You rarely hear anyone talking about feeling lonely, do you? It’s another one of those taboo topics, despite the fact that we all feel lonely at times. There’s a stigma attached to loneliness and it’s almost like we believe if we feel lonely then there’s something wrong with us. Or maybe we’re worried that we’re offending the people we’re closest to (and perhaps even sitting in a room with). How can we feel lonely when we’re spending time with other people? Goodness, I can almost hear my parents telling me not to be so silly!
But loneliness isn’t about being alone. In fact, spending time alone is soo good for us! I don’t just love having a little quiet time to recharge and reconnect with me, it’s really important that I do. Investing time immersed in a good book; mindfully watching the rhythmic pattern of waves moving through the sea; practising presence with gentle yoga; or wandering amongst rustling trees, babbling streams and birdsong, serves to rebalance my energies; opens my eyes to new perspectives; piques my curiosity; and creates essential space for reflection, connecting dots and allowing precious inner wisdom to bubble up into conscious awareness. It’s entirely possible to feel more connected when we are alone, than when we are sharing space with other people at times.
So in my being alone, feeling alone is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Or rather, I’ve been curiously sitting with loneliness, quietly listening to its story -that is, between episodes of mindless scrolling through social media and pacing the kitchen in the hope that the chocolate fairy has gifted me a gigantic bar of Galaxy. Of course, I know all too well how important it is to tune into a feeling, open to the insights that our bodies are communicating. This is, in part, what guides us in making the wisest decisions for our lives after all (big surprise for anyone who still lives by ‘the logical next step’ -thanks neuroscience!). But it’s often uncomfortable too. And while there’s a large part of me that wants to uncover what this loneliness is, how it came to know me so well and what wisdom it’s trying to share with me now, there’s a part of me, like in many of us, that would rather avoid the discomfort. It feels easier to temporarily silence it with quick and easy distractions, feed it full, drown it in wine, stay busy – anything to numb the feeling and deny it exists at all. Easier in the short-term perhaps. But certainly not wiser.
Loneliness is a warning sign
How surprised are you to learn that social connection is just as critical to our wellbeing as food and water is? The neuroscience researcher who has spent over 20 years studying loneliness, John Cacioppo, explains that, as humans, we’re neurologically, hormonally and genetically wired for connection. Our strength, both as individual people and as a species, comes from our collective ability to be together; sharing, communicating and working together. We’re designed to be interdependent; not independent, isolated beings. This means we have an innate need to feel seen and accepted; to experience a sense of belonging. In his TEDx Talk ‘The lethality of loneliness’, Cacioppo tells us that loneliness isn’t just painful for us, it’s actually dangerous too. Research shows living with loneliness increases our odds of dying early, and we’ve already explored the link between loneliness and suicide in a previous article.
So, just like hunger tells us we need food, and thirst signals our need for water, loneliness is a sign that we’re in need of meaningful social interactions. It’s felt so strongly because it’s alerting us to what we need to do for our survival –find true connection!
Why don’t we find it easy to reach out and connect?
Reading ‘The book you wish your parents had read’ by Philippa Perry encouraged me to really get a sense of my own thoughts, feelings and behaviours from adulthood, right back to my earliest memories. As I’m walking my way back through the timeline of my life, I’m surprised to find that the pervasive feeling that dominates isn’t anxiety; it’s loneliness. Yet, even with the ‘lonely warning bells’ ringing, signalling exactly what I need to seek out, I choose to stay small and hidden, building up the walls around me and making myself unreachable. Even those most committed to bringing my defences down could not break through.
So, why don’t we reach out and connect when we so clearly need and want to? According to Cacioppo, we have evolved to respond to the feeling of being ‘on the outside’ by going into self-preservation mode –and this is harmful to our wellbeing. When we feel lonely and disconnected, we instinctively try to protect ourselves. While there’s a part of us that wants to connect, another part of us is attempting to override connecting with self-protecting. Afraid to reach out, we reject ourselves before others have a chance to reject us.
“Feelings of loneliness trigger a state of hyper-vigilance for social threat and rejection”, explains Perry, which makes us “super-sensitive to possible rejection or coolness.” We’re actively looking for danger, which means we’re likely to see danger (rejection) whether it exists in reality or not. As Brené Brown describes in ‘Rising Strong’, loneliness exaggerates our fears and insecurities, ramping up our tendency to tell ourselves untrue stories based on limited information. We confabulate, filling in the blanks with false information that we believe to be true, fuelling our thinking that we’re inferior, not good enough, won’t fit in and will surely be rejected.
A self-fulfilling prophesy
In expecting to be rejected, we can create a self-fulfilling prophesy for ourselves, actually increasing the likelihood of rejection. Staying in self-preservation mode reduces our empathy and heightens defensiveness, shifting our focus from ‘we’ to ‘I’, while our numbing behaviours tend to increase too. Habitual ways of thinking and behaving might present like avoiding or self-sabotaging for you. These unwanted effects on our thoughts and how we respond to others have a tendency to sit just outside of our conscious awareness. But what if you saw the role that you play and the power that you have to create change in your life?
If you were a fruit fly or even a rat, you might have no choice but to stay disconnected, skirting around the edges at the mercy of some misguided protective response. But, as a human being, you have a special ability to override your instincts; you have the ability to reason and make better choices for yourself, regardless of your initial impulse. With your increased awareness now comes greater power to change. Want to explore the 3 steps for overcoming loneliness with me? Click here to find out more!