This week has been Loneliness Awareness Week. The Marmalade Trust, which hosts the week, was set up to raise awareness of loneliness and help people make new connections.
Humans are inherently social creatures. More than anything we need contact with others. As the Marmalade Trust says, ‘there is nothing wrong with being lonely; it’s just a lack of social connection.”
So, feeling lonely can be incredibly painful. The absence of other people, of being able to talk to them, feel their presence and touch their hands can feel huge.
I started to visit my Dad at weekends when lockdown began to lift. I take a thermos of tea and sit 2m away from him in his garden. We chat for about 90 minutes and then I come away. Every time it’s felt weird not to give him a hug. Last Sunday, though, the absence of touch felt incredibly physical.
The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on loneliness, plenty of people having to self-isolate or shield. The experience has been different for everyone. Some have found it painful torture, some calm contentment and plenty of us moving between the two depending on what’s going on in the day itself.
You could call the loneliness imposed by the pandemic response circumstantial. It’s starting to lift as people are able to re-engage in day-to-day life, getting out and about to meet friends.
Some people though, whatever they thought would happen, have got very comfortable in lock down. To re-emerge feels a little intimidating, scary. For these people loneliness may be around the corner. Being home alone when everyone else is home alone is fine. But as soon as you feel you’re the only one, it becomes intolerable.
It’s unlikely any organisation is going to work as normal in the coming weeks and months so there will be people working remotely, away from the hubbub of the office. Even if the workplace is pretty quiet and there’s no hubbub, if you’re not there it’s easy to feel isolated. For anyone shielding, this feeling might be particularly acute.
The sense of isolation may go deeper. I remember the moment in my training as a psychotherapist when my tutor handed around a piece of paper with a piece of prose titled ‘Masks’ on it. It started:
Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear.
For I wear a thousand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off.
And none of them are me.
The piece goes on much longer, but I was in tears by this point. I’d read it before, and nothing had happened, but this time was different. I don’t think I really understood then why it packed such a punch. I do now. Feeling vulnerable in the company of others, I had developed a persona that stopped people from getting to the real me. There was nothing conscious about this ‘decision’ to protect myself behind a front and, while it kept me safe, it stopped me from getting close to anyone. Feeling on the outside of things is a common consequence for me of my unconscious process.
It’s no fun feeling alone in the midst of people. Loneliness is no fun. I don’t wish it on anyone.
In the working world it’s no good for performance and productivity. If, for whatever reason, someone feels on the outside, their reaction, which could be anything from anger or passive aggression to withdrawal, can impact everyone.
So, what to do? How to combat aloneness, whatever the situation or cause?
Being heard, being understood is incredibly powerful. In my experience, another person taking the time to notice me and be respectfully curious about how I am has proved transformative.
To create a taste of this type of experience at work, have a check-in at the start of every meeting. With everyone listening respectfully and without compulsion, judgement or offering any solutions, each team member has a minute or two to say where they’re at. It’s a great way for people to leave their stuff at the door and really be present.
I host Space for You. Each Space for you is an online gathering for up to ten people. It’s a safe place where you can connect with others and offload some of life’s pressures. At the same time, there’s an opportunity to explore the obstacles to your wellbeing and discover strategies to help you boost your happiness. Each Space for You has a different theme. They include Undoing Stress, Beautiful Boundaries, Tricky Emotions, and a Good Goodbye.
Get in touch if you want to find out more.