“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”Jean-Paul Sartre
Loneliness seems to be a dirty word. I’ve noticed when someone talks about it, they often use hush tones as if they are confessing to something shameful. And yet I think all of us feel lonely at times. I know I have and still do.
Loneliness is on the rise, and not amongst just the elderly but also for much younger generations. According to a 2014 national survey, 48% of 18-to-24-year-olds said they often felt lonely compared to the overall average of 34%. Young Londoners were roughly twice as likely to be lonely than the national average.
If social media has taught us anything, it’s that you can have hundreds of friends on Facebook or followers on Instagram but still can feel completely alone. To combat loneliness, connections need to focus more on quality rather than quantity. Meaningful connections with others where we feel seen and heard, are far more nourishing than a string of emojis or likes on a status update.
Loneliness is something to take pretty seriously, for nothing else than research shows it can adversely effect our health. Science shows loneliness will kill you as surely as 15 cigarettes a day. Feeling lonely can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and even Alzheimer’s. And that’s just the physical impact. Loneliness can lead to depression and possibly suicidal thoughts.
A vicious (and lonely) circle
On the surface it would appear loneliness is caused by external social isolation but recent studies have shown it is more about our inner experience of disconnection or rejection.
The unfortunate thing about when we feel lonely is that we can start to view our world through a negative lens. We begin to experience the people and places around us as cold and unfriendly. We can even start to anticipate rejection from others.
When we’re feeling vulnerable, we may misconstrue experiences, such as a friend being unable to meet up, as a personal rejection instead of holding the rational in mind, that simply they had other plans. We can essentially sabotage our efforts to connect with others. If we become pessimistic or defensive, we only create further barriers to connection. As Brene Brown explains “unchecked loneliness fuels continued loneliness by keeping us afraid to reach out.”
So part of our loneliness solution, is to recognise our negative framing and make a conscious decision to see things in a more positive light. Negative thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere useful. Maybe we have a day to ourselves, and instead of thinking no one wants to see me, we could reframe the experience as a day for complete selfishness (yeah!), solitude and reflection.
I am a big believer in getting comfortable with our own company. Being alone, or sitting in solitude is different from loneliness. Sociologist and author Sherry Turkle described loneliness as failed solitude and that “to experience solitude you must be able to summon yourself by yourself; otherwise, you will only know how to be lonely”. If we can sit with ourselves, spending time alone, then this builds resilience.
As a side (but really important) issue, aspects of how we relate, separate (or not) from others can play into how we cope with being alone. If we have an intense relationship growing up with our caregivers, separation may have been difficult (i.e. enmeshment prevails). We may not have had the experience of our self as separate verses the other and so being alone as we get older can be really difficult.
Many of us struggle to be on our own and be with whatever we are feeling, thinking etc. The silence and absolute presence with ourselves can often bring up painful realities we’d rather not face up to. But we are always going to find life difficult if we cannot sit and be with ourselves.
Feelings of loneliness start from within but if we can reposition our perception, then we can open ourselves to the possibility of fostering good quality and nourishing engagement.
It’s time to be our own best friend.