Shhh…I feel lonely
The greatest challenge about loneliness is, most people don’t even realize they’re experiencing it. This is a challenge because it means loneliness has been misunderstood, neglected or under examined from a psychological and medical perspective. Loneliness itself is not a mental health issue, but the unresolved, prolonged experience of loneliness is a high-risk factor for other mental health conditions. Therefore, compared to well-classified and relatively easy to identify conditions, such as depression or anxiety, loneliness has become a real silent killer.
‘The impact of loneliness on an individual, the people around the lonely individual, the community they live in, and society more broadly, has so far been under-recognised.’ (Lim, Eres and Vasan, 2020)
The first step to solving the problem is to identify loneliness.
And here, we face another challenge. There is a huge stigma around loneliness. It is very difficult to admit that ‘I feel lonely’. Compare this with sharing ‘ I feel sad’, ‘I feel angry’ or ‘I feel anxious’. With so much shame and guilt around feeling lonely, internal self-blame comes very naturally. When I feel lonely, the first thought that comes to mind is probably that ‘something is wrong with me’ or ‘I am so weak’.
In my 15 years of experience as a consulting psychologist, I have been working with professionals and leaders to build up their psychological fitness. Again and again, I observed that, in most cases, the root cause of team conflict, disengagement, or lack of productivity, came from a form of disconnection. Disconnection from the people around, and disconnection within — when the work doesn’t seem to make any sense. And this disconnection will often lead to loneliness unless connection is restored, or the feeling of disconnection is regulated .
In my coaching practice with these professionals, I have often heard statements like these:
· ‘I want to be more challenged at work as I feel bored.’
· ‘I want security in my position, but there is too much uncertainty with the restructure.’
· ‘I want to meet more like-minded people. The people I work with, I don’t get along with. I don’t think we get each other.’
· ‘I want to know where I am heading, but I am directionless.’
· ‘I want to share my problem as a leader, but I don’t know who to turn to.’
Significant work events such as changing jobs, promotions, losing jobs, changing status or changing professional identity (e.g. from a manager to startup founder), can all trigger loneliness. How much impact loneliness has on an individual also depends on each individual’s physical health, mental health and other socio- environmental factors such as workplace, do they have access to the park etc. I will share more about this in my next article.
Overall, I have also observed that loneliness manifests as a subjective experience. It manifests as a discrepancy between what you desire and what you’re actually experiencing. That discrepancy shows a deficit in both emotional and relational needs. Since these needs are not met in people who experience loneliness, this manifests as emotional pain.
The dangerous escape
It is natural for us to want to run away from our emotional pain. Emotional pain is just like physical pain, we want to avoid feeling it. So, we adopt behaviors to avoid or cope with the pain — but those behaviors tend to make loneliness only worse in the long-term.
Below is a list of behavioral signs I have observed in my clients (mid-line and senior managers) to cope with the emotional pain of loneliness. Are you noticing any of those, in yourself or the people close to you?
- Distraction— Focus seems challenging. They can’t completely focus on tasks they are normally able to complete without extreme effort. Their mind is often somewhere else, or searching for something else.
- Overwhelmed by boredom— Conversations with friends, colleagues and families do not seem to keep them engaged or uplifted. None of the activities they used to enjoy seem able to get them out of their boredom, and spark interest.
- Notice more fragments in existing relationships— More disagreement, conflict, and arguments in their existing relationships (both professional and personal). They relate those conflicts to misalignment in values or principles. Those misalignments are not new, yet they did not use to bother them. It’s only now that they seem to have become so disturbing.
- Unhealthy indulgence— They want to avoid the present reality because it makes them uncomfortable. So, they start to seek temporary pleasures. Those pleasure-seeking activities could be unhealthy indulgence such as too many sweets, more or less social activity than usual, more alcohol, and even drugs — or more Netflix, gaming, or any excessive amounts of activities that help them to escape from their uncomfortable feelings.
- Be the biggest complaints — They become the greatest critic on the planet, criticising other people’s life and complaining about their own. They see all the flaws in life. Those complaints and criticisms keep them focused on the external factors that could explain why they feel so unwell. Our problem-solving mind often likes to go to this place: search for a quick explanation on the outside to account for our internal feelings of discomfort.
- Move sensitive to social rejection cues — They are easily triggered by seemingly minor social interactions, that make them feel that they are not being understood, seen or heard. They start to react to and process information in a way that perpetuates the difficulty of connecting with others.
- Create unnecessary boundaries— Being alone all the time becomes their way of coping with the feeling of loneliness. They start to believe that the world is unfriendly and unsafe, that no one will understand them, or that people will judge them. ‘I don’t trust anyone but myself’ becomes their new motto. So, they start to protect themselves by disengaging from the external world. OR, the alternative manifests, namely…
- Dropping boundaries — Being alone becomes uncomfortable. So, they start to search for any available connection, and show limited discernment as to the type of connection that truly gives them meaning. They go from one social event to the other non-stop. Often, their experience then becomes the classic ‘I feel lonely even when I have many people around’, prompting even more external engagement.
- Questioning their existing relationships — When we feel lonely, we search for external support and understanding. I have seen my clients desperately want their loved ones and colleagues to understand and hear them. When they feel that people around them do not ‘get them’, they start to question the quality of their relationships.
- Questioning their purpose — This last one goes to existential depth. They start to ask why they do what they do and why they operate the way they do? Those big WHY questions, eventually make them question their very existence.
A final note: none of those signs, if it occurs alone and for a short period of time, should be cause for particular worry. Transient loneliness is a normal human experience. It is in fact part of the way we grow and adapt as humans. As one of my favorite poets, David Whyte, wrote:
‘Loneliness is the doorway to unspoken and as yet unspecified desire… it is the single malt taste of the very essentiality that makes conscious belonging possible. ‘
So, do not run away from loneliness. If you listen, it tells you all that you need to know about what you truly desire.
The issue starts when we refuse to listen, and the transient feeling becomes entrenched. What you want is to not fall into chronic loneliness, where the feeling is so constant and strong that the prospect of any connection becomes impossible.
By writing this list of early signs, I hope I can help you identify your own experience of loneliness. The first step to come out of the transient feeling of loneliness is to be aware of the above signs. Once you are aware of those unhealthy coping behaviors, you can tap into your inner resources and support network to manage them, and tackle the underlying cause. Early intervention is critical to avoid falling into chronic loneliness.
Stay tuned, more tips and tools are coming in my next article.