Loneliness looks set to be one of the hot topics of 2016. Indeed, loneliness is now regularly featured on the news, with a number of programmes recently dedicated entirely to this subject. According to recent studies, loneliness has become a national epidemic, to the extent that Britain is now considered to be the ‘Loneliness Capital of Europe’.
Flicking through the TV channels the other week, I stumbled upon a BBC documentary entitled ‘Age of Loneliness’. I found it both deeply moving and thought provoking.The programme centred around a wide range of individuals, all with hugely different backgrounds, each sharing their own experiences of loneliness. There was the thirty something singleton who, after a decade of desperately searching for a partner, feared she would never find love. Then there was the forty something who felt he had lost his road map for life following his recent divorce and the recently widowed pensioner who longed for a companion to do ‘nothing with’. We also met the elderly widow who just wanted to feel she was needed by someone other than her four dogs and the 85 year old whose biggest fear was that no one would miss her when she was gone. Finally, we met the reclusive 70 year old who had decided to leave her body to science for no other reason than to avoid the possibility of no one turning up at her funeral.
Having in the past experienced periods of loneliness myself, I could identify to some extent with every person on that programme, (although I have to admit that I have never entertained the idea of leaving my body to science!). Indeed, having spent many years of my life living on my own, been through periods when I felt I had lost my road map for life, at times longed for someone to do ‘nothing with’ and often experienced the fear of growing old and alone, I couldn’t help but want to reach out and hug each person on the screen and tell them that they really are not alone in their ‘aloneness’.
The trouble is, when we are feeling lonely, alone and without hope, it is easy to believe we are the only ones experiencing this debilitating cocktail of emotions. To admit to feeling lonely can indeed feel like the ultimate failure in life.
With the growth of social media in particular we are constantly bombarded with snap shots of other people’s ‘perfect’ lives, complete with their adoring partners, fully functional families, envious champagne lifestyles, exotic holidays abroad and, of course, amazing achievements.
In fact, social media at times can feel like the modern day equivalent of the dreaded ‘Round Robin’ Christmas letter where our friends smugly informed us of their incredible year of success and happiness while the only thing we felt like celebrating was the fact that we were a little less stuck and marginally less broke than we were this time last year.
It’s at times like these that is becomes easy to feel like everyone else’s lives are better than ours, inhabiting a parallel universe where loneliness just doesn’t exist and where incredible friends, doting family and amazing social interactions are in plentiful supply.
However, when we read that Britain is the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’ it seems that this ‘Facebook Utopia’ is perhaps a mirage that hides a darker epidemic where other people’s lives differ greatly from our perception of reality.
So, when you come face to face with feelings of loneliness, what can you do to help yourself out of this black hole and start to turn things around? I pondered this very question as I watched the documentary, wanting to do something, however small, to help my readers who might currently be suffering from this affliction.
So, putting on my Life Coach hat, I compiled a list of my top tips to combat feelings of loneliness when it rears its ugly head.
1. Stop comparing yourself to others
There is a quote worth remembering if you ever feel you are alone in your loneliness and a failure compared to others. ‘The problem with Facebook is we compare everyone else’s highlights reel to our own behind the scenes.’
For anyone who is already feeling low, regularly viewing a distorted view of the lives of others may cause them to feel alone in whatever internal struggles they are facing, thereby magnifying their current feelings of loneliness and isolation.
While it might not be an option to eliminate social media from your life completely, remembering that, whatever it might look like on the surface in other people’s lives, most of us at some time or other share the same insecurities and challenges.
There is a quote by Regina Brett that sums this up perfectly, ‘If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.’
2. Focus on what you want, not what you fear
While there was a time when I had a tendency to look at other people’s lives with envy, fearing that mine would never match up, I now view those same posts as an inspiration. After all, if someone else is living the lifestyle that I desire then that becomes my aspiration, not my point of envy.
In my work as a Life Coach, I often talk about the benefits of a Vision Board for helping us focus on our goals. So, using this tool to regularly view images of our aspirations can help us feel more motivated and hopeful, even if we aren’t living the life of our dreams right now!
Which leads me to my next point….
3. Be grateful for what you already have
This advice might be hard to swallow when we are feeling low but, the truth is, when we begin to count the blessings in our lives we can’t help but start to feel better. Focusing on gratitude automatically releases feel-good hormones into our body and actively writing down on paper what we are grateful for makes the process even more powerful. In fact, statistics show that people who keep a gratitude diary and regularly focus on gratitude experience notably increased levels of happiness and decreased levels of stress in their lives.
Focusing on gratitude won’t eliminate feelings of loneliness altogether but, by improving our mood through this process, we are more likely to feel more motivated to take the actions that will lead to a change in lifestyle that will further help reduce our feelings of loneliness. Which leads me to my next point……
4. Start taking action
Taking positive action to alleviate loneliness doesn’t necessarily have to be a major event but does require us to do something, however small, to help break the cycle of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours that keep us stuck. Changing our focus (outlined in points 1-3) is the first stage in breaking this cycle. However, actually taking physical action to make positive changes to our lives is what will cement the changes.
For instance, something as simple as starting a new hobby will get you out of the house and immediately increase your social circle. If this seems like a big step, then breaking the process down into bite size actions will help.
I remember when I first came to London many years ago, the single step of attending a local salsa class once a week dramatically increased the quality of my life in terms of my health and social interactions.
Yet, for many people faced with loneliness, taking action might not always feel so straightforward because doing something new often requires us to break through the resistance of fear and requires us to get out of our comfort zone. This leads me to my next point…..
5. Find your ‘Why?’
When we try new things that require us to get out of our comfort zone, we often experience huge resistance cause by a wall of fear and limiting beliefs where fear of failure and rejection are often the driving force. However, when we are clear about exactly why we need to take action, we are more likely to break through this resistance.
6. Keep motivated
By asking ourselves what will happen if we don’t take this action (i.e. continued feelings of loneliness) and reminding ourselves of what will happen if we do take action (such as making new friends, possibly a new partner, feeling happier etc) then these combined forces can be incredibly powerful in driving us forward through our fears.
When I watched the BBC documentary, it was heartening to see the 85 year old woman taking action and getting out of her comfort zone by taking up a beginners course in computers. She soon made new friends and this social interaction, along with stretching the boundaries of her comfort zone, gave her the dual benefits of a new purpose and a brand new social circle.
However, while all these points should go some way to help with relieving loneliness, there will be still be times when this feeling creeps up on us. When this happens, what can we do?
To answer this question, I took inspiration from the final lady who appeared in the documentary who, rather than try to eliminate loneliness, decided to embrace it and to treat her enforced solitude as a blessing. Finding comfort in our own company and taking time out to embrace solitude is a skill that is not always easy to learn but is worth trying in those moments where we suddenly find ourselves all alone.
After all, it is worth remembering what one of the women in the documentary said about her own experiences of loneliness after years trapped in an unhappy relationship. ‘It is infinitely better to feel lonely on your own than feel lonely with someone else.’
In a forthcoming blog I will talk more about how we can find peace in our own company. I look forward to joining you then.
In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments about your own experiences of loneliness and what you found helpful.
To your happiness, confidence and success,