Wordsworth’s loneliness was famously eased by the sight of daffodils, but I chose this photo because, for a time, only one daffodil amidst this host is fully in bloom. Does it feel different, even lonely? Unlikely, but I think we can all identify with that sense of feeling like the odd one out, the only one left unpicked for the team, the one wearing the wrong outfit to the gathering, the one who cannot fill the weekend.
Loneliness is a big problem these days. In spite of the incredible connectivity available via the internet and social media, people say they are lonely. And none more so than the age group 16-24, even though they are the group that might seem to be most busy with other people.
So, what exactly are people speaking about? It’s not lack of contacts: most people actually know many (several hundred people); a few know even more; and nearly everybody can claim about 50 people whose phone numbers they hold. All of which would suggest a healthy pool to draw from when you want to chat or socialise or go somewhere.
Yet, despite having people in their social network, it seems that is not always enough. One can feel desperately lonely at a party or when hanging out with best mates. In fact, these can feel like the loneliest experiences because everyone else seems to be fitting in and having a good time.
Loneliness isn’t always sorted by finding more friends or even different ones, although sometimes one really does need to find one’s ‘tribe’ in order to gain a sense of place in the world. These are important things to do as, thanks to the Internet, there is a much greater chance of finding people you connect and resonate with so long as…
- you are able to define some things about you that are elemental and can be transacted. By that I mean they need to be qualities or interests that feel really true to who you are and can be translated into actions/conversations/activities.
For example, kindness might be core to who you are and it could translate into action by volunteering time with a charity. The closer you can match the other volunteers’ characteristics to your own, the better the fit.
- You persevere. You may need to stick at your search for some time to get it to fit, a bit like trying on clothes in shops!
3. Make it real. As far as you can, make your connections with real people in the real world. Meaningful online relationships are slower to build and harder to evaluate because they can exist in an ‘information vacuum’. You cannot always corroborate or test the truth of someone or their motivation.
Although the above seems obvious and maybe even easy, it can be hard to show up in any world. Quite often that is because we feel insecure or even dislike aspects of ourselves and so we worry that we will be rejected.
This is what is so painful about adolescence- we fear that the emerging parts of self will be scorned by our peers. Our peers also fear rejection and some may respond by a show of strength- in other words by rejecting us before we reject them and this can take the form of humiliation, harassment or ostracisation. This is the unpleasant and damaging cycle of bullying in action.
I think that, before we can show up in the world, we have to show up for ourselves. Loneliness begins at home, in our relationship with ourselves. Many people dislike parts of themselves; don’t understand themselves; or don’t know how to express parts of themselves. This may have been their sense from childhood. If we are not understood and appreciated by those closest to us, we grow up with a sense of alienation from parts of ourself- an inner alienation.
Loneliness is, in part, the absence of a full relationship with ourselves. A full relationship is one where the important parts of us are known and are worth knowing. To build that relationship over time, we need positive input from family, community and culture that is sufficiently consistent and unwavering. Then it becomes fact, personal fact, and facts have the status of ‘truth’. Truth has the power to last and to sustain and to carry us when times are difficult.
In simple terms, we build up an emotional powerhouse inside us that feeds us. It is comprised of all those people and experiences that validated us, over and over.
It is never too late to build that powerhouse, however depleted one feels.
It begins with a commitment to yourself to build those inner parts, to nurture them and give them expression, without judgement. A good place to start is a neglected or overlooked pleasure or hobby. Jung said that the key to being ourselves is to find and do those things that absorbed us as children. It could be building, watching, drawing, dreaming, listening, writing, dancing, singing and so on.
When we are engaged in something we love, we do it with care, thought and respect. When we see ourselves do something with love and care, we begin to appreciate who we are and the talents that we come with. This is the start of a real relationship with ourselves, one where we respond to who we actually are. We may gradually be able to take this self-regard into the world where it can find similar in others. A bond may start to develop, leading us to feel less alone.
Getting to know ourselves takes time and crucially it takes space. Although I think the internet and social media are hugely beneficial (after all I am using them), one problem with them is they crowd out personal space. We have less time to ourselves; we are endlessly bombarded with suggestions about what to look at, who to follow, what to do. Consequently, confusing and conflicting information can overwhelm our inner selves. This is particularly challenging to navigate in adolescence because aspects of the self have barely yet emerged.
So, take real time for yourself; go on a date with you; take a walk in nature with you; do something you love with you and begin to meet the person you are here to be. You may find that you notice this one thing about yourself: you have the courage to start a new relationship.