This is how someone described loneliness at a conference I was at a few weeks ago. I could immediately relate to what they meant. Loneliness is being talked about all over the media at the moment, but it’s not new and its definitely not just about older age.
I manage a programme which aims to reduce loneliness for people. And a bit like how, when you decide you might buy a new car, and suddenly it seems like everyone is driving around in the one you’ve had your eye on, I am now noticing loneliness everywhere.
Sometimes the things I blog about are really planned and thought about, and other times, like this, it just seems important to write something that has popped into my life repeatedly over the last few weeks and months.
The Campaign To End Loneliness defines loneliness as ‘the unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want’ (Perlman and Peplau, 1981)
This makes loneliness an incredibly personal experience.
I didn’t really think about loneliness until I started doing the job I do now. Then I realised looking back that there have been lots of times in my life where I’ve felt very lonely. I’m prone to loneliness because I’m a bit rubbish at being in my own company for too long. I like people. I grew up with close siblings. I shared a bedroom with my sister until I moved out of my family home and even then I only moved out to buy a house with my brother. I am a serial monogamist. So being alone just wasn’t really part of my experience.
I’ve talked about loneliness with friends and family a bit over the last few weeks and it seems that everyone has their own experiences of being lonely. Mostly, people have talked about temporary feelings of loneliness linked to life transitions. For instance, I used to get lonely in the school holidays as a teenager. Sometimes the lack of connectedness to others for seven hours a day used to make me feel like I was going out of my mind. I used to walk to the supermarket for no reason, feel like the isles were closing in on me and leave in a blind panic. Some weeks I would book dentist appointments to give my day a bit of structure so I had someone new to talk to. And I bloody hate the dentist.
I was lonely when my friends went to University and I stayed home and got a full time job. Then I was lonely as a new Mum to my first baby. During all these periods it felt exactly like I was on the outside looking into a world I couldn’t access. In my head everyone else was having more fun than me, everyone else had friends and connections and somehow I wasn’t doing well enough to be included. God help today’s young people, growing up in a world where every social experience is plastered on social media. Now they don’t have to imagine every one having fun without them, they can see it for themselves. I’m not sure what’s worse.
And how hard is it to make new friends as a grown up?! It can be so awkward to do that thing where you step outside the social norm of chatting in a break or on the school run and actually invite an acquaintance or colleague over for a cup of tea. When there are not longer social structures around to force people into your life, making the effort to ‘build relationships’ with your peers is scary as hell. This article about making friends as an adult is really interesting
Looking back I also know that feeling lonely doesn’t bring out the best in me. Instead of it making me more eager and more likely to make new friends, it makes me panicky and needy. I am more likely to perceive other people as a threat, or distrust their kindness. Feeling lonely made it harder for me to trust people. And that’s the bit that isn’t always talked about in the media, which is guilty of simplifying the problem and the potential solutions.
We are gathering evidence in my job about what it takes to overcome loneliness, and what we know is that it definitely isn’t as simple as just rocking up to your local craft group and joining in. Don’t get me wrong, connecting yourself to something and meeting new people is always a good way of starting to combat feelings of loneliness. But the battle doesn’t end there. If you’re like me, you have to overcome the demons in your head telling you that nobody really likes you, or that everyone else there is different to you and you are wasting your time. Then you have to give people a chance to get to know you and hope they don’t reject you. Then eventually you might realise that people are generally kind and care about you and you can call them friends. But this can all take lots of time and bravery. In my opinion overcoming loneliness starts when you find a way to build a better relationship with yourself. Which sounds like some hideous American slogan for self help, but is actually true in lots of ways.
Now I’m a bit older, I realise that there were people in my life during those times of loneliness that I didn’t call upon enough. In those times I felt paralysed by loneliness and powerless to do anything about it. I was saved repeatedly from my loneliness by Centre Stage, the theatre group that was like a family, and relationships I’d had with people as a young person which survived the test of time when I needed them.
I try harder now to nourish the relationships in my life and I try and panic less if not everyone likes me or wants to be my friend, because as I’ve grown older I’m a bit more chilled and open minded and I’m better at recognising what I need to feel happy.
I’m not sure what I would tell my younger self in those times of loneliness, probably to open up more and give people a chance. I’d encourage myself to reach out to people and have some patience. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I don’t think there are any magic solutions to cure loneliness. Just small steps we can all take to stay in touch more and value our relationships. Underneath we all need to feel connected to each other, it’s part of what makes us human and we should never feel ashamed to talk about it.