Last month’s Moving Conversations delved into the difficult world of loneliness, something we all experience at one point or another.
The conversation was particularly timely, giving us all a chance to reflect on what loneliness means at a time of forced physical distancing.
As human beings, we are social creatures and are wired to belong. We thrive when we are connected with others, and feel a strong sense of loss when we are not. It is the absence of meaningful connections and a sense of belonging that contributes to our experiences of loneliness.
Being lonely isn’t about being alone. Loneliness is the painful and distressing feeling that arises when we perceive that our social relationships are inadequate and do not meet our social needs. It is related more to the quality rather than the quantity of our relationships and is a highly subjective, personal experience.
In our conversation many of us shared how lonely we felt, even when surrounded by a room full of people. Yet some of us struggled to allow our loneliness to be a “valid” feeling during COVID-19. How could we, when we knew others were doing it tougher?
The truth is, loneliness does not discriminate. While Google searches for “loneliness” are at an all-time high, COVID-19 is simply revealing what so many Australians, young and old, experience regularly:
However, loneliness is more than an emotional experience. Studies suggest that loneliness is a growing public health issue and has a significant impact on our overall mental and physical health and wellbeing.
“Nobody prepared a manual for this” – MC Participant
Loneliness may be temporary, usually disappearing quickly; situational, brought about by life changes such as moving to a new place, marriage or divorce, death of a loved one; or chronic, experienced habitually, often with no particular cause and over an extended period of time.
Because we are all individuals, loneliness can be experienced in several different ways – a point we naturally gravitated to in our conversation.
Feeling left behind, as our friends started families and entered new chapters in their lives, was a common experience. Resisting social expectations was very hard as we simultaneously craved acceptance. It took courage to say: "I would rather be alone than be in something unhealthy.”
A deeper awareness of our difference fuelled our loneliness. Forming friendships was easier when we were young, but this changed as differences became more noticeable, leaving us with an acute yearning to belong as we grew older. Getting diagnosed with a disability was hard enough, but it was coming to terms with the loneliness of the experience that took a longer time to adapt to.
Being in new and unfamiliar places or situations presented its own difficulties. The sudden onset of COVID social restrictions made us reflect on how hard the experience must be for single households. For one participant, the emotional fallout of unexpectedly experiencing lockdown on their own took them by surprise and retriggered the chronic loneliness they'd experienced in their youth. For another, the pandemic was a surprising blessing. A relationship breakdown had left them completely alone in a foreign country. Having no family ties or friends to help them was deeply painful. However, with the lockdown, they finally felt connected with work colleagues who now were in a similar boat and were reaching out to check in. For them, they dreaded what post-COVID would look like. Returning to “normal” was returning to a life of isolation.
“The more I grow, the more I grow away from others. There's only so much I can do to hang on.”- MC participant
So how can we nurture our sense of belonging?
Here we shared a number of suggestions:
Starting with the relationship we have with ourselves. Connecting to and becoming more comfortable with our true selves, overcoming our own fears and laziness, and operating from a place of strength, all helped invite healthier and richer connections into our lives.
It’s easier to connect with people facing the same direction. Participating in things we already like to do can overcome the initial fears of opening up to strangers. Interests and hobbies provide us with a point of commonality to offer others and offer us joy and fulfilment even when we do not meet someone. Moving outside our own circles and cultures can alleviate the pain of outgrowing existing relationships, and open up space for like-minded people to join us in our chosen journey.
What's most important is the depth, authenticity, and strength of connection.
For us at Moving Conversations, we have certainly felt how powerful belonging can be. It has been incredible watching our community grow and connect in such a short space of time. By reaffirming our shared humanity in all our conversations, we remind ourselves and each other we are not alone. That even if we start the night talking about our fears, we always leave feeling so energised and rejuvenated from connecting and sharing our true selves. So much so, that we’re now setting up our very own online community!
And what could be a better antidote to loneliness than that?
Moving Conversations events are held on the first Tuesday of every month. We believe these conversations provide a much-needed home for community members to explore and tackle difficult and complex issues in a safe, facilitated environment. Keep an eye out on our Facebook page for event details. We'd love to see you there.