head.

GOOD NEWS –  we are not alone! And now that we are autonomous adults we have the power to choose emotional presence with both ourselves and others rather than be a victim of our circumstances.  

Tonight, after a string of holiday events, I recognize the familiar draw to seek the comfort and validation of a romantic partner. I’m not going to lie, having a significant other to accompany me to family holiday events feels safer, making the drive to be seen and known by family members much less strong. Romantic partners do, in fact, fill in gaps left by childhood wounds – but they don’t fill every gap, and they certainly don’t do it perfectly.

The exercise in presence tonight for me is to recognize and grieve the pain from unmet childhood needs, meditate on and choose gratitude for the ways my family was kick-ass, and know that while on the surface I’d love to have a romantic interest to cuddle and process with, my deepest desire to be seen, known, and loved can not be met by any one person and must be found from within.

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