Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely (British Red Cross and Co-Op).
That’s the thing about loneliness, it tricks us into think we are the only one that feels it. But every human on the planet has experienced moments of loneliness and aloneness. Sometimes, these feelings move through us as quickly as the wind, but other times, they linger like a thick fog that we can’t see our way out of.
Loneliness can be sneaky, it dresses up as demotivation, boredom, frustration or sadness. No matter where you are on this planet, please know that you have got company. You are not alone.
Loneliness isn’t just the absence of people, but an absence of meaningful connections. It’s the sense that we are not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. We could be surrounded by friends, family, in back-to-back Zoom meetings with colleagues – and yet still feel emotionally and socially disconnected from those around us.
There are lots of ways we can become lonely. Some of us find ourselves moving towards it gradually: we move away from our families (or they move away from us), our friends have children, another moves away, others work constantly and maybe we do too.
Others might find themselves there suddenly: the loss of a loved one, a separation, a new job, a new city, a fall out with a friend and so on. And of course a global pandemic, enforced lockdowns and long periods of isolation will do this too.
Loneliness impacts us physically (our stress responses, weakened immune system, higher levels of cortisol, lower levels of oxytocin) – but it also wounds us psychologically. It ensnares us in a trap many of us struggle to get out of, in that it distorts our perceptions, making us believe the people around us care much less than they actually do, and it makes us view our existing relationships more negatively, such that we see them as less meaningful and important than we would if we were not lonely.
These distorted perceptions ripple and create self-fulfilling prophecies. Feeling emotionally vulnerable and convinced that people don’t like us or aren’t interested, we hesitate to reach out, fearing being seen as needy or desperate.
This begins to harden us. We start to respond to others’ bids for connection with us with skepticism, hesitance, cynicism and resentment – effectively pushing away the very people who could ameliorate our loneliness. As a result, many of us who feel lonely further withdraw and isolate to avoid disappointment or rejection. “I won’t go to that party, no one will talk to me anyway” and “I won’t ring that friend, they are getting sick of hearing me” are repeated on a loop.
So, what does the work on overcoming loneliness look like?
Remember, loneliness isn’t the kind of problem we can resolve overnight, it takes sustained and conscious effort. Fundamentally, it involves challenging your inner first thoughts and those gut feelings that keep you isolated and withdrawn. It involves manageable risk taking and you can start with these three things:
1. Go against your gut feelings.
Make a commitment to overcoming loneliness by going against your gut feeling and challenging those distortions. Challenges that inner-voice telling you to play it safe by self-isolating. The fear of rejection can be crippling and paralysing, but on the other side of that fear could be grounded, genuine connections waiting for you to press into them. Statistically, it looks like we’re all lonely together. You reaching out to them might be received as relieving, comforting flickering light in darkness of these times.
2. Actively seek meaningful connections.
Reach out, today, to three people you have had safe connections with before and suggest a catch up. Scary, uncomfortable, awkward? All understandable, but do it anyway and give them benefit of the doubt. It is fair to say that if they enjoyed hanging out with you before, they will enjoy hanging out with you now. If they haven’t called, don’t assume it is about you. As a culture, we often become out of touch with each other (busy lives, work, competing priorities) – you aren’t always the reason there being a loss of connection.
3. Be open to (and model) intimacy.
One way to encourage deeper connections and more intimacy from others is to express more ourselves. Not everyone will be able to meet us where we are at, but some will, and sometimes we are only able to know that if we model it ourselves and see what we get back. Express positive sentiment and avoid accusations, change: “you haven’t rang me in months!” to “I was thinking about you, let’s grab a drink or have dinner.”.
Connections with others, being able to feel safe with others is one of the single most important aspects of maintaining good mental health and beating loneliness; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
In these unsure times, in the midst of it all, the one thing that we have to hold on to is other people.