As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight to Goa last October, a sadness laved over me. I had just said goodbye to my best friend while she was getting ready to leave Mumbai. For good. While thinking about her, I realised she was my 5th friend to leave Mumbai in 18 months. And the last of my closest female friends to venture on to new life. Recognising I would be returning to an “empty” Mumbai, I felt a pain in my chest. I felt lonely.
When I returned to Mumbai, I continued to focus on work. There were weeks where the only people I would speak to were my clients. Most of my free time was spent creating content. Connecting with people on social media. Listening to audiobooks or watching YouTube videos.
After 3 months, I realised I was spending a lot of time alone. And underneath all the distractions there was a feeling of loneliness.
I reached out to someone whom I met at a networking event the previous year. She is a mindfulness expert as well. Within a few days, we were sitting in a cafe having a cup of coffee. We spoke for nearly 4 hours. It was that cup of coffee which marked the start of my “loneliness recovery” journey. Looking for my tribe. Joining communities. Building new relationships. Connecting on and offline. And most importantly – connecting with myself.
What is loneliness and why do we feel it?
Evolutionary psychologists believe loneliness evolved to motivate us to form social relationships. Loneliness can be viewed as an emotional pain, much like physical pain, there those around us. Caused by a perceived lack of:nal pain, much like physical pain, there societies, we will die.
Recent studies have indicated our whole physiology is wired for connection. When we connect with others, we’re rewarded with a biochemical cocktail of endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. A neurotransmitter high that feels so good it motivates us to connect more. And unlike an espresso martini, it’s a cocktail research shows we need regularly. Low levels of these chemicals have been associated with Pain, stress, addiction, depression, sleep disorders and other mental and physical health issues. Health insurance company Cigna said after their 2019 study on loneliness “among workers aged 18-22, known as Gen Z, 73% report sometimes or always feeling alone, up from 69% a year ago.” There’s also a difference between being alone and feeling alone. Physical isolation doesn’t automatically provoke loneliness. And conversely, many of us have still felt the pain of loneliness in the company of others. Many of my married clients, some with children, have expressed they still feel a sense of profound loneliness at times.
Loneliness can then be defined as a subjective perception or feeling of disconnection to those around us. Caused from a perceived lack of: Support (professional, emotional, physical)
- Human touch
- Someone to confide in
- Romantic or platonic love
- Acceptance or “fitting in”
- I would love to hear your stories! which keep us stuck. Replacing the wall with healthyk. This
- Feeling understood / someone who “gets” us
- A sense of belonging
How lonely are we really?
There has been some debate recently as to how lonely we really are. Some say loneliness is becoming an epidemic. While others say, social isolation (spending more time and/or living alone) is becoming an epidemic while loneliness isn’t. However, there might be an explanation for this.
The key is to balance. Excess of anything is generally not good for us. Whether that’s physical isolation. Spending too much time behind a screen. Socialising with the ‘wrong’ people. Or spending too long in a relationship we know isn’t right for us. Social isolation and emotional isolation in excess have equally harmful effects on our health.
We could be feeling less lonely because we’re meeting our need for connection through other means. Social media, food, sex, alcohol, drugs, video games, Netflix, work can all quench our thirst for that biochemical cocktail we seek. In fact, British journalist Johann Hari proposes addiction arises out of an unmet need for connection in his famous TED Talk “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”. Suggesting connection can cure addiction.
But what if we’re also not feeling lonely because we won’t allow ourselves to FEEL our loneliness? What if we’re simply distracting ourselves from the pain of loneliness?
Lonely Ostrich Syndrome
I have a friend who claims he is never lonely. When asked about how he spends his weekends, he said the moment he wakes up, he’s on his phone. Checking his stocks and social media accounts. After that, he will phone his friends and fill his day with coffees, barbecues and bars. Until it’s time for bed. When I asked him what would happen if he didn’t do these things, he said, “I’ve tried it. It was boring. And lonely.” There is a difference between boredom and loneliness. Boredom is the perceived lack of activity.
Individually, as with any form of recovery, the first step is admission.
Many of us don’t want to admit we’re lonely. To others or ourselves. Nor do we want to admit that instead of dealing with our loneliness we’re head-deep in distraction. Because admitting either would mean admitting we’re weak. Flawed. Imperfect. Abnormal in some
way. We fear feeling lonely and weak. And we fear others seeing us as lonely and weak. This then causes us to be ashamed of our loneliness.
And here we reach the crux of the matter. The root cause of our loneliness.
Fear. And shame.
We want relationships. But the shame of our short-comings and/or wrongdoings stops usfrom being our true selves. We hide behind our walls. Whether that’s an apartment wall. The gym wall. The office wall. A computer screen. A mobile phone. A mask of who we think we need to be instead of who we are. A wall built to protect us. But a wall that keeps out the very thing we want. Connection.
To overcome loneliness, the first step is to take down the wall. To remove all the layers of fear, judgment, guilt and shame which keep us stuck. Replacing the wall with healthy boundaries instead.
Admitting our loneliness means feeling our loneliness, and embracing we’re human. Imperfect, flawed, hurt, insecure, scared, sometimes irrational and wonderfully magnificent human. Once we begin to embrace our imperfections and our magnificence we start our journey to authentic living and connection.
Succeeding in our dreams and goals is important. We weren’t put on this planet to sit in front of Netflix all day. Until we are real about who we are. How we feel. What we go through. Until we have the courage to share our stories and respect others for sharing theirs. We will always live in a shallow world of shallow relationships. And miss out on the connection and love we all seek.
What have been your experiences of loneliness?
Would love to hear your stories!