- The difference between being alone and feeling lonely
- The lonely realities of author life that fight against our desire to write alone
- Three tips that help me on holidays or in tough situations
- The story shared in this episode: Deeply personal story about my own journey with loneliness and how I push through on rough days
“That’s one reason why I started this podcast, because I wanted to share stories like these. Because I don’t think I’m the only one from this background, or this culture, or from a similar or even dissimilar culture or background who might feel the same way I do. Who feel like they need to lock their emotions away, and who feel that they’re forced to pretend at happiness and can’t claim anything real.”
*Emotional trigger warning* – there will be discussion of suicide, depression, and anxiety.
Disclaimer: I am not a therapist, or a licensed or professional counselor, or anything like that. Please check out this list of resources if you need help, many of which are available 24/7, from Healthline (these and more resources are available here: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/suicide-resource-guide#1)
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline –
- Crisis Text Line – available 24/7
- Text HOME to 741741
- The Trevor Project – for LGBTQ youth
- Phone (available 24/7)8: 66-488-7386 (24/7)
- The Veterans Crisis Line – Anyone can call, chat, or text, even those not registered or enrolled with the VA. Available 24/7
You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Soundcloud, and more. Find links to all the apps here. If you like listening to the audio on video, you can also watch via my YouTube channel, or just read the transcript for the episode, too (you’ll find it at the bottom of the page).
After you listen, if you found it helpful, I hope you’ll let me know by joining our community and commenting on the podcast below. I was really scared to share this story, but I’m really glad I did. Remember – you may write alone, but you are NOT alone.
No one should ever feel like they’re alone – if you want a writing buddy or a friendly ear, I’ll be hosting weekly live events for our community through the end of the year (these will be online through Facebook Live, YouTube Live, or something similar). If you have any rough days coming up, please join us and know that you don’t even need to write alone for the next few months. Make sure you sign up for my newsletter below to get notified of each live session.
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[00:00:00] In this week’s episode, we’ll be talking about a very sensitive topic: feeling lonely and or alone as an author, I’ll share three tips that help me on holidays or in tough situations, and I’ll share my own journey with loneliness. If this is something you struggle with, please keep listening.
[00:00:18] This episode also has an emotional trigger warning. There will be discussion of suicide, depression and anxiety.
[00:00:26] You may write alone, but you are not alone. Inside the Writer’s Soul focuses on how personal experiences can inform your writing and help you speak from the soul to really connect with readers and other authors as well. Your writer’s soul doesn’t need to take the writing and publishing journey alone. Join me, your host, M. Khan, and let’s move forward together.
[00:00:53] Hello and welcome to another episode of Inside the Writer’s Soul podcast. Today, I’m tackling another tough topic: loneliness and writing. Previously, I spoke about holidays and how they can be difficult for people, so today I wanted to talk about something we don’t talk enough about, loneliness and writing. This episode has an emotional trigger warning. There will be discussion of suicide, depression and anxiety. And a disclaimer, I am not a therapist or licensed professional counselor or anything like that. Please check out my show notes or blog for a list of resources if you need help, many of which are available 24/7.
[00:01:33] I’m going to start with my story today. There are a lot of things I like about the culture I was born into, that being a Muslim and a Pakistani-American culture: the food, sometimes the clothes, and the focus on family, faith and community. Yet there are things I absolutely detest about it, too: the pressures, the “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality, the emphasis on being married as opposed to being married to the right person, and the wrong focus on what constitutes success for a woman and their value in society, among others. Some of those negative aspects are the reason I was, at one point in my life, deeply depressed and even thought about suicide. Let me first say that I have not had those thoughts in many, many years. I never acted on those thoughts and I am in a good, safe, mentally healthy place due to a variety of factors, one of them being finding the right therapist to help me work through the challenges I was facing.
[00:02:37] I was most depressed through middle school and high school. Those were incredibly tough times for me. I was in schools where there were really not a lot of people of color and certainly not my color, and I felt very, very alone. Things at home weren’t the best for a variety of reasons, and I really struggled through those years. It was in those dark moments when I contemplated suicide. And even now, when I say the word suicide, I lower my voice and I know I’m doing it because it’s like I’m not allowed to talk about it even now. Like, what happens if some of my family, I mean they don’t really care what I do, but what if they find this episode? What happens then? I’m so worried about what they might think and what they might do or say, but I’m so tired of locking myself away and pretending this period of my life didn’t exist. That’s one reason why I started this podcast, because I wanted to share stories like these, because I don’t think I’m the only one from this background or this culture, or from a similar or even dissimilar culture or background, who might feel the same way I do, who feel like they need to lock their emotions away, and who feel that they’re forced to pretend at happiness and can’t claim anything real.
[00:03:52] Some of the issues I face or have faced are restricted to my own culture. If this is your first episode, I’m a woman, an American, born and raised, a Muslim, and my family is from Pakistan. One of the biggest obstacles I faced was that I was never “allowed” to say I was lonely. I was never allowed to say I needed help. In general, talking about anything related to mental health was frowned upon. I was miserable. Other people around me were miserable, too. Yet we were never sort of allowed to say that we were any kind of emotional expression on our part was often viewed negatively. You had to be happy, and if you weren’t, you should just stay quiet. That was never outwardly stated, but it was something that was just inherently understood.
[00:04:40] Let me share a story now about the last time I was in Pakistan. It was several years ago when I was in my mid-twenties in Pakistan. There’s a tendency to have tailor-made clothing, whereas in the U.S. or other places you would buy ready-made clothing, the sort where you would go into a store and you would find racks of clothes and you could just find your size and buy it. In other countries where textiles are a much larger industry, you can actually get just fabric and have it tailor-made to your size and to whatever vision you have for that outfit to ensure a better fit and style. There was one time when I went to pick up some tailor-made clothes of mine, but they had been made incorrectly. By the time we got home, I was really upset. My period was approaching and I was PMS-ing so because of that I was extra hormonal, I was just extra upset. It wasn’t really about the clothes at all, it was just sort of the trigger for my tears. My great-aunt, who was also staying in the same house as us, who let me just say now, I absolutely love,d saw me getting upset and crying and called me, “disturbed” because of it, and that moment is completely seared in my brain. I remember the room and the pale blue walls. I remember the twin-sized bed we were sitting on and who was sitting beside me. I remember what I was wearing and what the clothes look like.
[00:06:07] I remember everything about that moment and being called disturbed. Now, my aunt used the word disturbed in English, she spoke English when she said that to me. But some could argue that this is just a language barrier, and maybe when she was translating through to English in her head, that is what came out but it might not be what she meant. And maybe that’s true, but I also think this is representative of just the general attitudes towards emotions.
[00:06:34] Kids are allowed to be emotional. They can cry and get upset and express emotions. But as you get older, you are not allowed to have emotions at all unless they are happy ones. By high school, after years of depression, I’d learned to lock myself away to pretend that everything was okay. With the freedom of college, even though I still lived at home there was greater freedom in going, I finally started to open up more. So when I went to Pakistan after grad school, I was in a different place emotionally than those dark days of high school. But that moment where I was called disturbed made me realize that I wasn’t allowed to have public emotions anymore, that I had to act a certain way with adults, that I had to hide so much of myself away. Even during my period when I might be normally extra emotional anyway, I remember that moment so well because that is the moment I began to hide myself away again. When I began to lock parts of myself away where people would not see them or comment on them or tear them down.
[00:07:37] Another cultural reason claiming emotions or loneliness as hard is because I am still unmarried. Because I am unmarried, I am told basically I have even less right to those emotions than other women, because no matter what emotion I claim, and especially if it’s loneliness people often tie that into marriage. If I told someone, you know, I’m feeling lonely today, someone would respond with, “Well, if you were married, you wouldn’t be lonely”, which we all know is a bunch of bullshit. Marriage is no guarantee that you won’t be lonely, and sometimes you can feel more lonely in a marriage than you can as a single person. Though I’ve never been married, I know this is true from speaking to married friends and from seeing married relationships around me. Along those same lines, I am not allowed to be angry. I am not allowed to speak my mind because someone could say that means I am “strong-willed” and who’s going to marry me then? There is no mention of the fact that men can be as strong-willed as they fucking like, and it doesn’t matter.
[00:08:40] But women must be more or quiet or calm or biddable or whatever the fuck, because no man will want you otherwise. I call bullshit on that, by the way. Even when I’ve met guys in the past, I’ve always had to, you know, hide myself away. I have to be so restrictive that I don’t know how to act or how to be myself with a guy, because I’ve been told so many times that who I am doesn’t matter. I need to be this vision of what this guy might want in order to “get” him. I need to be calm or quiet or whoever the fuck to get this guy to like me. I can’t show how I’m really feeling because I could drive the other guy away, and those situations send my anxiety into overdrive, too.
[00:09:26] How do I act around someone if I can’t act like myself?
[00:09:30] It comes down to the fact that I am not allowed to own my emotions. I’m not allowed to be myself. I am not allowed to say that I am lonely. I am not allowed to ask for help. And that’s the worst thing of all. Even when I was a teenager and going through those horrible things, people knew I was depressed. They may not have known about my suicidal thoughts and, again, I just want to clarify here, they were only thoughts, I never acted on them. But when people saw me, they would just tell me to “be happy”. Those are real words people said to me, as if saying those words was a magical spell that would suddenly make me happy. We know that if someone tells you to be happy or calm down or whatever, that your body does the automatic opposite of those things. Telling me to be happy just tells me that I need to hide more of myself away. It tells me that I cannot trust you to be gentle with the hurt I am feeling. It tells me I cannot trust you to be gentle with my emotions and to help me through the tough times. It tells me that I cannot trust you with my heart or my mind or my soul, so can I even trust you at all? Anyone who’s ever told me to just be happy or something similar, your trust is just completely shit with me after you say it, because I know you will not be there for me when I need you to be.
[00:10:49] That’s a really tough and lonely place to be. But now I’m just really tired of pretending all the time, which is why I’m trying to be brave and sharing my story today in the hopes it might help you, too. Now we’re getting to the holidays and for some people, this can be a really rough time for a variety of reasons. Even with my own cultural holidays, there are times I really tried celebrating them because the beautiful parts, the food and spending time with the kids and the family all gets overshadowed by the need to pretend. There are times when I’m around certain people in my family or even in a crowd when I feel so lonely despite all those people around me.
[00:11:29] I know there are others here who might be celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas or other holidays coming up where they may feel the same or they feel obligated to go to these family functions. But yet they’re incredibly lonely, even though they’re surrounded by people. And I just want you to know that you are not alone in those moments. You are not the only one in that situation, which sucks and it’s awful and it’s tough. Sometimes you need to suck up and just go to these family events, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And I know I’ve certainly struggled with the idea of not going to family functions at all.
[00:12:02] And sometimes I have done that. I’ll just say no, because I am prioritizing my mental health over what I know will be an evening or several days of just having to hide myself away, and all of the physical and emotional energy which that takes. If I go, I’ll have to pretend I’m doing okay. On days that I may not be, I can’t be honest with anybody because everybody thinks that if I am lonely or if I’m feeling depressed, it’s all my fault because I’m not married and there’s nothing I can say that will ever convince them differently. So I just have to stop trying. And I do want to pause here and say, this is not my entire family and this is not everyone around me. But it can feel like it is. A few people can make you feel like everyone is against you.
[00:12:45] Now, as authors, we are so often alone, but being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely. I don’t mind being alone. I can often be quite content to while away a weekend working on my books or other projects. But there are times when I yearn for a connection. It’s hard for me to reach out and ask someone if they are free to meet up in those moments, because I also know that I might back out at the last minute, too.
[00:13:10] How many have you have tried to make plans with someone and then ended up backing up yourself at the last minute because suddenly a sense of fear came over you, or a sense of needing to protect yourself? You knew the people you might be meeting weren’t going to harm you verbally or emotionally in any way. But you get scared to put yourself out there even for something as simple as a meet up with friends. My tagline is that “you may write alone, but you are not alone”. And for some people, for some authors, it can be difficult to find the type of people you want around you, the kind that is supportive and helpful and constructive. We spend so much time inside our heads. We spend so much time devising stories and plotlines and characters that we sometimes forget to make those connections with people outside our book. So if you are someone who has been struggling or has struggled in the past like I have, it can be hard to trust other people. It can be hard to reach out and make those connections. Writing is so often a solitary endeavor, and that’s true for a lot of different creative arts. And at certain times, the loneliness can really get to you.
[00:14:16] There is this idea about introversion and extroversion and that you’re really only one or the other, but that’s not an idea I subscribe to. Most people are a combination of both because I think that introversion and extroversion are a scale, not absolutes. You might be on more and more on one side of the scale than the other, but it is a scale. I tend to be a situational extrovert if I go into the office, for example, and I know I have to be more outgoing than is typically normal for me because I’ll be interacting with people all day. So when I get home, I tend to feel more exhausted than normal because of all the extroversion and emotional and mental work I had to do that day. If you are more on the extroversion side of the scale, then you might be one of those people who has friends who cancel on them. Don’t hold it against them because most people who do that are struggling with something. They want to reach out. They are afraid of something. So you just need to take your time and reach out to them and wait for them to reach back to you. I know in the last couple of years I’ve really stepped back and I can tell that I feel more lonely, but I’m afraid of the judgment that comes with saying that out loud. I feel like I’m not allowed to say I’m lonely because of the implication that comes with saying it out loud when I do. So that’s one of my fears and what holds me back from reaching out.
[00:15:37] So how do I get through those really tough days when I’m either forced to deal with people who I can’t trust with my feelings and emotions or who I know will go out of their way to try to harm me emotionally? Here are three tips to help. Here’s the first tip: schedule self-care depending on how much time you have to spend in their company. Make sure you’ve scheduled enough self-care time before and after they get together. So for me, that means I’ll stay to myself as much as possible, maybe the day before or the day of the event. And I’ll just stay in my safe place at home or wherever that safe place is and just center myself and trust myself and tell myself the following: I am an amazing, wonderful, beautiful, loving person, and it is not my fault they can’t love me for me.
[00:16:30] After the event, I make sure to do the exact same thing and spend as much time on self-care as possible. I spend it doing things I love and reminding myself that I am an amazing, wonderful, beautiful, loving person and it is not my fault they can’t love me for me. It is their fault. It is entirely on them. I remind myself not to take on their guilt, and I leave it with them. It is a really difficult thing to do to keep from absorbing their guilt, and it’s taken me years to figure out how to do it.
[00:17:04] And even now, sometimes I still struggle with it. Whenever I feel myself going down that road, I imagine a big red stop sign in my mind, and then remember not to take on their guilt. If this is a trip where I have to travel and I’ll be spending several days with family, then I try to make sure that before staying at the same hotel, I have my own room. If I can manage it financially or if I’m staying in a house with family, I’ll try to find a corner in that house to be alone when I need to. I try not to share hotel rooms in that instance so that I have some time and some place where I am on my own. When I know I won’t be in a room with people who do not value me. And if I do get stuck sharing a room or staying at a house, then I spend as much time as possible. Also outside of that room or house, too. I go to a coffee shop, I go somewhere else, even if it’s just a hotel lobby. I tell people I might need to do some work and give myself that time for self-care and to just breathe.
[00:18:02] Here’s the second tip: prep conversations ahead of time. I do think of maybe a handful of conversation topics before whatever event I’m going to. If someone is focusing their negative energy on me, I can use these topics spend to redirect the conversations fairly easily. If someone’s being negative to you, compliment them because they won’t expect it and then use the topic to shift the conversation. I’m not just thinking of topics like the weather, but think of some specific examples of conversations that you can veer away from yourself. If there are kids that will be at the event, ask about them. What grade are they and what are they doing in school or day care? What kinds of toys or games or shows are they into? If someone else in the group is getting married or having a baby or has a new job or even a new material possession like a car or a phone or a house or something, ask about that. Talk about the food. You know, ask people for recipes or trade recipes. This might sound silly, but having those few topics ready in my head have actually really helped me in those moments when I felt attention focused on me too much to help me more naturally switch the conversation away from me.
[00:19:15] Here’s the third tip: reach out or make a safe place for yourself. For those of us who are completely on their own for a holiday, being comfortable with yourself is one of the toughest things that I think we can learn as adults. Now, holidays can be especially difficult, but if you’re on your own and you don’t want to be on your own, there are always places where you can find people.
[00:19:37] I’ll actually be hosting online livestreaming throughout the end of the year, so this is a great time if you need that extra support where you just want to talk to a friendly face. You can come and join us. We’ll be talking, we might even be writing or working on our own author things and you’ll definitely be welcome. Something else you can do is to make the holiday a safe day for yourself. Decide for yourself what your safe place and what your safety looks like and feels like. Maybe it’s binge watching a television show and cooking a bunch of food or baking. Maybe it’s not having to cook at all, so you buy a bunch of food you don’t have to cook and that you only need to heat up. So you spend those few days off not having to worry about cooking and you just focus on yourself and relaxing and de-stressing. There are also other social media platforms you can use like Twitter, where people who are alone on holidays are supporting each other and connecting with each other. If you want to be around people but not necessarily interacting with them, a lot of coffee shops or restaurants or even movie theaters are open on holidays. You can go to a movie and sit with other people and laugh or cry with them at the movie and you’ll feel less alone. It’s an opportunity to still be in a crowd, but still have your own personal space as well.
[00:20:52] I know as writers they can be really difficult for us because we tend to write alone. I know people do word sprints on Twitter or YouTube together or go on writing retreats, but we are generally alone most of the time. My whole tagline is “You may write alone, but you are not alone” and there is an entire community of people who are out there who know what you’re feeling. Who understand it and who want to help you as well.
[00:21:16] And I do want to say again that I have a list of resources in the show notes and on my blog if you need additional help, because I am not a therapist or trained or licensed professional counselor or anything like that. So please check out those resources. A lot of them are available 24/7 for people who need help, so I encourage you to reach out.
[00:21:36] If you’re interested in those live events I’ll be holding throughout the end of the year, be sure to sign up for my newsletter to get those notifications. These events will be in the form of YouTube or Facebook lives, so you won’t have to travel anywhere. You’ll just need your computer or your phone to join in. The link to subscribe to my newsletter is in the show notes.
[00:21:57] Thank you for listening to my story today. If you found it helpful, I hope you’ll head to my blog and let me know. I was really scared to share today, but I’m really glad I did. Remember, you may write alone, but you are not alone.
[00:22:10] Thank you for listening to this episode. Check out the show notes for links to my blog and our community where you can get involved in the discussion and support others. While you’re there, don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to get to free and powerful tools to help you. One: access to my growing library of free resources for authors and; Two: you’ll also get access to my exclusive writing challenge “How to Write Faster in 14 Days” where I share all my tips and techniques that helped me finish over 20 works in five years. Check out the show notes for all the links and thanks again for being part of this community.