In an age where we’re more digitally connected than ever, our social media accounts look like vision boards rather than our real lives. Meanwhile, our levels of real-life social isolation are on the rise.
This is due to a variety of factors. Some look to smaller household sizes, with 10% of Americans now living alone. Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated. This feeling of loneliness can lead to chronic illness and inflammation on a cellular level. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
According to the 2016 VICELAND UK Census, loneliness is the number one fear of young people today—ranking ahead of losing a home or a job. The study found that 42% of Millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis, by far the highest share of any generation.
Typically, when we feel lonely, we want to get rid of the feeling as quickly as possible and see it as a sign to do more in the external world. Yet perhaps this is exactly the opposite of what loneliness is asking of us.
Imagine your sense of connection and belonging as a building structure. It’s often standing on key pillars of our lives, like our romantic partners, friends, family relationships, creative projects, volunteer work, career (work friends), roommates, etc.
When one of these pillars falls, such as when we go through a breakup or live alone for the first time, or move to a new city and don’t have any friends yet, we see how fragile that building is.
We feel empty, like something is missing, a pillar of the foundation — so we go about frantically trying to build it back up, or find a quick replacement because we can’t bear to feel lonely.
Yet if we just paused to focus on the foundation, we could form a long term strategy to dealing with loneliness instead of reaching for a band-aid. A sense of connection laid on solid, unbreakable, foundation, a deep relationship with yourself, a growing, compassionate, and patient relationship with yourself, is the most sustainable way to keep your structure standing.
In this view, when one of the structures falls, a better way to manage would be focusing on your relationship with you. Of course, seeking out connection and community in all those other ways, like supportive friendships and volunteering is important, but we overlook the most powerful tool of all.
Loneliness shows up to remind us to come back into alignment, starting with our inner self.
It asks us to sit with ourselves and work on building a thriving relationship from the inside out. We may decide to try new things and ask ourselves questions. To process trauma, celebrate wins, push ourselves to do the things we’ve put off forever, and start sharing authentically. Getting to know this new version of ourselves, refining our values and sticking up for them.
When the inner relationship is strong, when one or a few pillars fall, the entire structure does not tumble.
I love this Brene Brown quote from her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging.
“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”
Maybe loneliness scares us because it forces us to feel deeply. To integrate our experiences, take off our masks and gaze inward at our truth. To simply breathe.
Loneliness isn’t something to push away, it’s something to befriend, to spend a night with having quality time, getting clear about your values, your intentions and the impact you want your life to have on those around you. It’s an emotion to cozy up with — cup of tea in hand, book in the other, after a day of plenty of water, clean food and a stroll in the park with your friend.
See, it’s not so bad after all. Here’s to one less stranger! Loneliness doesn’t ask us for much.