You can fill your day with a job that you love and pays you well. You can eat nutritious, good-tasting food. You can plan fun activities with good friends in the evening. Basically, you can create a rich, exciting life for yourself and still feel incredibly sad when it’s time to go to sleep. Discovering how to cope with loneliness at night can be a real challenge for people.
The darkness allows for all the anxieties to start dancing. It’s then that all the distractions you had throughout the day fall away and core fears are laid bare:
- Will I always be alone?
- Is something wrong with me?
- What do people really think of me?
The more you follow these thoughts the more you’re feeding the loneliness. Nothing good comes of that except becoming an expert at making yourself feel terrible.
The Perils of Self-Judgment
Making the feelings worse is the judgment that rises up. After the fears of being alone and the anxiety of what will happen as you get older pop up, next comes the self-worth comments. Something MUST be wrong with me, you think.
For some reason we just love to cling to that idea.
I’m all for taking responsibility, but the number of people I meet who will tell me difficult stories of their growing up or who have high pressure jobs—or both—but are certain that they are just intrinsically not okay, reminds me that many people who seek out therapy are doing it precisely because they think they need to be “fixed.”
It’s important to me to attempt to dispel that because of how damaging that belief is.
I value anyone who says that they want to do some work on themselves. And by “work” I don’t mean, I’m screwed up, I need you to tell me what to do next. I mean people who are brave enough to explore what’s going on inside them and in their world.
The Bravery of Looking
Going to therapy doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with that person. The mere fact that they found their way into my office means they already have some ways of managing those feelings, but they might be ready to confront them a bit more.
And by confront, I mean feel.
Because that’s what the darkness and the silence demand. That’s part of how to cope with loneliness at night. Feeling what you’ve been avoiding all day. I’m not putting down your great habit of going to the gym, making a delicious meal, or socializing with good people. Often as not, though, you probably have not taken a few minutes out of your day to spend some time just with yourself.
Could be a long rabbit hole to fall down. Some people have been honest with me about why they don’t go to therapy: they don’t want to know what they’re going to find down there.
Unfortunately, we’re not built in such a way that we can choose to not follow the White Rabbit and also sleep well. One thought, or even a slight feeling, can pass by, but more come and it’s impossible to avoid so much that none of them need to be taken seriously.
Confronting Feelings on Our Terms, Not Theirs
By the middle of the night if we can’t sleep, we’re meeting the feelings on their own terms without any defenses.
This leads to irrational thinking and catastrophizing where the mundane seems a lot more real. Think back to when you were a child and the sound of your back door opening could only mean that your family would be slaughtered or the shadow across from your bed resembled a scene from that Freddie’s Nightmares episode you weren’t supposed to watch.
What’s the good news?
There are things you can do, even during the day, that can help you find how to cope with loneliness at night.
Learn to Titrate Your Feelings During the Day
Titrating the feelings can be helpful, but it’s best to start this during the day when you’re stronger. If you’re waiting until all is quiet and dark to feel your feelings, especially if they’re connected to a trauma, you’re allowing for a free flow of emotion once the night comes. You’re not doing your self, or your feelings, any favors this way. They’ve been pushed down for too long and need to get out somewhere. Their scream for attention may not be as loud at night if they are given chances to talk during the day.
The first step is noticing the feelings. They’re not just lying dormant all day long. They don’t have a watch that tells them let’s wait until 2 AM when your defenses are down. They attempt to get out during the day.
Examples: Have you ever had a response to something that seemed a bit more emotional than you thought the experience called for? Have you gotten angrier at something that in retrospect seemed not that important? Even laughed too loud at something that wasn’t all that funny? Maybe you’ve noticed a physical pain in the stomach or head, but didn’t know why you’d have it?
All of these may be ways that your feelings are inviting you to pay attention to them.
So noticing this. Being curious about it. Allowing for the possibility that the annoyance could be related to a feeling that’s not being fully paid attention to. That’s number one.
It can take a lot for people who find comfort in black and white and concrete ways of thinking to accept this possibility. What makes it helpful in that it lets you off the hook for a minute. It removes the judgment for a quick second to see if anything is underneath. Because judgment conceals. It guards against something.
If you’re a person who’s very judgmental it’s worth exploring what you’re guarding against. What would happen if you didn’t?
Next, you want to find ways to welcome the feelings. This may seem counterintuitive. Who wants to feel bad? Who wants to feel scared, sad, or anxious?
Well, the point is that these feelings are going to affect you. Somewhere. Maybe in your eating habits, maybe in your sex life, or maybe in the amount of enjoyment you have in other interactions with people. They don’t just disappear.
During the day it’s best if you can find a quiet place away from others where you can just allow the feelings to move through you. Notice where you are feeling them in your body. Would it be easier to do an activity during this? Wash some dishes, do some filing, but pay attention to how you’re feeling during it. Don’t do anything too important or wash anything that can break easily. You need to allow yourself to feel upset.
Do it for just a few minutes, no need to go too deep for your first time.
If you’ve been living a life of distracting yourself from feelings. If your parents weren’t very expressive and if they didn’t allow you show your feelings (“Stop being a baby! Men don’t cry! Get it together!”) then this is not going to be easy. Often my sessions are about letting someone have a feeling, sometimes for the first time. No crying is expected, but it’s allowed.
If I could better explain the look of surprise on people’s faces when they notice and have a feeling for the first time I would. They don’t just feel bad. And they don’t just walk away feeling sorry for themselves or feeling like a victim of the parent du jour:
They release a strong feeling—and not their normal one. Some people, men especially, are great with the anger releasing, not so with the more vulnerable feelings.
After they express the emotion they realize they survived it. It didn’t destroy them. It didn’t destroy me either.
No one gets annihilated because you feel how angry, sad, scared, PO’d you really are.
We get to go deeper in a session, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do this work on your own. People were having feelings long before therapists were invented too!
Distraction or Deepening?
How many of the things that you do in your life are designed for you to experience feelings instead of running away from them?
Religious rituals are designed to hold strong feelings. Think of all that is done in each culture with regard to death. Mindfulness is catching on more and more in our culture—and that’s essentially what I’m describing: just knowing and feeling how you are feeling. Mindfulness is even more basic. If you’re breathing, know that you’re breathing. Even more: if you’re breathing IN, know that you’re breathing IN.
I’ll even contradict myself and say if you’re filing paperwork, just know that you’re filing paperwork. The feelings may poke at you because you are only filing. Not whistling, talking with a co-worker about Game of Thrones or listening to your iPod. But if you can handle it, just do the thing that you’re doing. And know that you’re doing the thing that you’re doing.
Sound simple? I’ll give you ten breaths to try. Whatever you’re doing, just take a few moments. Know that you’re reading a blog post, know that you’re sipping tea, etc.
When it’s time to stop reading your book or turn off the late show you may start to notice that the feelings are not as desperate because you’ve given them some time during the day. Hopefully, they’ll give you some time to sleep.
Dealing with loneliness at night may be directly related to how you allow yourself to feel deeply during the day. This post provided some ways to do that by just being more connected to the feelings that come up during your regularly scheduled day. If this seems impossible or too frightening to do on your own, don’t hesitate to contact me and we can begin to search for ways that work for you.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.