Loneliness vs. Aloneness
“I bet you feel loneliest after you leave a social gathering with your friends” I said to the young lady.
“YES!” She screamed back at me, with a glint in her eyes. As she shouted a couple of other people in the bar looked around at us to see what was going on, which was quite amusing.
But what said much more than that three-letter word was that glint in her eyes. It’s that glint that says, I’ve always felt this way and thought it was just me, that there was something wrong with me, but you’ve just shown me this is universal and understood completely.
It’s that moment we realise we’re not lonely anymore. Let’s unpack how, and why.
Have you ever felt lonely despite being surrounded?
I had a funny experience with friendships growing up. I was always widely liked, but many of my friendships lacked depth.
I was far from the most popular kid in school, but was often voted into leadership positions and got along with almost-everyone.
Though there was a nasty flip side.
As a bit of a ‘drifter’ between groups, I was often passed over for social events outside of school and sport. As a nerdier kid, I took this as time to double-down on my studies. I also didn’t drink, which in no way aided my cause at a time where I was in the extreme minority for doing so.
So a lot of my Saturday and Sunday mornings were spent scrolling Facebook, looking on agonisingly at all the parties I wasn’t invited to. It was only at the very end of high school that a few friends in particular began to weave me into the social scene.
Loneliness vs. Aloneness
Everyone should have the ability to be alone for some period of time, but nobody should feel lonely. I read this distinction in a blog post recently and absolutely loved it.
These days I spend a lot of time alone – my writing and podcasting work in particular demands it. But I rarely feel lonely. By luck, chance, and some important learnings, I’ve managed to latch onto or form communities that are both local and global.
So what’s the difference?
Loneliness is a painful sensation. Though social media presents us great opportunities, it exacerbates loneliness despite connecting more and more people. On the surface, this makes no sense.
Until we go deeper.
‘No one gets me’
I want to show you something very personal. It’s from my diary, written in 2016, and it comes from a time when I was in quite a bad headspace:
“How many people know what it’s like to be truly alone? What is true isolation? I do not think it is the one who exiles themself in the desert away from the community of men and women. For they have chosen this escape, and in it they are not abandoned or downtrodden but rather surrounded by many different forces, kept company by their peace and even perhaps the tranquillity of nature.
True loneliness is rather found in the one who is surrounded, the one who has it all; complete family, adoring and supportive friends, who is popular, widely adored and respected. One who is truly loved, yet still feels alone.
The one who despite having it all and appearing the luckiest in the world, still feels separated from all their contemporaries. These are the people who experience true loneliness, who feel that no one can ever understand them or the pain they go through.”
So it’s ‘No one (around me currently) gets me’
I felt incredibly lonely a lot of the time when I was at high school.
Despite being the guy that everyone got along with.
Despite being popular enough to get a leadership role from time-to-time.
It wasn’t till a life-changing school retreat in 2011 that I realised I wasn’t as unique as I’d thought. There was a deeper side to my friends, it just didn’t come out naturally in our everyday conversations.
This was really the catalyst to turn good friendships into great friendships, by going deeper.
The reason why it’s most isolating to be surrounded but feel invisible is because the depth of relationships is diluted and stretched out, but there is also a greater expectation that of all those Facebook friends that someone should be connected with ME.
It’s not just about how you FEEL it’s also about what you can DO
Addressing loneliness is not just important so you ‘feel better’. It’s important to enable you to ‘do more’.
There are definitely times where friends have rescued me. In high school, two friends rescued me from social exclusion. A couple of years ago, friends rescued me from being completely isolated in my interests and my work.
Where would I be today without their help? Would I have been held back in life by social anxiety, or lost confidence in myself to pursue passionate work?
Feedback loops lead to compounding results over time. I’ll say it again…
Feedback loops lead to compounding results over time.
Robert O’Connor’s research and intervention into isolated pre-school children was motivated by this. The worry was what would happen if such children were isolated for a long period of time – how would their isolation get even worse with age?
Would these tendencies have then been passed onto their children?
On the other hand, having these problems stamped out at pre-school age enables people to compound in the other direction – so the results are a massive swing.
Once you have great people, you can do greater things yourself and do great things with them.
So if you need help doing this, you should try to Build Community or Die Tryin’.