Surviving Loneliness: Living in the Grey
(My co-writer for this article is Jean Lannin, a Dublin-based Health and Wellness Coach, Pharmacist, and Blogger)
Humans are wired for connection. Our brains and bodies evolved over thousands of years to profoundly respond to the gaze, vocal tone, touch, and emotions of others. When we are deprived of live human interactions, we suffer. And sometimes, we get sick: anxious, depressed, hopeless.
Jean reached out to me from across the Atlantic with an offer to share her personal experience with loneliness. We share the following reflections and resources in the spirit of undoing aloneness, building awareness, healing, and supporting courage to build new connections, both internal and external.
I didn't notice the symptoms of my loneliness until recently. The realisation came on the first weekend of our second lockdown in Ireland. I started the weekend with a grey, despairing mood. I couldn't muster up or connect to any sense of hope which is unusual for me.
Tending towards anxiety, I was well acquainted with experiencing and working with my fear. This sensation of despair, which I was beginning to recognize as loneliness, was something I was unaccustomed to experiencing. I noticed that when I began to turn towards my loneliness, it felt like the kind of feeling that could take over; like it could color my whole body grey. Luckily that weekend I was attending a virtual loving kindness retreat.
Throughout many meditation sessions over the retreat weekend, as I turned towards this lonely feeling it began to slowly release. I began to get the sense that my loneliness had accumulated over time. I imagined it as a vase filled with sand. Over the last few months of the pandemic, with reduced social contacts, increased anxiety, and working in an isolated manner, the grains of sand representing my connections had been draining out. Maybe you can endure weeks without the right type of social engagement but it will come to a tipping point and the loneliness will inevitably seep out.
On the third day of meditation sessions, I had a really clear list of actions that I needed to undertake to refill my loneliness vase with connection. One of the actions came from some useful insights about connection with the people around me. My anxious and perfectionist self is always looking for the perfect relationship. One that isn't too depleting, can stimulate and inspire me, and most importantly can really listen and hear me. It is rather difficult to find that type of relationship, especially during a pandemic, I had withdrawn from the people around me. I pulled back into my anxious self, fearing that I would not be understood, heard or that these connections would only serve to increase my anxiety.
The awakening I experienced after sitting with my loneliness throughout the retreat made me realise that perfect or not I need regular contact with the people in my life. Recently I have noticed that this deep acceptance of relationships not being perfect has led me to feel quite calm after these encounters.
I began to realise also that I must have experienced loneliness in the past but perhaps didn’t recognise it. I think when you are past a period of loneliness, you can't (and don’t want to) remember its depth or sense of entrapment. Through therapy, I began to touch on these past experiences of loneliness. My therapist mentioned in one particular session that there can be a lot of loneliness associated with anxiety. I remember thinking that was impossible; it was too much socializing that made me anxious.
It's funny if you let an idea into your mind, it will mull it over, swish it around a bit to see if it gains any traction. Slowly the idea that I did indeed experience loneliness related to my anxiety began to touch ground. Firstly, through an image of myself as a child staying away from home. I used to experience homesickness as a child, an intense kind of anxiety that would fill me with dread in the lead-up and throughout a stay somewhere outside my home.
My adult realisation stepping back into this image, with my therapist, was that there were other people in that house who also felt anxious. People who also felt alone in their anxiety. This brought up an overwhelming sadness in me. If only we had been able to share our experiences, to comfort each other, to laugh, to connect.
This realisation helped me to open up to the fact that sadness can be part and parcel of being an anxious child who didn’t easily share how she was feeling.
My work on loneliness has been a 3-pronged approach:
a mindset shift where I don’t expect meet-ups to be perfect.
a list of personal and work-related actions to prevent my loneliness vase from depleting. This includes getting a pooch (dog) and a life coach!
work with a therapist on turning towards old memories of loneliness that are still generating this bleak feeling of loneliness every so often.
I know there is work to be done to enable myself to feel heard and supported in relationships. This is a tricky balance as sometimes I have an intense need to be heard or seen but the other person is not in the right state to give me this space. Or perhaps I am not able to be completely vulnerable and to let my guard down. I think this may take some further figuring out as a lack of feeling heard can lead to loneliness.
For those committed to building more fulfilling connections, we can take baby steps to reach out in new and meaningful ways. Simultaneously soothing our emotions and working to transform our internalized loneliness will help assure we don’t stay stuck or get in our own way. It’s important to move forward building connections in line with our long-term goals and wishes. This is compassionate work that we all deserve.
A few practical ideas for positive change:
(Note: Safety first! During the pandemic, online activities are safest, unless you wear a mask, keep CDC recommended distance, or do these activities with those in your bubble.)
Channel activities and interests into group activities with others. For example, if you like to write, start, or join a peer-to-peer writing group. If you like to move your body, join a yoga class or walking group. If you like cooking, bake alone or with a covid-safe friend and then share your delicacies with someone else to undo their loneliness. If you love to read, start or join a book group. For podcast lovers, check out the Podcast Brunch Club. I suggest using my book It’s Not Always Depression as a curriculum for a peer support group. Additionally, if you are looking for a romantic partner, I believe in online dating to meet people. Grab a trusted friend to help create an online profile. Allow yourself to be conflicted as you try. Allow yourself to hate it. Which reminds me of exercise. I hate exercise but I do it anyway because it’s good for me. Embrace your conflicts and fears around being with people. We all have ambivalent feelings. We all want connection, and simultaneously find people irritating. It’s all ok, and only by being out there will you feel better.
Volunteer at an organization that excites you or engage with organizations that cultivate connection. Seek Healing, an organization dedicated to authentic connection and undoing loneliness, is a special online resource to feel deeply heard and to practice your own listening skills. Try out one of their “connection meetings” and take the free “listening training.” You can sign up at Seekhealing.org.
Connect to your vast inner world. Find a therapist or coach to help you connect with the lonely part inside. Get to know that part of you intimately and listen to its story. How long have you been aware of the lonely feeling inside? Is it a recent feeling? Or, have you always felt alone? Was there one event that led to this feeling or many over your lifetime? Was loneliness a response to being left alone in the midst of overwhelming emotions caused by traumatic events like being bullied, or not fitting in, or losing a parent, to name just a few examples of childhood traumas? Get curious about the meaning you assign loneliness— is it something you are ashamed of or do you extend yourself compassion? Are you harsh and critical to yourself for feeling lonely? How do you understand your loneliness? As a child, did you look up at your mother or father and see loneliness in their faces? There can be intergenerational loneliness passed on from grandparents to parents to children. What does loneliness feel like in your body? Is it like a tightness in your throat, chest, or stomach? Is it like having a hole in your heart? Or is it a more metaphorical experience like Jean’s loneliness vase? Try to get an image of that lonely part of yourself. Give him/her/them a name. Befriend it. Ask it what it needs? Let it tell you. If it feels right, imagine providing your loneliness exactly what it needs (a hug, someone to talk to, to play with, etc.) in a comforting fantasy. It won’t take away your loneliness but it might feel a little bit better.
Loneliness, like all feelings, is not static nor stuck, even though it might feel that way. Resist any self-defeating thoughts emanating from your loneliness that might dictate your next move. Like a good parent would do, validate your loneliness, give yourself compassion, and force yourself to do one small thing today that connects you to the world. Your future self will appreciate it.
A+ for trying!