By Charlotte Fox Weber, Psychotherapist & Co Founder, Examined Life
We can be lonely anywhere, in crowds, with colleagues, our families and friends, by ourselves.
Being with other people and feeling disconnected can be the loneliest of all. Loneliness is not about being alone. It’s about feeling disconnected.
We are relational beings, so connecting means a great deal to us, and when we fail to connect — when we are isolated, or when we are with others but feel misunderstood, ignored, unseen — the psychological consequences can be staggering. However painful loneliness can be, it’s also universal and almost inevitable as an occurrence at some point in life.
Unfortunately, loneliness often bathes in shame, and it’s hard to say the words “I’m lonely.” We feel embarrassed and as though we’ve failed in some way. But it’s honest and can happen to any of us at any stage of life. It’s consoling to acknowledge loneliness. Feeling lonely at times is part of the human condition, and though it’s unpleasant and uncomfortable, it’s also completely survivable, and accepting this gives us more comfort with the discomfort.
Of course, many of us feel lonely these days. With social distancing, there’s too much space from lots of people, and not enough space from the people we are living with. The combination of not having enough personal space and feeling cut off from social interactions has left most of us reeling, at least to some degree. Not having enough personal space has an insidious impact on loneliness – we might not realise we are lonely because we feel crowded, but actually, having no breathing room makes it harder for us to feel attuned internally. Many of us feel less professional if we are working from home, because the different spheres of life collide. And our sense of self gets fuzzy when everything is claustrophobic. We feel cut off from ourselves.
During this time- period, we are missing out on exciting parties and events, but also on ordinary, incidental banter. Not working from shared spaces, it’s harder to feel that sense of belonging that comes with camaraderie and communal experiences. We also miss out on spontaneous debriefing. Chatting with colleagues helps us process and defuse work tensions. Many workplaces recognise the importance of banter and have tried to set up zoom social activities and conversations for colleagues, but the problem is that contrived workplace banter isn’t the same as incidental chats in the workplace. Pressured or staged bonding can feel awkward. Don’t despair if you’re feeling this way! And don’t give up on connecting.
Just to reiterate, let’s acknowledge that loneliness is part of the human condition. There’s inevitably a gap between self and other. When we can accept this, we don’t need to struggle so acutely. Acceptance allows you to feel like yourself in the presence of others – more at ease in your own skin — by tolerating your separateness. Acceptance spares you from feeling forced to perform, pretend, hide, deny. And it’s paradoxical. Accepting this gap gives you a much better chance of feeling close with others.
Here are some tips for combatting loneliness when you’re by yourself. Connect with your senses. This brings you into the world and also returns you to yourself. Think of smelling something delicious: it brings you to the here-and-now, and you engage with your surroundings but also with the experience of being you. So sensory experiences in these ways can keep you good company, even if you’re by yourself.
Identify, acknowledge, and improve the way you keep yourself company. Connecting with others and getting support might help, but it’s also about showing up for yourself in a kinder, more generous way. As Jean-Paul Sartre said: “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” So keep yourself better company, and make showing up for yourself a big priority.
Give yourself radical self-compassion. I like to introduce self-love-bombing. Here’s an exercise you might try:
Write a letter to yourself about yourself. Describe what you see. Notice yourself. Be there to witness your own existence. It’s not comfortable feeling unseen by others, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore yourself also. Your relationship with yourself is the longest relationship you’ll ever have, so you might as well make it a pleasant and intimate connection.
And also reach out to others, without expecting immediate and total emotional solutions. I feel that curiosity + vulnerability = connection. Acknowledging loneliness can be hard, but also exhilarating and liberating. It’s perfectly normal and relatable as a struggle, for people feeling crowded and for people living alone— it’s a shared human struggle. There’s a certain cosiness that comes with the realisation that we are not alone with our feelings of loneliness. Now that we’ve talked about how hard it is to admit loneliness, but also how helpful it is to admit it, say it aloud and see how it feels. By yourself, or to someone else. Say the words.
This is a time period where struggle and suffering is actually considered reasonable. It’s quite normalising in that sense. We can use this to start important conversations about how we are actually doing. I feel that “How are you?” when asked in a genuine way is one of the kindest, most generous conversation starters we have. Start with that and go from there.
For those of you who retreat when you’re lonely, sometimes we have to be counterintuitive when we’re struggling. Many of us have a little menacing inner critic that says “Shhh, don’t admit your struggles. It’s unsightly.” But we need to override that voice and own our stories. When we can say aloud “I feel lonely,” even to ourselves, it actually becomes more bearable, because we’ve taken authority over what’s happening by naming our experience.
It’s less intimidating and overwhelming when we can acknowledge and make sense of where we are. And closeness comes from showing vulnerability. After all, ability is right there in the word, vulnerability. So own it, express where you are, and discover what’s possible. It shows a kind of strength and courage and confidence to admit loneliness, and it’s so empowering to realise that you can of course get to the other side.
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