How Being Lonely is Different From Being Alone
According to the Office of National Statistics the UK is the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’ with more lonely people than any of our neighbours. This year the Loneliness Experiment has been launched. This is an extensive survey on loneliness which will explore loneliness, its causes and possible solutions.
As part of the initiative, there will be an exhibition, events and activities on the theme of loneliness. I also hope there will be an opportunity to explore what lies behind loneliness and what we can learn as individuals from the state of being lonely (which is different from being ‘alone’).
In my practice, a common theme emerges. My clients often speak of feeling lonely. They are often tired of waiting for things to improve. They have lost patience and are desperate to be released from the emotional pain they are experiencing. They have built a wall of loneliness. And this wall seems to have become a barrier.
When we become aware of our inner loneliness it can also reveal to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive. When we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, we often relate to others in ways which can be devastating. We are in emotional pain, so we tend to ignore what we already know. No love, friendship, community, or other person will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition.
This is the truth. But it is so painful that we are more likely to go into a fantasy world than face the truth of our lonely existence. It is easier if we keep hoping we will find someone who really understands us, who will bring us peace, a job which provides everything, a book which will explain everything, a drug which will make our pain go away.
So often this is false hope. And a fruitless search. It leads us to make exhausting demands on ourselves and others; and risks us feeling bitterness and hostility when we start discovering that nobody and nothing can live up to our expectations.
It is only when we can make our own wounds a source of healing, a willingness emerges where we can see our own pain and suffering as an integral part of the human condition which we all share and experience. We can learn to feel at home within our own selves before we can let others in.
Letting others in can be very difficult when we are preoccupied with our own needs, worries and tensions. When we are driven by inner conflict and feel in turmoil and confusion it is impossible to create room and space where someone else can come in without feeling an intruder.
Yet, when we withdraw into ourselves out of humility we create the space for another to be themselves and to come to us on their own terms. It requires a lot of concentration. Human withdrawal is both a painful and lonely process because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all is glory.
If we can do this, we can feel free to let others enter in to the space we have created for them. They can be free to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language. Our presence is no longer threatening and demanding. It is inviting and liberating.
Focusing on someone else’s pain of loneliness prevents us from burdening others with our pain and allows us to accept our wounds as helpful teachers of our own and others’ condition. When two or more people meet, we form a community and this arises through the sharing of the pain of loneliness.
When we share we put our own personal search at the disposal of others.
Allowing others into our lives is a risky business – nobody can predict where this will lead us, because every time we allow ourselves to be influenced by someone we take a risk by not knowing how they will affect our lives. When we search and share risks new ideas are born, new visions reveal themselves and new roads become visible. When we are lonely we are suffering. That sharing of suffering can help us find our way.
When we feel lonely we often fear opening a door – or taking a risk – because of what might be on the other side. Sometimes there are lots of doors which remain closed. We may need to go through them before we can find our way again. When we speak of loneliness, it needs to come from the heart which has been wounded by the suffering we have experienced.
Each of us has our own personal view of loneliness. If it is shared it has the potential to connect to others who are currently experiencing personal loneliness; it can help them feel less isolated.
I hope the Loneliness Experiment finds space for people to share their experiences. In doing so, the road ahead may be less long and winding than it seemed before participants disclosed their own experiences of personal loneliness.