By Gill Jardine, Counsellor/Psychotherapist
When considering the subject of loneliness and how to tackle it, it may be useful to first try to understand what loneliness is.
Loneliness is a feeling, an emotion, which is probably experienced by everyone at some stage in their lives. A dictionary definition is:
“Sadness because one has no friends or company and/or ‘the quality’ of feeling remote and/or isolated.”
So, let’s think about that first definition, ‘sadness because one has no friends or company’. We may have experienced this as a child, for example, a child going to a new school. How many of us can remember a time when we were standing alone in the playground feeling that everybody else had someone to play with? What about that first day at college, university or a new job? Sometimes we can feel right back in that playground again.
We can often find ourselves feeling lonely, particularly when we have had a change of circumstance, such as moving house, moving job, loss of an important person, a fallout with a close friend or relative, or when our children leave home. These are just a few examples of changes we may encounter in life.
It seems to me that there is an inevitability about, at least, a period of loneliness sometime in our lives. Perhaps, if we acknowledge this inevitability, we could prepare for it to some extent.
We tend to put a considerable amount of effort and thought into finding happiness and peace of mind and tend to think that we should be able to find some level of these – we almost expect them and feel we have a right to them. Why then do we not acknowledge and avoid thinking about what may happen when things are not so good? Surely just as inevitable.
Perhaps the first thing we can do to help these feelings is acknowledge our own part in what happens to us. One of the most difficult feelings to live with is that of powerlessness. If we believe we are powerless, we will render ourselves so. Life dishes out all sorts of experiences to each of us. Even if we just stay in bed all day, everyday life will carry on with its changes and surprises – the only thing we can do from this vantage point is hide under the covers! Of course, one feeling we will have in this scenario is that of loneliness – not the answer then.
If we can once accept that we do have some power we can start to change things. A good way to start is by doing a ‘reality check’ on our own life. By this I mean take stock of what is happening in our life right now. What are the things that are affecting our moods? What are the things that are affecting our relationships? What are the things that are affecting our work? By considering these, we may be able to identify difficulties that may be heading our way.
For example, it may be that our children are leaving home one by one and the youngest is due to leave to go to university or move in with a partner. Consider how the house may feel once they have gone. Do you spend large amounts of time taking care of the family? In which case, be aware that you will probably have far more time on your hands once they have gone. You may be used to them coming home every day, well, they won’t be doing that any more. How is that going to make you feel? Your house will be quiet, far less busy – your days will be longer. This is one scenario which can cause you to feel lonely, so, try to plan ahead. How can you use that extra time? How can you deal with the knowledge that you may well be lonely and take control.
Perhaps you can take up a new hobby that involves a group based activity or consider getting involved with a community project. Something where your time can be filled up with new people and experiences. Of course nothing can replace your family, but by taking control and making some plans to fill the time might ease the feelings associated with loneliness.
It’s not just those that live or spend much of their time alone that can get lonely. We can also feel isolated or lonely within a group of people if we do not feel connected to the others around us. This can be a particularly common experience in the middle of a big city. In a place where there are millions of people, you might be surprised that you are feeling lonely, but this is quite common. The ultimate key to tackling this experience is to build on feelings of connectedness, to feel valued and appreciated. If you are amid a group of people but feeling isolated, maybe they are not the right people for you and you need to move around and find others to spend your time with.
It has been tough this last year or so to foster feelings of connectedness with the lockdown rules stopping us even seeing our families and closest friends but with the rules easing and the weather warming, getting outside amongst others is becoming more possible. If you have been feeling lonely and isolated perhaps try a new group activity, if it involves exercise, even better, as this is great for mental health and wellbeing. Even bumping into a neighbour on a dog walk and having a ‘chit chat’ can ease feelings of isolation. We all have something in common right now, we have all been through a very difficult time. Even this commonality can help us feel connected.