True loneliness is more than being physically alone. For those who experience it, loneliness is a debilitating feeling of isolation, emptiness, and alienation that isn’t solved by mere human contact. It’s different from solitude, which can be pleasurous and relaxing—loneliness is neither of these things, and the lonely can continue to feel isolated in a crowded room, even amongst close friends and family. It’s not a thing that attacks from the outside, but, rather, a worm that gnaws from within. As Mark Twain once wrote, “The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.” The self is where it begins.

Low self-worth is one of the biggest contributors to loneliness. When someone places little value in themselves and their own personality, opinions, and goals, it becomes difficult for them to make and maintain relationships. They don’t see themselves as worthy, and so the effort becomes meaningless. They begin to view others in a falsely negative light, assuming that they must see as little value in them as they, themselves, do. This creates a cycle from which escape is difficult—low self-esteem leads to isolation, and further isolation leads to lower self-esteem. At best, this leads to a miserable life, and the alienation of loved ones. At its worst, this cycle can end in depression, and even death, in the form of suicide.

Humans have a natural, psychological need to belong. When we’re very young, satisfying this is simple, as long as love and affection are not withheld from us. The time our parents spend reading to us or simply listening to us babble is perfection. But as we grow older, our culture begins tell us what it means to be perfect. We stop listening to our own hearts, and begin to listen to outside voices which tell us that we’re not enough, that we’re not beautiful enough, or that we’re not smart, successful, and sociable enough. We take these outside influences and form an impossibly high standard which we can never reach.

Social media has made this cultural impact on self-worth especially powerful, like sunlight through a magnifying glass. When most people post their lives online, they’re not posting the everyday. They’re posting the extraordinary, often creating a false image of a perfect life. And then we compare our everyday to their extraordinary, our flaws to their strengths. And so we begin to despise our weakness. Our self-esteem drops, and self-abuse begins, taking such varied forms as negative thoughts, over-eating, self-harm, and deliberately turning down opportunities for a better life. Things which, in turn, make us miserable.

And misery, unfortunately, is addictive. It makes us special, gets us sympathy. Suddenly, we have the attention we’ve been craving. So we plunge ever deeper into misery, into destructive behaviors which garner us cries of “Oh, you poor thing”. But, still, we remain unfulfilled.

We begin to give up our dignity and values. Quite often, we look to love in order to fill the void that the lack of self-worth leaves, recklessly entering into relationships and finding ourselves confused at the fact that we don’t feel better, and then finding ourselves even more broken in the messy aftermath. Or we look to friends, constantly desperate for their attention which never quite satisfies us. But the answer to loneliness doesn’t lie in finding external love in the form of the perfect mate, or that friend who fits you just right. The answer is self-love.

Everyone will tell you to love yourself, but how, exactly, do you go about doing that, especially when you’ve loathed yourself for years? It’s not easy, but there is an answer.

You manage your expectations. The largest contributor to relationship failure is unmet expectations. One party sets their expectations too high, and this results in disappointment and disillusionment. And while the breaking of a relationship is bad enough, the breaking of the relationship with the self is far worse, affecting every other area of your life.

Many will tell you to stop trying to be perfect, but, again, what does that even mean? You probably already know that the state of perfection is unattainable. That’s nothing new. The real problem lies in comparison—rather than simply wishing to be perfect, we want to meet the perceived expectations of those around us, expectations which we often pull from the nebulous cloud of culture. And because we’re trying to apply a universal standard to a unique individual, this fails every time.

So stop. Stop comparing yourself to other people, because you know what? No one can do what you do. No one else has your experiences and your memories and your skills. It’s only when you accept your authentic self that your self-worth will rise, and when it does those feelings of loneliness will dissipate.

The key to accepting yourself lies in challenging cultural norms and “acceptable” ways of living. For example, it’s not popular, in American culture, to live extremely simply. But what if a simple life is what you want? What if you don’t really care about things like becoming an executive manager or wearing makeup or having a big house or posting fifty times a day to your social media accounts? If these things aren’t a part of who you are, it’s not likely that you’ll pursue them with all your heart, and so of course there are going to be people who do it better than you. That’s their calling.

But the calling of others is not necessarily your own. Ask the important questions—what is the best way to live, according to you? Who makes the rules? Why do I care? Don’t just treat these questions as rhetorical. Write the answers down or journal about them—do anything that forces you to really confront them. Challenge your own conformity, because it is that attempt at conformity that is assaulting your sense of self-esteem.

Once you find the answers to these questions, you’ll be that much closer to knowing You. And to know You is to love You. It’s only in the success of this this one, central relationship that you’ll find a true respite from loneliness.

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