Is admitting to loneliness the last taboo? It certainly feels so to me. There are plenty of things I freely admit to (and have done in this column) like gossiping, insensitivity, infertility or perfectionism but somehow confessing that there are times when I feel lonely feels so much harder for some reason.
Maybe that is because I somehow think I 'ought' not to feel lonely. After all, I have a wide circle of friends, a loving husband and a son who is still young enough to want to hang out with his mother. I often tell myself that I have no right to feel lonely and yet there are times when I most definitely do.
What I have come to understand is that loneliness isn't about the quantity or even the quality of relationships we have. It is subjective. It is caused by feeling emotionally or socially disconnected from those around us and that can happen to any of us. Sometimes it is those who you would least suspect, who are lonely. In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a greater concern among young people than the elderly. The 18 to 34-year-olds surveyed were more likely to often feel lonely than the over-55s.
Whoever we are and whatever the cause of our loneliness – it is a problem that we all need to address. 'The Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."' (Genesis 2:18). We were created for connection. Loneliness isn't good for our health, mental well-being, sleep patterns or life expectancy. It also impacts the way we view life.
Psychologist Guy Winch in his TEDx talk claimed, "Loneliness creates a deep psychological wound, one that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe that those around us care much less than they actually do. It make us really afraid to reach out, because why set yourself up for rejection and heartache when your heart is already aching more than you can stand?"
So, what is the antidote to loneliness?
Some people wrongly think that it is marriage but there are plenty of married people who are lonely so that can't be true. In fact in a recent survey 60 per cent of the people who admitted to being lonely were married.
Others think it is about surrounding yourself with people but it is possible to be in a crowded room and still feel deeply lonely so that can't be the whole answer either.
I spent years thinking the antidote to loneliness was busyness, but I was wrong about that too. We all need times when we can be comfortable being still and refreshed in times of solitude – time on our own reflecting and time with God connecting.
I have come to the conclusion that the true antidote to loneliness is deep connection – connection to God and connection to others.
Whenever I experience loneliness I have learnt to ask myself – where am I disconnected? How can I reconnect to either God or others or both?
Normally when I take time to reflect – I can see that there is a disconnection in my thinking or behaviour. The good news is that I can do something about it. I can reach out and seek to re-connect. I can decide to value connection over protection and seek to allow God and others in my life to truly see me on the inside.
If you ever find yourself feeling lonely – here are a few things that you might find helpful:
1. Reflect. Admitting to loneliness can be a good first step. It can also help to ask yourself why you might be feeling this way. Has something changed in your circumstances recently? Or is something in the way you are thinking or behaving causing you to feel disconnected from God or others?
I recently moved cities and whilst I have met lots of lovely new friends I have realised that it takes time to build deep connections. I am learning to both reach out to old friends with whom I feel 'known' whilst continuing to build deeper relationships with the new people I am meeting.
2. Pray. Taking time to truly connect and commune with God can also help. I've found that sometimes when I am feeling lonely it is actually a longing for God that I am feeling. Taking time to re-connect can help.I also ask God to show me one step I can take today that will help me to re-connect with him and with those in my life.
3. Initiate. When we are feeling lonely – initiating can feel like the last thing we want to do. Instead we watch TV or spend hours checking our newsfeed on Facebook. Rarely will either activity help.
I have found it helpful to ask myself what I would most like? Then I try to find someone to offer that to. If I would love a long chat on the phone – I think about who might appreciate a call. If I would love to be asked out for coffee – I think about whom I could ask out for coffee. As we seek to connect and take action – we are opening up the channels of connection with those around us.
4. Serve. There will always be people in our world who need our help. We all have experiences, skills and talents to offer. The great thing about serving is that it can help take our mind off ourselves and places our focus on another. Who could we help or serve today? Are there lonely people in our community or church who would love a chat, a coffee or an invite to lunch? How could we make one person's life better today for having known us or come into contact with us?
5. Be authentic. Sometimes we can wrongly think that if we were different in some way or better in some way – then we would feel more connected or have better friends. But that isn't true. When we truly show up as ourselves and stop comparing our insides with other people's outsides – we have more chance of connecting and being known for who we are. If we can be authentic and be genuine with others – they will feel freer to do the same with us. When we do that a connection is made and we are less likely to feel separate or lonely.
Sarah Abell is the founder of www.nakedhedgehogs.com. She helps individuals, couples and teams live, love and lead more authentically. If you want to discover how authentic you really are – you can take her free test on www.nakedhedgehogs.com.