By Abigail Maryam
Loneliness, along with depression and anxiety, is one of the most common psychological problems today. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “The greatest disease in the West today is not tuberculosis or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.” Many new Muslims, who have sacrificed the life they have known for the sake of Islam, often feel lonely. That may result from not finding a community they can call home, being in a whole new situation, or feeling different from others. Many of us also feel a deeper, more pervasive kind of loneliness.
I am no stranger to the feeling. Despite years of professional help, piles of self-help books, and my spirituality, I could not shake it off. Although I surrounded myself with lots of good people – friends, family, medical school colleagues, and religious communities – I still felt lonely and didn’t know why. There was always anxiety and a low-grade depression just below the surface. My loneliness was especially felt during moments of stress. I would frantically contact others and use the Bible as a kind of “drug” to fill the void in my heart. I only felt emptier.
My view was that external factors were to blame for my loneliness. In other words, the things I couldn’t control. I erroneously thought that people (and even God Himself) may have appeared to care about me, but didn’t. I felt unwanted, unlovable, and alone deep inside. Feeling bad for my neediness, I would run myself to the ground trying to do everything myself. All my compensatory efforts not only led to chronic fatigue but learned helplessness. I felt very victimized by others, life, and my own psychology.
Towards the end of medical school, I embraced Islam. In the Qur’an, I not only found guidance but a constant companion. It’s the only text I ever read in which God speaks directly to His audience. And not only that, the content made complete sense to me. I was no longer an addict needing another “dose” of love, but a servant of Allah already convinced she is loved. No matter what isolation and relationship difficulties I experienced, I always knew I had Allah.
My acceptance into a double Psychiatry & Psychotherapy residency at a Swiss hospital was a dream come true. My career allowed me to flow my love and energy to the heartbroken, lonely, and vulnerable. It was my way of giving back for all the help I had received for my own problems. In spite of this, something was missing. Even though I set boundaries with my patients, and never brought my work home with me, I became unwell all the same. My medical leave offered me time to rethink my life and seek a new, more meaningful career.
Hindsight tells me my depression was not due to low iman (faith). I knew from the stories of the Prophets (peace be upon them) that mental distress and faith in Allah are not mutually exclusive. Jacob (PBUH), for example, cried harder than I ever had, yet he was a Prophet of Allah.
Sadness, in fact, generally signals to us that we are off track. I was unfulfilled because of my career and marriage, in which I felt very lonely. I longed to become a doctor of people’s hearts, who not only promotes mental health but empowers others to become their best possible selves. That was also a reflection of what I desired for myself.
My life appeared to fall apart. My then-husband divorced me, and I moved to England with our daughter to live in a more Islamic community. Then, two days later, one of my favourite authors, Katherine Woodward Thomas, happened to hold a workshop in my new town! I also learned that she offered professional coach training in her approaches to love and relationship. Reading through the program, I realized that this is it- Transformational life coaching is the term for the career I wanted!
To help heal people’s hearts, I first started with myself. I enrolled in the training program to become a certified coach. The training (1) taught me not to go looking for love outside of myself, but to identify the unconscious role I played in creating my loneliness and painful love story. In this way, I radically shifted from victimization to self-responsibility, and awakened to the power I hold to choose and generate a happier life. My personal breakthroughs helped me do away with my loneliness. I woke up to my value and became my own best friend!
I learned to examine and identify the root causes of loneliness, and through the work of one particular psychologist(2) I came to understand that ‘aloneness’ is the emptiness we feel resulting from self-abandonment.
How do we self-abandon? We do this in several ways, including:
· judging ourselves harshly,
· staying in our heads (overthinking, over-analyzing, etc.)
· avoiding our feelings with various addictions,
· and making others responsible for loving us.
Self-abandonment leads to co-dependency, which, according to Katherine, is a disorder of relatedness and pathology of care. The wisdom here is that we cannot truly connect with other people when we are this disconnected from ourselves. When we self-abandon, what we are saying to ourselves is, “You’re not worth it for me to love you or spend time with you.” By extension, the message we send across to others is, “I’m not worth it for you to love me or spend time with me.” We unwittingly give others the green light to leave us!
The self-love meditations I was taught helped me attune to my feelings and needs. I was embarrassed to admit that I did not even know what they were! I often confused my feelings (“I feel betrayed”) with my thoughts (“I feel that he is a jerk!”). What I thought were my needs, such as authentic attentiveness, were in fact requests (“I need you to listen!”). The course also helped me differentiate between healthy needs and neediness. I was surprised to see how responsive others can be when I communicate my real feelings and needs to them. Our vulnerability is what invites love and support; not appearing to “have it all together!” More importantly, I started seeking my needs first with Allah, once I gave language to them. I find that before I even say a word to Him, He already responds. SubhanAllah! (Glory be to God!)
In the end, my attempts to be self-sufficient and my inability to effectively ask for support were some contributing factors to my loneliness. I also stayed too long in relationships I knew were not healthy for me, because I was afraid of being alone. My fear of abandonment caused me to retreat from others at the first sign of conflict, or avoid it altogether by “keeping the peace,” even at my expense. Moreover, I closed my heart to others whenever I was angry or upset with them, and I isolated myself when sad. The new responsibility I took for myself, along with the help of Allah, empowered me to take action for healthier relationships and a happier life!
Loneliness is there to tell us we need to be present with ourselves. The inner child who is frightened of abandonment and isolation just needs our love and consolation. Self-love is the foundation for happy, healthy relationships with others, and with our Lord. Let us also not forget that our own self-love comes from Allah – Al-Wadud (The Loving One) – Who first loved us.
“Don’t be afraid. Indeed, I am with you. I hear and I see.” (Qur’an 20:46)
1 Based on Katherine’s work,”Calling in “The One””, and “Conscious Uncoupling”.
2 Dr. Margaret Paul, Developer of The Inner Bonding process
About the author:
Abigail Maryam, M.D., is a certified Love & Relationship Coach, entrepreneur, writer, and student of knowledge. She brings forth her gifts and experience to help sisters achieve greater levels of self-love, happiness, and wellbeing.