The research is out, and loneliness is a public health epidemic. I was struck by this story on NPR earlier this week about not just its connections to depression and anxiety, but also its link to stress and resulting physiological problems. Of particular note: about 40 percent of people experience loneliness. That means there’s a lot of people feeling lonely… meaning we’re simultaneously alone in it, and also not alone with the experience.
The story comes from reporting from — who knew? — the Harvard Business Review about the impact of loneliness on workers.
I see teen and adult clients every day who you wouldn’t expect to be lonely. Lots of people have busy lives that may look fulfilling from the outside. Lots of us have relationships with people that have substance and depth. And yet – it may be that when we’re alone with ourselves, loneliness creeps in. Or we’ll be at a party, or at work, or with our families, and feel separate, like we’re pretending to feel something we don’t actually feel or pretending to be someone we’re not. Sometimes when we feel isolated, we stop going out — and then, as a result, feel even more isolated. Or we get busier and busier to avoid the feeling altogether.
There is a way out of loneliness that doesn’t require becoming busy beyond belief. I work with people every day on loneliness in a few different ways. First, we work so that relationships can become more authentic – so you have to hide less of yourself. This can mean dropping the need to look perfect, to yourself and others, which isn’t an easy task for many of us. We work on figuring out what you want for your life, so that you spend less time on things that feel fake or meaningless to you. We also work on your relationship with yourself. How can you spend time with yourself in a way that’s comfortable, and grow to have a relationship with yourself that’s companionable? Loneliness loses its steam when we grow comfortable with ourselves, and with being ourselves.