Why we need to talk about loneliness

Confession time:

1. I feel lonely a lot of the time the last few years

2. I’m (still) crap at being deeply vulnerable

During my adult life, I’ve moved around a lot. Different jobs, different cities, different countries.. So I’m pretty used to starting over somewhere new, exploring and opening and making every effort to be sociable and meet new people…and make new friends.

You learn a lot about human psychology in this way.

How most people (who stay in the same place) are happy to stick with the friends they grew up with, do the same things every weekend, and aren’t that interested in making new friends outside their established circle (which is why, as an expat, you usually just end up being friends with other expats; not because you don’t make an effort to make friends with the indigenous folks, but because they’re not that bothered about extending their circle of friends).

How after about your mid-twenties, men are no longer (ever) interested in being friends (I realise at this juncture some people will ask the rhetorical question “Were they ever?”, but even if they weren’t, back in the day they pretended and you could hang out and have a few beers together without it getting weird at least some of the time).

How rare and precious it is to meet someone with whom you have that instantaneous click, that feeling of recognition, of having known each other for ages, of intrinsically understanding each other. And how the deliciousness of that never diminishes.

How deeply everyone longs for connection. How making new friends is vulnerable. How so many people seem to settle for less than what they long for.

How much harder it is in your 30’s than when you were a kid, or at university.

How no one talks about it because we’re scared we’ll be called friendless weirdos and pointed at like lepers.

So I’m breaking the silence.

Connection

From the moment of separation at birth til our death, we are all seeking connection. Not just people to party with, but searingly deep connection. The creation of a space between you that fuses you together, so that you are no longer separate. A shared reality in which you are no longer facing the world alone.

We tend to search desperately for this in romantic partners (who should also ideally fulfill an assortment of criteria that will nurse our childhood wounds, love and accept our shadows, and caress our sense of worth and value), and then fall apart when the intensity of the demand implodes the relationship.

The people I know who are great at life, are also great at friendship. They swim gracefully through the reefs and rocks of friendship as they do life, washing over troubles and rounding upon new encounters with all the ease of a particularly well-adapted eel.

But many people (most) are not such natural experts at cultivating deep connection. Many people spend much of their lives feeling isolated (even when they’re surrounded by other people). Many people bear their joys and their sadnesses alone. Particularly in a society where anxiety disorders and depression run rampant, but where there is still so much stigma attached to both that shame is added to the mix and the pain of it is borne silently.

Friendship and me

My own experiences with friendship have been mixed.

I always had a few very close friends but had trouble in bigger groups. I never felt like I ‘belonged’ in the general mix. I made friends easily in one-to-one connection but struggled to show myself and connect in groups.

To a large extent, that is still the case.

At school and at university I had my tribes, easeful places of soul connection, for which I am infinitely grateful, because growing up feeling understood by at least a handful of fellow humans eased the existential anxiety that was my constant companion.

But since University, with all my moving and the craziness of life (admittedly some people tell me I cram a lot into mine) it’s become much harder.

There are old friendships that have run their course; where interests and approach to life have diverged to the point of losing that shared space. There are old friendships that persist doggedly, in spite of long absences and missed birthdays; where the shared moments of that particular brand of madness is all that is needed to rekindle the flames of connection, no matter how much time goes by.

There are new friendships that remain at a disappointingly superficial level, despite attempts to infuse them with more meaning. And then there are ones that are born out of that magical elixir of shared understanding, the ones that make you feel like you’ve come home.

There are many in my somewhat nomadic life, that come into being and infuse us with joy for a short time before one or the other of us is swept away once more on the currents of life. Many that are separated by thousands of kilometers. Many that never had the chance to blossom.

The bottom line of it is that the last few years, the sum of these friendships has felt insufficient. I long to have a few close girlfriends (guy friends would also be great) who actually live near me to really share my life with.

Because the reality is that when you’re officially ‘grown up’ and single and nomadic, you don’t automatically have people who share your life. And that feeling of being witnessed is something that we are wired to need.

Vulnerability

As I’ve come to know myself more over the years, I’ve learnt that there are particular environments where I am much more likely to find kindred spirits. However even in this age of Meetup.com, Facebook groups, expat groups, and the myriad other ways of finding people who have shared interests with you, it’s still not that easy to find those people who you can connect with on a deep level (whose particular brand of madness, if you will, matches yours).

Even for me, with my deeply rooted desire to be fully transparent and authentic, it’s hard to just get naked in this world. To be brave enough to really show who you are; a vulnerable, big-hearted human searching for connection, towing behind you all your scars and hopes and dreams, and the meandering story of your life.

And I think that part of the reason for that is that we still live in a world where vulnerability is regarded as weakness. And that this perception is so pervasive that in most environments it still feels like the weight of a fully open heart will crack the brittle veneer of social norms. And God help you if you do that. After all, in most places you need to show up not just as normal but as cool.

The dark side of human nature

This culture of coolness (where coolness is almost entirely externalized and the material is valued over the intrinsic) is responsible for so much of the shame and anxiety that people have about showing and sharing themselves fully, in all their scared, ugly, damaged human truth. In a culture where there isn’t space for those ‘undesirable’ parts of ourselves, the result is twofold.

1. We will never be fully seen and therefore only partly witnessed, and the sense of wholeness that is derived from having our experience as a Self be seen and shared is elusive. All manner of psychosocial disorders arise form this, and we have yet to establish any approach that yields sustainable results on a bigger scale.

2. The repression and secreting away of our ‘undesirable’ dark parts mean these are externally expressed in unhealthy (unconscious) ways, often masked in socially acceptable forms. Hence the ugliness, cruelty, and violence that we see across almost all cultures, as well as the unrepentant ravaging of the earth.

Our fear of the darker aspects of ourselves has led us to create a culture that tries to pretend that they doesn’t exist. That this doesn’t work is indisputable at this point, and yet our resistance individually and culturally to transform into a society that is open and accepting of all the intricacies of human nature is slow to yield.

A culture that accepts only the light creates an underbelly for the expression of the dark. And until we learn to value and express both the light and the dark side of human nature, we will continue to have the dark furtively expressed externally. In a world where one man can cause enormous destruction, that is a dangerous game to continue to play.

So how do we go about changing culture?

It starts with me and you. It starts with individuals being brave enough to face their own dark side, to work on integrating it, and to show up in the world as the beautiful, complex, multidimensional beings that we truly are. Owning ALL of who we are. Showing others that it’s ok to be in the world just as they are.

Bringing all of who we are into the workplace. Into sports teams. Into business and politics and education. Creating systems that support and honour full human expression. That make space for the dark side. That value vulnerability and understand that connection is the basis of all of human endeavour.

The Quiet Revolution is a revolution of the heart, of the soul. Vulnerability is not optional.

We have no choice but to bare our hearts, if we want to save the world.

//

 


15 thoughts on “Why we need to talk about loneliness

  1. This is surely one of the most beautiful texts I’ve read in a long time, Stephanie.
    Not only elaborate and eloquent – but DEEP. You are addressing the very heart of our collective misery – and a solution in a revolution :-)
    Maybe the revolution needn’t be that quiet – but gentle, vulnerable, honest and with integrity it must be.
    You’re awesome!
    Thank you!
    Armin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Armin!
      I like your comment that maybe it doesn’t need to be quiet! (although then I have to question the name of my blog… ;)) Maybe it can be loud – loudly joyous!
      Thank you so much for your kind words :)

      Like

  2. You are an inspiration Stephanie! Beautiful and courageous words!

    Although I strongly disagree with one confession:

    “2. I’m (still) crap at being deeply vulnerable.”

    Are you not being a little hard on yourself here. I am always in awe by your vulnerable posts and sharing. You are to me leading by example in what it means to be vulnerable.

    And I strongly agree with your comment:

    How rare and precious it is to meet someone with whom you have that instantaneous click, that feeling of recognition, of having known each other for ages, of intrinsically understanding each other. And how the deliciousness of that never diminishes.

    Yes, that is so rare and I felt that over dinner with you at the LDC. And I know that whenever we meet again the deliciousness of our connection will remain just as strong.

    Love,

    Philippe

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes absolutely Philippe :)

      Thank you for your lovely words of encouragement! I suppose ‘crap’ is perhaps a little harsh, although I constantly find myself in situations where I really could be more open…often little things like smiling at strangers more..and being more vulnerable with men..

      Hug, til next time.x

      Like

  3. Hey Stephanie, Cy here from FB / LDC land:

    A couple of points I thought I’d add:

    Americans are based on my research, statistically more prone to depression and loneliness than other cultures. Personally, I can recognize this almost immediately when I meet other Americans during my travels. They are, a large percentage of the time (over 50% in my view), more repressed emotionally, and concerned greatly with what people think of them, especially in regard to things like social status and career. You know you’ve met another American when the first thing they ask is “What do you do?” and then they begin qualifying themselves (“So I have a best-selling book about…” blah blah)

    This is in contrast to European cultures that are all about socializing and parties. And no surprise, less depression and less loneliness. Having lived in Los Angeles before semi-moving to Central Europe, I swear LA was the loneliest place I’ve ever been to. I’d meet other guys who would cling on to me with all their innermost feelings after 5 minutes of meeting them, and then girls who would have more defenses and shields up than the Death Star.

    I think if you are lonely a lot, there’s an empty void you’re trying to fill. But it starts probably within yourself. What’s causing it? Could some of your own behaviors be pushing people away from you? These can be subconscious but noticeable more to other people who meet you, who may feel there are “shields” up, and they will less likely to be open to you–even if you yourself do not see it or understand why…

    And, you mentioned the “Can men ever be just friends?” debate. Err. I wanted to add something about this too ;)

    Easily half of my entire international social circle are women who I am “just friends” with. Many are women I’ve met from other guy friends, who are also “just friends” with them. So the idea that there’s a division here is kind-of outside my world-view. Men who cannot be “just friends” with women are themselves suffering from some kind of emotional / vulnerability barrier where there has to be a ROMANTIC context to be able to express themselves or even garner any enjoyment. If you continually meet men who have a one-track mind of date, date, date, date — it means I’d wager all my money you’re drawing these types of men into your life because maybe they’re a reflection of some of your own insecurities.

    Hey, it happens to all of us. When I was like 18, I was really insecure about myself, I didn’t know who I was and I was unhappy a lot. Guess who I drew into my life – junkies, weirdos and total slackers. Once my “vibration” changed, the types of people who began entering my life were completely different.

    It’s frustrating, I know. But these days I don’t feel lonely anymore. One strategy is to think always about giving back to people around you with good feelings. Walk into a room and practice becoming the thing that brightens everyone up. The sun will reflect back on you.

    Best,

    Cyrus
    (www.cyruskirkpatrick.com)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Cyrus :)

      So I guess maybe for people who don’t know me it might come across a little melodramatic…the loneliness I experience is not dreadful, it’s not extreme. It’s just sometimes there and I’d rather it wasn’t. There’s just a space for a type of intimacy (friends in my ‘hood to play with kinda thing) that’s missing, and because I had it most of my life, I now miss it.

      Very interesting point about Americans…I think you might be right. Europe definitely has less of that define-yourself-by-your-work mentality.

      Very interesting also about the girl/guy friendships – I wonder what it looks like if you remove the ‘international circle’ and narrow it down to the physical proximity circle. Because that’s what I’m talking about and I think it does make a difference (at least it does in my experience). But I guess you’re a nomad pretty constantly so not sure if you can draw that comparison?

      Thanks for stopping by and for your interesting input :)

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  4. I feel lonely a lot of the time as well, so it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one. I’m trying to make peace with the fact that another person will never truly, fully see me, and I try to do this for myself instead. The loneliness is such a recurring pattern in my life that I’m starting to believe that maybe that’s what my soul came here to experience and that I can use it as an opportunity to find the gifts of solitude. I’ve never really given up my values in order to try and fit in, and when my values no longer resonated with a certain group, it was easier for me to let those people go.
    It’s still a painful experience at times, and I find myself longing for those soulful, intimate connections that make you feel part of something bigger. But those connections are not under our control, so I try to let go and trust that I will meet my soul family in time.

    I think you are doing a great job at expressing yourself and being open and vulnerable by the way :)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Milena,
      thank you so much for adding your voice to the conversation – it sounds like you’re tuning into two things – both the existential longing to be fully seen and also the longing for kindred spirits/soul tribe. I absolutely know the feeling of letting go of friendships that no longer fit…it never gets easier but as you meet new people that are a fit, you learn that the world is full of amazing humans you haven’t met yet, and that there will always be new friendships waiting to find you..
      The soul connections that I have found (that I usually refer to as my ‘tribe’ :)), I’ve found through interests and activities that resonate deeply with my soul…which, like yours it seems, is quite preoccupied with the nature of existence. I wonder if you have space to explore more of that in your life?
      I love how you surrender to what is and choose to acknowledge that perhaps there is a gift in this challenge. Thomas Hübl, a teacher I resonate with very much, says that within our shadows lie our greatest gifts. Sometimes it just takes a bit of time to see through the dark.
      x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your lovely reply. :) It has come to my attention that when we open up and share some of our painful experiences, that people tend to assume that we are unhappy or sad all the time. I’m sure you’ve noticed this as well. People seem to respond with a desire to help and make it alright, not knowing that sitting with our experience for a while is the most healing thing we can do. Expressing a deep longing doesn’t mean we are unhappy in our day-to-day lives, and we don’t need anyone to ‘save’ us or try to make us feel happy and ‘covered up’ again. This has nothing to do with your reply though, just felt like sharing it. ;)
        Most of my interests are of a solitary nature, and I haven’t really found a good place in real life where I can share those with others (to be fair, haven’t really looked much either, since I feel anxious about going to places where others are present to do something very vulnerable – like expressing my deepest interest). When I think of meditating in group for example, I automatically think about how I shouldn’t make any noise so I don’t disturb others, what if I start coughing etc. and this makes me not want to go. I guess all my anxieties have to do with taking up space. I hope as I grow more open to being vulnerable and comfortable in my space that this will change.
        Wishing you a lovely day x

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Absolutely – I have noticed that ;)

        It’s interesting that you mention taking up space – I just started writing a post about that – an ongoing issue for me too, and one I find really fascinating! No giant breakthroughs yet, but I can tell you that I had exactly the same fears about group meditation (which meant that I was reeeally good at being insanely still and silent ;P) and you know what? There’s always going to be someone else who’s making noise/moving around! AND, if the day comes when you are that person, you know that you’re taking some of the pressure off other people :)

        Love and sunshine :)x

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  5. Very brave of you to open up. And I feel sad that you still are so unhappy, while life is opening up all around us. Sorry to be rude, but why be so obsessed with yourSELF. Nobody is perfect, nor want people to only connect with super godesses. How interested are you in OTHER people. Walk into Brussels and start interviewing people you meet by accident. LISTEN to them and you will be amazed. Start by being curious. And help others. Then some of them will be connecting with you on many levels. Read my blog about The Other, citing the late Polish journalist Capuchinski (? spelling)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jaap,
      I’m not unhappy – I am mostly quite happy, and I can be happy and still feel a hole of something I would like to add to my life (which is already very full of blessings).
      I appreciate your incentive, which I understand as being proactive to connect with others, and can say that this is something I do and enjoy doing.
      What is missing is something very concrete – a few close friends in my physical environment – not overall connection (of which I have a lot!).
      Thank you for your input.

      Like

  6. Steph only,

    I agree that we need to surrender to just being lumpy, uncool, weird and scruffy. A pretty friend of mine complained a while back about several men in her circle wanting to cross her boundaries. I see a lot of lonliness in how this yearning can make people too reserved. Women have to watch they don’t draw unwanted attention. If you can figure this out men and women would be easier friends. I’m working on a solution…next time I’m in Brussels. ..let’s cuddle.

    RR

    Liked by 1 person

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