Wednesday 11 May 2022

It's Not Enough: Exploring Loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week

Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want.

— Mark Rowland, CEO, Mental Health Foundation

I’m grateful to my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered for inspiring this post.

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness. I can’t always draw on my lived experience when discussing mental health, but loneliness is something I know first-hand. I think that’s true of everyone. We’ve all been lonely at some time in our lives, and yet each of us experiences it in our own way.

Perspectives of Loneliness

Keen to elicit some different perspectives, I posted a request on social media for contributions on the theme of “what does loneliness mean to me?” I received some brilliant and heart-moving responses.

“Loneliness is feeling like no one in the world could possibly understand you or what you’ve been through.” (Aimee)

“Loneliness doesn’t have to mean alone. You can feel lonely in a room full of people.” (Vikki)

“Loneliness is like a mental and emotional prison sentence where you are restrained and gagged. Each day they get tighter, never knowing when you will be freed or rescued.” (Emma)

“Being awake feeding the baby, walking up and down for hours feeling it’s just you alone in the night.” (Melanie)

“It means an absence of true support, and feeling unconnected to people who you are surrounded by.” (Brynn)

“A feeling of emptiness and nobody is there.” (Christine)

“That it’s possible to feel so alone despite being in a roomful of people. Feeling disconnected to everyone around you.” (Louise)

“Alone is different than lonely. Alone, I’m an intrepid adventurer, camera in hand, prowling through sun dappled woods, seeking a hidden waterfall; excitedly content when I find it. Lonely, I’m sitting, knitting, staring blankly ahead, trying to empty my mind … my hands not actually moving at all.” (Bernadette)

“What if you don’t ever get lonely? I prefer to be alone, it frustrates me when people think it would ‘do me good’ to get out and socialise more. The opposite is true.” (Cal)

“Loneliness to me means isolation, inability to connect and pain.” (Veronica)

“I have not experienced much loneliness in my life. I enjoy quality alone time. But it is good to see old friends every now and then.” (K. J.)

“I’m pretty much homebound now. Luckily, I like my own company and have a dog. There are times though that I just cry, I don’t know why, I just do. Until my second stroke and a TBI [traumatic brain injury] I’d spend days in the woods, by myself, the emotional and spiritual pain of that makes me cry too.” (Erik)

“You can feel loneliness when you are around friends and family and you are ignored even though you are starving to be part of the group. I feel that a lot, unfortunately.” (Patricia)

I’m grateful to all who shared their thoughts and feelings on this most personal of topics. I relate to some of these comments strongly, especially the last one with its sense of feeling excluded when all you want is to belong. That’s a loneliness I know well and have written about before.

Loneliness as Unmet Needs

I have a family. I have friends and colleagues, including a number of very close friends who comprise my support network. I nevertheless feel profoundly alone at times. This can be hard to accept or admit, even to myself. How can I be lonely when there are so many people in my life? I found an important insight in the words of Mental Health Foundation CEO Mark Rowland (emphasis is the author’s).

Loneliness is not about the number of friends we have, the time we spend on our own or something that happens when we reach a certain age. Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want. That means it can be different for all of us.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Our connections can be many, strong, real, and meaningful. Yet if they’re not meeting our needs, individually or collectively, we can still feel very much alone. One particularly perceptive friend told me a while ago: “a lot of your sense of self and wellbeing relies on contact with others. This can be both a good and a bad thing depending on when and what and how balanced it is.” Another friend said of someone she knows, “I care about her but there again, I feel lonely in that friendship because I can’t just be myself.”

What Loneliness Means to Me

My earliest memory of loneliness goes back to my first year at university. I would stand night after night at the window of my halls of residence looking out across the lights of the city, extravagantly empty and alone. I ached for something I had yet to experience. Genuine connection. There's a Genesis track I remember from those days. It contains the lines, “It’s not enough, it’s not enough. This feeling I’m feeling inside. Oh, I know it, I know tonight that I’ll be on my own again.” Forty years on, that track (Alone Tonight) can bring me to tears. Ironically, back then, I would not have cried. I had yet to learn how.

One Friday in September 1982, I arrived in Norwich to begin a six-month work placement at the regional hospital. I unpacked in my tiny room in the nurses’ home, and phoned friends to let them know I’d arrived safely. I enjoyed the months I worked there, but on that first night as I put down the phone, with the weekend ahead of me in a new city with no one I knew, I felt an almost existential loneliness.

A year later, I left university to begin a research post in London. I felt empty, hurt, and very alone. Much of the pain was of my making, the product of emotional immaturity and a self-centredness I cringe to recall. Years later, a close friend died, and I realised that due largely to my complacency I’d lost touch with the people I’d previously relied on to be there for me. As I’ve described elsewhere, “I had my immediate family — and pretty much no one else. I had never felt more alone.” It proved a turning point, however, and led to some significant changes in my attitudes and expectations which served me well.

Not that everything was plain sailing from then on. A dozen years ago or so, a friendship ended chaotically, triggering an intensity of loss and emptiness I’d never experienced before. In that moment I learned how to cry. It feels wrong to say, “so at least something good came of it,” because the other person was hurt in the process. It was, nevertheless, another seminal moment.

Move forward a few more years. Another friendship and another break-up. This time, it involved far more than the loss of someone dear to me. Much of what I thought I’d learned about myself, and most of what seemed positive about my life, was thrown into question. I’ll never pretend it was easy because it wasn’t, but I worked hard to understand what had happened and my role in that. My friend and I eventually reconnected. That was a new and valuable experience in itself. Until then, broken connections and lost friendships had rarely been taken up again.

Addressing the Imbalance

It’s clear from what I’ve just written that connection is very important to me. It’s one of my key life values, the others being challenge and creativity. Not everyone is like me in that regard, but whether we value many connections or just a few, if our emotional needs are not being met it’s worth looking at both sides of the equation: our connections and our expectations.

What does this kind of exploration look like? It will be different for everyone, but I’ll share some of my recent thinking. A few weeks ago, I decided to read a couple of my old diaries; something I rarely do. More or less at random, I picked 1982 and 1983. Revisiting my former self in this way was an intense experience. Then as now, people were very important to me. My diary entries are filled with my interactions with friends, colleagues, and fellow students. My mood and sense of self were governed by my connections with all these people. It was something of a shock to realise that in some ways, not much has changed. I’m better at handling the ups and downs, but I still place a high value on my connections. I still get excited if someone new enters my life. It still hurts if a friend or friendship is struggling.

The main insight I gained, however, was that it’s unnecessary and unrealistic to expect one set of people to meet our needs for all time. Hardly anyone from the early eighties is active in my life today, and none of the most important people in my life now were around back then. Some of my closest friends weren’t even born in 1983! People come and go. That might sound sad — or obvious — but there's an upside. I might be lonely right now but there’s every reason to believe there are more amazing people out there, just waiting to enter my life. As writer Iain Thomas puts it, “Someone you haven’t even met yet is wondering what it’d be like to know someone like you.” This hope can be difficult to hold on to. If you’ve lived in the same town or worked the same job for years without finding the connections you crave, or have lost the ones you had, it can be hard to believe new people are out there. And if they are, how do you find them? It’s easy to say “join a club – or go to the gym” but if these aren’t your thing (they’re not mine!) what do you do?

Instead of focusing on the connections you don’t have, think about those you’ve achieved in the past. If you did it before you can do it again. How did you meet? What drew you together? I met most of my current close friends online, including Fran who I connected with on a mutual friend’s social media page in 2011. I met my two local best friends volunteering for the mental health charity Time to Change, and made other connections through local groups and events. Time to Change closed in March 2021, but I could volunteer elsewhere. Some of the groups I attended are no longer active or open to me, but there will be others to explore — not explicitly to meet new people, but it would open that up as a possibility.

When we’re lonely, it’s easy to think we’re doing something wrong. We imagine we’re putting people off, not trying hard enough, or sabotaging our relationships. It doesn’t help to blame ourselves, but it’s healthy to explore how we connect and interact with others, to see if there’s anything we might wish to change. Look for patterns. Do you tend to connect with people who are not a good fit for you? Do you behave in certain ways that seem to push people away? These are all things we can explore and change.

I’ve always tended to be “too much” for my own good. Too attentive. Too generous with my time, energy, and affection. My timeline is scattered with people I’ve overwhelmed, upset, or pushed away by being unnecessarily intense and overbearing. I’ve come a long way in addressing these tendencies, but it’s something I still need to guard against. I’m grateful for the people in my life who accept this about me whilst also challenging it when necessary. Codependency is a related toxic trait which Fran and I are particularly vigilant about in our friendship.

Reconciling the connections we have with what we want and need doesn’t mean giving up on our expectations or “making do” with unsatisfactory situations. It does mean exploring our needs and adjusting them where they’re unrealistic, unhelpful, or unhealthy. It isn’t easy but it does work. One of the most valuable things you can learn is who you are, separate from your connections. There are behaviours and expectations I used to have, that I’ve let go of or adapted. There are some I still need to address. But there’s some needs I’m content with. Whether they’re met or unmet at any particular moment, they’re a fundamental part of who I am. Lonely or not, I am enough.

Further Reading and Resources

Founded twenty-one years ago by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week is an annual event focused on achieving good mental health. Check out the Mental Health Foundation website for further information, ideas, and resources, including a loneliness pack for schools and a student guide to loneliness.

For help with the loneliness of bereavement visit Cruse Bereavement Support or the bereavement resources page provided by UK mental health charity Mind.

Whatever its source, chronic or extreme loneliness can become profoundly unhealthy and debilitating. This article by Mind offers practical tips to help manage feelings of loneliness, and other places you can go for support. The Mental Health Foundation also shares tips and advice on coping with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

You will find links to support organisations and crisis lines on our resources page, and in this roundup of resources for men’s mental health.

Over to You

I’ve explored what loneliness means to me and shared insights from others on this important topic. How do you feel about what you’ve read here? What does loneliness mean to you? Do you get lonely? How do you handle loneliness and what impact has it had on your life? Please feel free to leave a comment below, or contact us.


Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash.


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