We all know that deep loneliness.
The feeling when you stand in a crowd, but don’t feel any sense of connection.
Or that feeling when you’re in a room filled with people you know. But you find it so difficult to take the first step to talk to them.
Or when you talk to friend or family. And you find that they don’t understand you.
Are you lonely?
That’s a difficult question, isn’t it?
And that’s not a question you usually ask yourself.
Yet you know that loneliness.
It’s like a chasm, a hole in your heart, that can’t be filled.
You try filling it with more activities and wonderful experiences.
Or you go to social media, and flick through the wonderful lives everyone else seems to be living.
You even try to meet friends, but you struggle again when you realise that they can’t seem to understand you.
Defining what loneliness is
Loneliness is tough.
Yet, as former US Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy argues, loneliness is fast becoming a pandemic, despite how connected we are today to technology.
But before you even look at how to resolve loneliness, let’s look at what loneliness is.
an absence of meaningful connection.
This was the definition that my therapist gave me whenever I shared with him my problems connecting with people at work.
Aren’t I connected online?
But you might say, I’m meaningfully connected!
In fact, I’m connected all the time!
I’m connected to social media 24/7! I check it when I wake, check it before I sleep… how much more connection am I expected to have?!
Yes, that’s true.
But are those meaningful connections?
- Do these connections help you to talk about what you’re struggling with?
- Are you able to be open and vulnerable with the people you’re connecting with on social media?
- Do they build you up, or tear you down?
The last question is most important.
Meaningful connections build you up. They do not take you down, pull you apart, and leave you out to dry.
If this is not happening, maybe that connection you have… isn’t that helpful after all.
How about real-life connections?
Of course, it’s not just the digital connections that matter.
It’s also the real-life connections.
You probably have experienced this.
You go to dinner with a friend.
Instead of spending time chatting, your friend is more interested in what’s happening with the phone.
The phone is on the table.
Every time there’s a ping, your friend looks at it.
It doesn’t matter how deep your conversation is going.
Your friend seems more interested in something else.
I used to mistake connection on social media to meaningful conversations.
But it’s not the same.
Sometimes, connection on social media can lead to more comparison, rather than more conversation. You find yourself comparing your life to the beautifully curated one on your friend’s Instagram feed.
To be less lonely, you and I need to focus on both.
The real-life connections. And the online connections.
The online connections cannot be the be-all and end-all. They can lead to real-world connections.
There’s something beautiful about being face to face with someone. How do you explain it? The real tears you see flowing someone’s eyes as she shares something painful.
Or the comforting arm someone places around you when you share something painful.
Or even a shared meal which you can laugh over.
That’s something technology can never replace.
What can you do?
Ask someone out for coffee this week.
Yup, you can WhatsApp them, DM them, Snap with them…
But nothing beats a real-life coffee.
Online connections are great.
But they cannot replace the offline conversations.
They can be a medium through which online leads to offline connections. But the shallowness of an online conversation can never replace the richness of an offline, in-person connection.
Put your phone in your bag, off your table.
Ask your friend to do the same too.
When you leave your phone on the table, what you are saying is:
I will listen to you until I get something more important on my phone.
You probably hate it when people glance at their phone when you’re sharing something deep.
Why do that to someone else?
If you see your friend glancing at his phone, why not try this?
You seem pretty busy at the moment. Maybe I will talk to you next time?
I’ve tried this many times. More often than not, my friends put aside their phones and give me more of their attention.
Focus on a few friends, not many friends.
You probably know this experience.
You’re feeling lonely.
You start texting ‘hi’, ‘hi’, ‘hi’, ‘hi’, ‘hi’ to different friends.
Then you wait for a response.
Maybe you have a few hundred followers or friends on Instagram.
But how many do you really know?
How many of them can you say truly care about you?
At the end of the day, you can only connect with a few quality friends.
Think back to the time when social media didn’t exist. Or when you didn’t have social media to supercharge your human connections.
Social media has given you a platform to broadcast and connect with hundreds of people.
But how many of them do you know? How many of them truly know you outside of the life you curate on Instagram?
Focus on few, rather than many.
Share vulnerably with people you trust.
People are imperfect.
Alright, you know that already.
People might have hurt you in the past with their words. Or by sharing what you’ve said to them with others.
That might stop you from sharing with other people.
You’re afraid they might do the same.
You never know.
Human relationships are risky. They always involve a degree of putting yourself out there.
As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown argues, being vulnerable is not about being vulnerable to everyone.
It’s about being vulnerable with people you trust.
Therefore, before you share, ask yourself:
- Has this person earned the right to hear this?
- Has this person been trustworthy in the past?
Being lonely is difficult.
But the antidote to loneliness is being connected.
It’s not about having more ‘friends’ on Facebook.
It’s about having more quality friends you can share with. More quality interactions face-to-face.
It’s about being vulnerable with people who have earned that trust.
It’s about being lonely (less).
And that requires first and foremost, a commitment to yourself.