The following was written by Mo Jones, a counsellor with The Palmeira Practice
The age of loneliness
In recent years we have been hit by a slew of distressing headlines declaring we are experiencing an ‘epidemic’ or ‘age of loneliness’. But what does this mean exactly? It seems that although the world is getting smaller with the expansion of communication and social media, loneliness is the on the increase and it does not discriminate.
Unfortunately loneliness is also regarded a taboo amongst our culture. Most of us will want to run away from or avoid conversations about being lonely. Why? Human nature. To acknowledge another person’s loneliness involves acknowledging your own. And at the core of loneliness sits a primeval sense of fear and accompanying shame.
Loneliness is universal
Despite this natural tendency for evasion, loneliness is a universal emotion all of us will experience to various degrees at different points in our lives. It is usually marked by feelings of sadness, isolation and withdrawal. And although it is important to remember there is a distinction between being alone and feeling alone, if a person’s need for connection goes unmet then a deep sense of emptiness and alienation can be triggered.
Fundamentally, loneliness represents a sense of separateness felt by creatures who are instinctively wired to connect. Human beings are designed to engage in meaningful relationships. And in an evolutionary sense, it is these relational bonds that ensure we thrive as a race. Ultimately, making social connections the key to the survival of our species.
Being alone vs. feeling alone
Spending time alone is of course a healthy activity and for the introverted it plays an important role in balancing mental health. But when one feels alone amongst people or finds time alone painful this can build up to chronic levels that lead to further issues such as anxiety, depression, addictions and lowers the quality of life.
Lonely people are also more likely to read social situations from a negative slant and can be more sensitive to potential rejection. This can be self-perpetuating causing someone to become more and more isolated when they expect a social situation not to go well and invariably view it this way. Furthermore, people experiencing loneliness often find it more difficult to make friends and connect with others due to the feelings associated with loneliness such as melancholy and detachment.
‘We sometimes think we want to disappear, but all we really want it is to be found’
Loneliness comes in many shapes and sizes
The desolation experienced from bereavement, the sorrow felt from a relationship breakdown, the isolation caused by geographic or illness issues, the friendlessness of moving town/school/place of work, the wilderness of becoming a parent, the seclusion of retirement, the yearning of romantic loneliness, the painful scars left from childhood trauma, the awkward struggles connecting to other people, the tribulations of finding fulfilment in life and even the existential loneliness triggered from simply being alive.
Feeling like an outsider can be a crippling experience that leads to real isolation whether its physical or mental. For example, in the fairy tale of the ugly duckling we see the loneliness felt by a creature who struggled to find a sense of belonging amongst others.
Another form of loneliness can come from feeling disconnected from yourself. Here, any attempts to soothe this loneliness by connecting to others will not help as the walls need to come down from within
The healing power of connection
I imagine at this point this article is feeling heavy and hard to read (part of the avoidance I mentioned earlier).
So how can we address this ‘age of loneliness’? As a counsellor and fellow human being I believe part of the answer is held in how we relate to each other and ourselves. Societally we have become devoted to ‘keeping busy’ but we are often sidelining our instincts for authentic connection. The emphasis needs to shift towards the quality not quantity of relationships. Towards prizing our bonds with others, ourselves, our passions and nature. Daring to foster real intimacy. Ask yourself, how well you relate to others? Do you feel heard or seen? Do you feel understood and cared for? Recognising you have un-met needs and that you are unsure how to address those needs is the first step to relieving loneliness.
Counselling for loneliness
Loneliness carries a different meaning or nuance to every person who experiences it. It is here that counselling can be of benefit by using the safe space to explore the tone and feeling it has specifically for you. Is it constant? What does it feel like in your body? What triggers these feelings? How does it impact your life? These reflections can take you into a deeper exploration of your personal relationship with loneliness. Such as journeying into the past in order to release old pain and develop new patterns of relating to others.
For those who experience difficulty engaging with others, counselling can help to develop social skills and teach you to manage your feelings during tough times. Furthermore, the therapeutic process offers an opportunity to establish trust with another person and to experience the emotional support of another. This experience can form the building block for future connections. For others the simple act of sharing their loneliness can be just the tonic to alleviate the isolation.
With this in mind I would like to leave you with these last 2 heartfelt thoughts…
You are not alone.
All is not lost.