Recently, I was interviewed for some publications on the themes of loneliness and social rejection. I felt called to participate in these stories for several reasons. I think loneliness is becoming part of the human condition, and can be really difficult to remedy. When you feel alone, you struggle to be vulnerable and put yourself out in the world. And yet doing so is critical to your healing. Loneliness is a current theme for many of us in a post-Covid, work from home, and increasingly online and impersonal world. There is no easy fix, and how courageous you must be to put yourself out there when you doubt anyone will care if you do, if you lack confidence in your ability to connect, or feel you don’t belong. Or what if you worry that you will never find your tribe, that group of humans where you can be yourself. You must face your fear of rejection in order to overcome loneliness. Not an easy thing to do.
As a woman, I have felt ashamed and been shamed when expressing my sadness around being alone, single and partnerless. Many of us have been shamed for our longing to connect when we’re told “you must be happy with yourself first" or “you have to learn to enjoy your own company first”, as if it is wrong to want someone to share life with. It’s not wrong by the way. It’s totally human! When we’re feeling on the outer because others have partners and we’re struggling to connect, we can feel like no one understands us. People ask a single woman if she’s dating or seeing someone special (as if it’s very important to be coupled up) and also tell her to be happy on her own. So which is it? There is certainly truth in being happy within. However, our emotional wellbeing is significantly enriched by the presence of a loved one. There is often a lack of empathy for the lonely, and at worst blame and shame for a very normal and human longing. Loneliness requires lots of empathy and compassion, not shame.
I’ve discovered loneliness can hit anyone, whether in a relationship or not. Loneliness is about not feeling close, connected or understood by others, or a lack of belonging and meaning. Loneliness can be about not feeling like there is anyone to rely on when things are hard, and life feels heavier when doing it alone.
My experience of loneliness
I have personally suffered from feeling lonely during a difficult time in my life. Loneliness was less about the lack of people in my life and more about feeling alone in my distress. A longing to connect deeply, to be seen and have my feelings understood. A time of feeling like I was reaching out and it wasn’t being reciprocated. A time of feeling removed from life and struggling to see it’s beauty. A time of longing so deeply to have someone to share a life with, and having that taken away from me. You see, my partner at the time returned to his home overseas for what I thought was a holiday, only for him to become increasingly distant and decide that he would remain there. We had just moved in together and I thought our future was together in Sydney. I was shocked, deeply hurt and lost. I plunged into a deep depression coupled with overwhelming loneliness. The pain was both physical and emotional, as I lost sleep and became a nervous wreck. I felt I’d lost connections, and was alone in my pain. I look back at this period as the most difficult time in my life as it triggered huge wounds around fear of abandonment and not being enough. I was rejected. This pain intersected with feeling quite disconnected to work, family, and friends. I was burnt out, and feeling as if no one was there for me. The fact is people were trying their best to support me, but I felt alone in a dark hole with a feeling of hopelessness.
I want to talk about loneliness openly to show there is a way through (more on that soon). More importantly, I wanted to talk about loneliness to break the stigma and shame that exists. Lonely people are not defective, they’re humans longing for connection and struggling to find it. Surely we can all relate to that. Now, I stand strong and am quite grateful for that time in my life because it gave me a window into how others feel when they struggle with depression and intense loneliness. Rather than shaming loneliness, let’s appreciate what that experience is trying to tell us: I have a need for belonging and connection.
Loneliness is human
It is clear to me that loneliness can strike anyone. I’ve worked with many clients who have experienced loneliness- that deep, dark, heavy feeling that can overwhelm you because your needs for connection are unmet. They have been professionals, carers, parents, women, and men. Pretty normal, relatable people. Loneliness has increased with Covid, working from home, and social media keeping us online rather than outside. Loneliness is a product of our times and loneliness is a product of struggling to talk about our feelings and to be vulnerable. We don’t talk about loneliness because we’re embarrassed or ashamed, and people give us advice rather than trying to listen and understand. Advice such as “you should be happy on your own” or “you should take up a hobby”. No wonder we struggle to open up when we are given messages that it is shameful to want connection, and we’re given solutions rather than a space to be vulnerable. We’re human beings, and we’re meant to connect. And lots of us are disconnected and alone.
I find it deeply concerning that so many of us feel lonely. According to research by Swinburne University, 1 in 4 Australians feel lonely and 1 in 2 of us have felt more lonely since Covid. Loneliness can have impacts on both our physical and mental health, and impact us all regardless of age or gender.
Loneliness can be seen as disconnection. Johann Hari in his book Lost Connections discusses depression as grief or loss, and explores how we can be disconnected to important things in life; a lack of community, purpose, meaning, feeling, inspiration, hobbies or direction. So many of us lack of connection to our feelings, avoiding them and throwing ourselves into work. If we avoid our feelings, and don’t pause, slow down, and tune in to our inner worlds, we cut ourselves off from vital information. A chance to know ourselves and all the feelings within that when shared with another can ease loneliness. Sharing feelings overcomes shame, is a way to self-soothe, and connect vulnerably with another. Sharing feelings reciprocally builds a healthy, secure connection. It builds trust.
Loneliness is disconnection
Loneliness as disconnection makes a lot of sense to me, and I think tells the story of many women (and humans) who feel alone. You see, the truth is I ended up feeling alone and disconnected in my past relationships because I became disconnected to myself. Rather than ensuring that I got my needs met (needs for emotional support, validation, empathy, nurturance, mental stimulation, quality time with her partner), I ended up focusing on meeting her partner’s needs, and in doing so I lost myself. Because I so badly wanted to experience love and attachment and care, I busied myself with accommodating my partner: his emotions, his needs, his work satisfaction. The irony of longing for connection and losing connection to myself and my partner. The truth is I was never going to receive reciprocal care and connection with such partners because they couldn’t provide it. I set myself up for loneliness and self-abandonment by choosing emotionally needy partners and putting myself to work to ensure their needs were priority. Self-sacrificers and people-pleasers can experience deep loneliness, resentment, and exhaustion. We can really only establish a real and authentic connection by showing up as ourselves in our relationships, taking up space, having needs, and expressing ourselves fully.
If you ever feel like you can’t be yourself around someone, reflect on that. I believe we are less likely to experience loneliness if we work on knowing ourselves, expressing that, and identifying those who provide safety and acceptance to our vulnerability.
So if you ever feel alone, ask yourself a few questions:
· Am I disconnected from my true, authentic self? What steps can I take to feel more like me?
· What is the quality of my connection to others? Do I struggle to connect with others because of my fears of vulnerability, or because those in my life struggle to be empathic and vulnerable?
· What small steps can I take to be more vulnerable? And how can I comfort myself if I am scared to open up?
· Is now a time to engage a bit more in the world, or do I need to stop for a little bit (e.g. perhaps you’re exhausted from trying and need a break)?
What’s the healing work to be done if you’re lonely?
As a clinical psychologist and relationship/dating coach, I’m most curious about the root of your loneliness. And as a relationship therapist, I want to remind you that it is ok to not like being lonely. It is ok to want a connection, a deeper friendship, or more intimacy with a partner. It is normal, it is a survival need, and it is good for our mental health. So, please have some self-compassion if you are lonely and long for more.
So, back to the possible root of your loneliness. I love using Schema Therapy as a framework that explains human pain, including loneliness and rejection. Schema Therapy (which I use predominantly with my clients) focuses on understanding the core belief systems that we inherit as a result of conditioning and childhood trauma. I outline some schemas (core belief systems and associated coping behaviours) that can bring about ongoing feelings of loneliness below, and also include what emotional needs need to be fulfilled.
· Emotional Deprivation: a belief that no truly understands me or my feelings; a need for connection, empathy and validation
· Fear of Abandonment: a belief that people will leave me; a need for connection and a reliable presence
· Social Isolation: a belief that I’m different and don’t belong; a need for connection with a like-minded soul or your tribe
· Defectiveness/Shame: a belief that I’m bad or worthless; a need to know your own worth and a desire for love
· Emotional Inhibition: a belief that expressing emotions are weak or scary; a need to accept your vulnerability and to share emotions
· Negativity/Pessimism: a belief that things are hopeless; a need to see the good in life and connect with optimistic others
A good general guide for managing loneliness is to start with some self-compassion and validation. These words or dialogue to yourself may sound like “I see how alone you feel, and it makes sense you feel that way, because you long to connect more deeply with another; I’m here for you”. Or, “I know these feelings are painful and distressing, and connecting with others has been hard”. And remind yourself “it may be hard and require courage to open up and explore pathways to connect with others. I will be gentle with myself”. “I see you taking small steps to connect and I’m proud of you for practicing this vulnerability”, and “I am hopeful that in time that this vulnerability will result in deeper connections with others”. If any of these dialogues are tough, that’s ok. Just simply notice that. In essence your adult words of wisdom are guiding your vulnerable inner child within who is feeling all this pain and loneliness. My professional and personal experience tells me that loneliness is less about your worth as a human, but more about risking being vulnerable and opening up, and also finding the right people who accept and appreciate vulnerability. I’m sure your adult wisdom intuitively knows the way through. And of course, it is also ok to reach out for support, particularly if your loneliness is feeling hard to shake. I have both personal and professional experience healing loneliness and know those feelings well. Don’t hesitate to connect if this is something you need support with.
And if you are in need for tips and ideas about how to support someone with loneliness or depression, look no further than this article, featuring me, Phoebe: https://www.hcf.com.au/health-agenda/body-mind/mental-health/how-to-talk-about-loneliness?icid=U23|SFW|CRM|004|||||TXL|MEM|||||||||A04|MID-f20a72388e0dbf829990ea1865ddd35b|
The secret to this all is really in the power of vulnerability, a brave and connecting act.