My isolation told me I was unlovable, and I accepted that as fact.
I’ve always been lonely.
I’m a perfectly normal 24-year-old woman, and I’ve never had a romantic relationship.
It’s not like I haven’t tried. I’ve desperately wanted a boyfriend or girlfriend. I watched from the sidelines throughout high school, college, and my fledgling adult life as friends and family dated and broke up, loved and lost. And, the entire time, I’ve been lonely.
The last decade of my life has been a series of never.
I never had a date for a school dance. I never had someone hold my hand during a movie. I never went out to a nice restaurant and played footsie under the table — hell, I’ve never had a second date.
Never alone — no, I have a wonderful network of loved ones. I’ve never been alone.
But I’ve always been lonely.
I tolerated my loneliness over the past decade. Instead of focusing on the aching, desperate want in the pit of my stomach, I focused on school, internships, and getting a job.
In the year following my 2019 graduation, though, I had a mental breakdown, quit my first job out of college, moved home with my parents and little sister, and fell into a global pandemic.
But in March 2020, in the throes of quarantine, my loneliness devolved into something much darker.
I wasn’t lonely. I was completely and totally isolated.
It wasn’t physical isolation. I lived with my family, and I safely saw my friends.
No, it was all-consuming mental isolation — the kind of isolation that lied to me, made me physically ill, corrupted my relationships, and threatened to ruin my life.
In quarantine, my mental illness imprisoned me, and I wasn’t just in a cell— I was in solitary confinement.
I was so isolated, I couldn’t consume media about relationships.
I couldn’t finish watching the “Schitt’s Creek” finale, because watching David and Patrick’s wedding caused my thoughts to spiral.
I couldn’t listen to my favorite music, because every song was about love, sex, dating, and relationships. Every lyric felt like rubbing salt on an open wound.
I was so isolated, I began to resent my friends and family for their relationships.
My parents were approaching their 30th anniversary, and I despised them for it. My brother and his girlfriend traded inside jokes during Zoom game nights, and it made me bitter. My little sister threw a stay-at-home prom for herself and her boyfriend, and I was jealous. My best friend went on hikes with her boyfriend, and I hated her for it.
My isolation didn’t just corrupt my external relationships. It also corrupted my relationship with myself.
My isolation told me I was worthless. It told me I was incapable of finding love, and, even if I did, how would they ever love me? Surely it wouldn’t last, and I would be alone. I deserved to be alone. My isolation told me I was unlovable, and I accepted that as fact.
The sky is blue. The grass is green. And I am unlovable.
By the time I accepted that fact, I was in therapy twice weekly. My therapist was appalled by the cognitive gridlock I was trapped in.
She told me she would treat my relationship with my loneliness and isolation with trauma-informed therapy, because I was dealing with post-traumatic stress.
That felt even worse. I had post-traumatic stress from never having a boyfriend? How sad is that? People were losing loved ones every day to COVID-19, and, here I was, traumatized because no one wants to “Netflix and chill” with me?
It just caused me to hate myself more and to isolate myself further. I couldn’t talk to anyone except my therapist about this, because it was so stupid and embarrassing. I was ashamed that I hated myself so much over something so silly.
During one session, I was panicking — spiraling — as I repeated over and over again that I would never find love, that I would be alone forever.
Between choking sobs, I remember asking, “What’s the point of life if no one loves me? I’m unlovable, so what’s the point? Wouldn’t I be better off dead?”
My therapist asked me to take a deep breath, and she introduced me to the work of Byron Katie.
Byron Katie is a public speaker and author who promotes her inquiry method called “The Work,” which she first outlined in her book “Loving What Is.”
In her book, Katie writes that all suffering is caused by believing our thoughts are true. This commitment to our thoughts being true puts us into painful positions that cause suffering.
The solution? Doing “The Work.” This comes down to four questions that identify and interrogate stressful thoughts, freeing the inquirer from their attachment to those stressful and painful thoughts.
The four questions
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, and what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
From the blue light of my laptop screen, my therapist asked me to condense my thought into a simple sentence or phrase. That’s easy enough: I’m unlovable.
Then came question one: Is it true?
Well — yes. Clearly, it’s true. I’ve never been loved; therefore, I am unlovable.
Question two: Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
I suppose not. I guess it’s possible that, somewhere in the world, there’s someone who wants to love me, and I just haven’t met them yet. And I know that my friends and family love me. It’s not the romantic love I want, but it’s still love. So, no. I can’t absolutely know that it’s true.
Question three: How do you react, and what happens, when you believe that thought?
That’s easy. When I believe that I’m unlovable, I feel like absolute shit.
Physically, my chest feels too tight, and my shoulders tense. My stomach twists, and I feel a lump grow in my throat.
Mentally, I feel scared. If I’m genuinely unlovable, then I’ll never be loved. That thought is terrifying.
I want to be loved. I’m desperate to be loved. If I’m unlovable, I’m facing a future of being alone forever. That thought leads me into a spiral that ends with, “if I’m alone, I don’t want to be alive.”
By then, I began sobbing again, but my therapist still asked me question four: Who would you be without the thought?
I would be myself again.
I would be the Zoe that’s okay with not being loved yet. I wouldn’t feel bitter and hateful toward everyone in my life who’s in a romantic relationship. I wouldn’t have to abstain from my favorite music and movies.
I could be the Zoe who takes herself out to dinner. I could be the Zoe who travels alone. I could be the Zoe who enjoys her independence.
Without the thought that I’m unlovable — a thought that I can’t know is true and a thought that causes me physical and mental pain — I can be myself. I can be free.
I can be the optimistic hopeless romantic who loves love, the one who still wants a romantic relationship but who enjoys her own company and knows she is loved.
Then comes the final step of the work — you turn the thought around. “Turn the thought around,” Katie writes. “Is the opposite as true as or truer than the original thought?”
The opposite of unlovable is lovable. And that’s so much more accurate than my original thought, because I know I am loved. I’m loved by so many. And when I recognize that I’m loved, I’m freed from my solitary confinement.
I can’t be worthless if people love me. I can’t be completely isolated if people love me. If my mom loves me, if my best friend loves me, if my dog loves me, I am lovable.
I know that’s a fact, just like the sky is blue, and the grass is green.
I don’t think of this turnaround as a ground-breaking, life-changing revelation, and it’s not supposed to be.
It’s simply freedom from a cycle of spiraling depression and rumination. It’s a thought that allows me to watch romantic comedies and listen to breakup albums.
It’s a thought that I can carry with me when I crave a romantic partnership. I can work myself down from spirals. I can unlock myself from my isolation.
I’m still lonely, but with this thought, and with “The Work,” I’m not alone.
Zoe Katz is a journalist and content creator from Athens, Ga. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Alma, and Moment Magazine, and she covered Georgia’s elections as an Election SOS fellow for the Macon Telegraph. Follow her on Twitter @zoejudithkatz and view her work at zoejudithkatz.com