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  • Natalie Rossiter

Loneliness

In the spirit of authenticity and breaking stigma I'd like to share my experience of loneliness, along with some education and guidance on this vitally important topic.


As an introvert, only child and fairly secure person I am happy in my own company and enjoy solitude, which is probably why it took over two years of pandemic life for loneliness to take hold of me. It's not that I didn't miss loved ones and social life before that, it's just that I coped well. Until I didn't. With perspective, I can see it was a very long and slow build up that made it feel like loneliness has suddenly jumped out and grabbed me when in reality it had been following me, sneakily, for quite some time.


People have been surprised when I've told them I've felt lonely, usually because I am a well connected person with a good group of close friends. I'm socially active and don't live alone, so the surprise is understandable, especially as I didn't feel lonely when I was having these conversations; having a conversation at emotional depth is the antidote to loneliness after all.


But as we know, appearances can be deceiving. The reality has been that during the pandemic my main focus was on my work; I felt lucky to be able to work when others couldn't and to do a job I love that is important and meaningful. It's meant I've spent many, many days sitting alone in a room in front of a screen. My husband and I don't have a day off together so it's often just me and the dog - who's been a life saver - in the house. As I allowed work to take over I had less time for social events or was too tired to engage in them.



Of course, I was spending my days talking to people and genuinely connecting with them but the counsellor/client relationship is not a balanced one and it's not appropriate for me to talk too much about myself or to use the session to meet my own needs. It's strange to sit in a room looking at a screen all day, hearing people's troubles and helping them to heal their traumas only to emerge into a quiet house and know that no-one knows what's taken place. For people in my profession this is exacerbated by the confidentiality we must keep; whilst it's vitally important and something I uphold religiously it does mean that it's difficult for me to talk about my work in anything other than vague terms when my husband or a friend asks me about my day.



As Dr Murthy writes in his excellent book 'Together', "the fog of loneliness blurs our internal mirrors" and I noticed my self esteem and confidence were taking a hit.

I started to feel that I was invisible in the world. One day a fellow dog walker in the park gave me a compliment, it was something very minor but I was almost shocked that they could see me and I felt very emotional. It was a clear sign that I was struggling and needed to make some changes.



The Human Givens model of therapy says that we have 9 emotional needs that need to be met, and one of these is attention. I've always loved that they call it a form of nutrition. This is completely accurate when we consider that human beings are social animals that are supposed to live in community; it is what we're built for.

"Connection is why we're here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering." - Brené Brown

I'll share what's helped/helping me overcome my loneliness, but first it's seems important to do some myth busting:


Myth: You can't feel lonely if you're around other people

Truth: This is definitely not the case. Being alone or isolated a lot of the time can certainly cause loneliness but it's also possible to feel lonely around other people. This happens when we are struggling to connect to others and may feel different or separate from them. People can enjoy solitude and everyone is different in terms of how much time with others they like. When it comes to relationships and avoiding loneliness it's really quality not quantity that is important. Having said that. it also helps to know that we will get regular contact with our family/friends.



A key thing to understand here is that quality connection requires authenticity. And authenticity can require vulnerability; we need to be open and honest with the people around us in order to overcome feelings of disconnection.



Myth: Loneliness is just a state of mind, you are weak if you feel lonely.

Truth: A lot of people don't reach out - the very thing that can help them - when they feel lonely because they fear negative judgement. This stigma is so harmful and isn't grounded in fact. We are social animals who are supposed to live in relationship to others. In fact, feelings of isolations and disconnection share the same neural pathways as physical pain. This is because we are supposed to respond to this pain with action: seeking connection. Reaching out when you're struggling is actually a huge strength.


"Courage is vulnerability on purpose" - Max Strom

Myth: it's normally just old people that feel lonely.

Truth: Whilst it's true that loneliness in older adults is a problem that needs addressing, it's not limited to one particular group of society. You might think that with 'social' media and video calling being so available we'd be less lonely, but this isn't the case. Some research has shown that up to 69% of adolescents often feel lonely.



Overcoming loneliness can take time; if we stick with the definition that it's a form of nutrition, we can understand that someone who has experienced physical malnutrition needs more than one decent meal to gain strength and return to health. In the same way, if we've experienced a period of loneliness we need to have regular, ongoing, meaningful connection to feel good again. We might need to find new relationships or reconnect with old friends, none of which happens overnight. Don't let a big task put you off, it's all made of small steps, each of which you can do.


What I did when I felt lonely

A combination of things helped me, the first of which (as always) is recognising that I had a problem and resolving to do something about it.

- I looked out for opportunities to get together with people and created them whenever I could (without overdoing it). Simple things like sending a "do you fancy a walk on Saturday?" text to a friend.

- I talked to my husband about how I felt. I didn't expect him to fix it for me but it was important he knew what I was going through. We're pretty good at making time for each other but we made quality time a real priority.

- I was mindful of how much I was using my phone; whilst it can be very useful it could also be a distraction and a less nutritious form of connection for me.

- I reconnected with things I used to enjoy pre-pandemic (see my previous post for more on this and shared this with others.

- I made a decision to reduce the number of online sessions I can provide so I see more face to face clients.

- I remind myself to leave the house more often, even when I don't really need to (because I do actually need to, for my sanity!).



- I adjusted my work/life balance to make more time for fun, hobbies and adventures. The heavy focus on work had been a big part of the problem and whilst it's not always easy to work less when you're self employed, it's what I needed to do. I'm lucky that I am able to do that and still have a decent quality of life.

- I made sure to be fully present when I was with other people; just like savouring a really good meal!

- When I couldn't be with other people I connected with my dog and nature; all living things are available for us to communicate with if we're open to it. Being in nature reminded me that I am part of a whole and just by noticing the trees and watching the flowers come into bloom I am a part of the living world too.

I hope my actions encourage you to think about how you can support yourself, or others, in overcoming loneliness. To summarise, here are some simple steps toward connection:

  • Practice self compassion & acceptance.

  • Reach out to people you trust about how you feel.

  • Consider counselling/therapy.

  • Do things you enjoy & share this with others.

  • Look out for any opportunities to connect; message a friend to arrange a meet up, chat with the checkout person at the supermarket or strike up a convo with a colleague.

  • Step out your comfort zone and find ways of meeting new people.


Lastly, here are some more resources you might find helpful:


https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/


https://www.bluezones.com/2021/11/how-to-make-friends-as-an-adult/


https://digest.bps.org.uk/2020/01/29/researchers-asked-older-adults-about-the-strategies-they-use-for-combatting-loneliness-heres-what-they-said/?fbclid=IwAR3bGvZtFSbgAuoQDdhLXlN3T-WqCYs1QRp6QR5Iorvc_lQlV6l8IcMy9R8


I'm going to copy Brené Brown's newsletter sign off and tell you all to 'stay awkward, brave and kind'!


Natalie

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