Is it surprising to find out how, when we’re feeling lonely, we can create a self-fulfilling prophesy for ourselves if we’re not careful? In our last post, we explored how our unconscious attempts at self-protecting can lead us deep into disconnection:
So, having shared the reasons it can feel challenging to reach out and why it’s so important to listen to loneliness, see it as a warning sign and act on it, it feels right to follow this up with a bit more of a ‘how to’ post to help guide you from feeling lonely and disconnected, into a sense of connection.
How can you start moving from feeling lonely to feeling connected?
It might feel easier to hide away and disconnect, but based on the insights shared by both psychotherapist Philippa Perry, and John Cacioppo, the neuroscience researcher with more than 20 years studying loneliness under his belt, there are three steps that can move us from isolation towards connection. Let’s look at how you can get started today:
1) Recognising loneliness
It’s important that we see loneliness as the warning sign it is and take it seriously. Feeling lonely is your body alerting you to a significant danger to your wellbeing. It’s telling you that you need meaningful social interactions. Let’s not deny it exists, as tempting as that can be in a culture where feeling lonely often goes hand in hand with a sense of shame. Accept it for what it is, just as you would with hunger or thirst. To do this, you need to be able to identify the ‘lonely feeling’ just as well as you can recognise hunger.
Ask yourself: What does loneliness feel like to you? Where in your body does it manifest? What else do you notice about it? You might have a sense of it having a shape, colour, texture, temperature, sound or something else. Whenever you notice these sensations in the future, name it: “I’m feeling lonely right now”.
2) Remembering how loneliness works for you
It’s essential to remember that we, as human beings, have evolved to respond to loneliness by self-protecting and withdrawing –the opposite of what we really need. In a recent post, we explored how feeling lonely can tip us into self-preservation mode, making us hyper-vigilant and super-sensitive to any possibility of a threat of rejection or coolness, while increasing our tendency to make up stories -jumping to conclusions before we know the facts. We’re then more likely to act as if the stories we’ve made up are actually true, often withdrawing and self-sabotaging, thus creating our own self-fulfilling prophesy where we end up ‘on the outside’.
Take stock of your behaviours and the stories you’re telling yourself. Are you getting caught up in self-protecting? Building walls? Hiding behind armour? Imagining people are out to hurt you? Or are you actively choosing to be behaving in a way that’s creating connections?
Have the courage to notice when you’re in self-preservation mode (that hyper-vigilant state where we see danger and rejection in places it doesn’t really exist) and sabotaging your chances of connection. If you find that you are acting in this way, as we all can do at times, choose to be kind to yourself, remembering that those actions are instinctively human when we feel that sense of loneliness.
3) Reaching out and being reachable
The beautiful gift of being human is that you have choice. You can choose to respond to signs of loneliness in a way that opens you up to truly connecting. And you can do so even though your instincts might be telling you to protect yourself by disconnecting, avoiding and keeping yourself hidden. It is the fear of getting hurt that drives us to construct barriers and hide who we are, severing connections and creating a lonely bubble of existence for ourselves. Only through allowing ourselves to be seen and embracing vulnerability (defined as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure by Brené Brown) can we truly connect with others. It is vulnerability that creates connections.
Letting go of the fears and behaviours that are no longer helping me; bringing down the walls so that I can show up and be seen for who I am, hasn’t come easily. I’ve unlearned things that I believed to be true; re-educating myself with up-to-date findings about how we make decisions and what drives our behaviours. Coaching has been (and always will be) essential to raising my self-awareness; opening my eyes to choices, and a way of being, I didn’t think I had available to me. With new pieces of wisdom, I’ve been peeling back layers of heavy armour that I was so used to carrying with me, I didn’t even notice how it was dragging me down. So believe me when I say, you can change too.
You can get started today by becoming clear on what’s been holding you back until now. Ask yourself;
- How do your choices -conscious or not- contribute to your outcomes?
- At what point in your life did you learn to start behaving this way?
- What exactly are you afraid of?
- How realistic is your fear in light of what you now know to be true about how we respond to feeling lonely?
Then consider, with a sense of child-like curiosity, what else could be true? And how else could you be choosing to be behaving in order to reach out and make yourself reachable -even if it feels uncomfortable at first?
You’ll find, just like I did, that you have so much knowledge available to you through books, podcasts and TED Talks to help you understand why you might make the choices you do, and how you can respond in a way that moves you towards connecting. And you can always find yourself a coach to help you unpick your choices and replace unhelpful patterns of behaving and outdated beliefs.
You have all the resources you need to help you make the changes that you need to move you away from loneliness and towards meaningful connections. It starts with a choice. Your choice. Are you choosing to be reachable; willing to be seen for who you really, truly are and open to connecting with others? Or do you choose the lonely option of staying locked up in your fortress?
Lonely but not alone
Living in a culture where so many of us are afraid to be seen for who we really are, habitually numbing our uncomfortable emotions; avoiding having courageous conversations; resisting exploring who we are and what’s truly important to both us and those we care about; and staying wilfully blind to how our own beliefs and behaviours shape our lives and relationships with others, perhaps it’s inevitable that we will all feel lonely at times.
Feelings of loneliness can arise when our bids for connection are not responded to positively, and we feel pushed to the outside of a group that we value. Even once we’ve become aware that the walls we’ve built over the years are keeping us isolated, not safe. And even after we’ve painstakingly dismantled those walls, brick by brick. And even though we’re putting down our shields and ‘embracing the suck’ of feeling vulnerable, we can still feel lonely when we’re stood outside of someone else’s fortress looking for a way in. The difference is, when we’re inside the fortress, it’s the loneliest kind of lonely. We’re keeping everyone out. But once you’ve broken free of your walls, you’ll find that you are no longer alone. You’re alongside people who are reachable and have the courage to reach out. People you can truly, deeply connect with. You don’t have to feel lonely alone ever again.