Navigating Loneliness – Planet Mindful Autumn 2018
A recent article I wrote for Planet Mindful on Navigating Loneliness. Although loneliness can feel overwhelming, there is much we can do to find ways of making the experience more manageable.
The Unkindness of Perfectionism
‘No one knows better than the perfectionist about his abjection, his own unrelenting incapacity to be as good as he should be’ Adam Phillips, 2010
It can be exhausting to have perfectionist tendencies. As captured by the psychotherapist Adam Phillips, the quest for perfection, or for things to be the best they can, often feels relentless and unachievable. Instead of our relationships with others, work situations, achievements, parenting, or appearance being good enough, there is a constant striving and yearning for better. Often this want is fed by our relationship with the external world. If we are able to shift our focus instead to our relationship with ourselves, we can find ways to sit more comfortably with what is referred to often in therapeutic terms as being ‘good enough’.
As we continue through early 2017, many of us will be striving towards goals set at the start of the year. Whilst this can be a positive way to frame realistic changes we would like to bring into our lives, this increased pressure can also lead to disillusionment, hopelessness, drops in self-esteem and confidence and a lack of compassion for our ‘failing’ selves. We can forget that we might be okay as we are and that we are human. We do not need to compensate for this.
We can yearn for and work towards the ideal situation for many reasons. Perhaps your early experience of life was one in which you were only shown love and praise when you achieved. Maybe your more ordinary being did not seem to attract as much positive attention and care. We can hope that replicating this as an adult is the only way to be shown positive regard, compassion, care and love. It may be that you find difficult feelings like grief from loss, disappointment from failure, pain from rejection and shame hard to be with. We can imagine that if we can create the perfect situation, we will escape experiencing uncomfortable feelings. Letting go of the perfectionism may also mean a perceived loss of control, which can be very frightening. However, uncomfortable feelings, which can feel unbearable at times, are a natural part of being human. With reflection and practice you can find ways to feel more comfortable experiencing and responding to these feelings.
Reconsidering our quest for perfection is not the same as giving up. We may fear that without this constant internal ‘nagging’ we would fail to achieve, to make the most of our lives and the opportunities we have to live well. The fear that we might fall into inertia and procrastination if we let go, can be anxiety provoking. You may also be faced with grieving a perceived failure if you lessen your grip on the impossible state of perfection. However, this sense of failure and accompanying grief can be repeated over and over again if we don’t find another way of living with our imperfections. Through fostering self-regard and self-love we can start to trust that we will find our way regardless and see more clearly the positive and healthy changes that are worth working towards.
If you would like to better understand your perfectionist tendencies, the following questions may be a starting place for curious exploration. A greater understanding of your motivation may lead you to engage more flexibly with the world and more compassionately with yourself.
- Are you striving to be ‘better’ for yourself or others?
- What would happen if you stopped striving?
- What would ‘perfect’ look like in any given situation?
- Have you ever met your own standards?
- Are you trying to control feelings or outcomes through perfectionism?
- Are you fearful of difficult feelings?
- Could a personal practice, support from others, or working with a therapist help you improve your relationship with these feelings?
- If you currently refer to yourself as a perfectionist, what would the loss of this way of being leave behind?
- If you were not seeking approval, what would you do more/less of?
- Can you introduce more changes in your life which bring you joy?
There are many ways to lessen the pressure we put on ourselves and understanding why we do so is often a good starting place. Perhaps we can all commit to relieving the burden a little in 2017.
Expression and Connection
‘Again and again, I have observed that people rarely express what really matters: the tender, shy, reluctant feelings, the sensitive, fragile, intense feelings, the concrete, actual messages and meanings’ (C. Moustakas & K. Moustakas)
We can continue to learn how to express and communicate authentically throughout our lives. Expressing our thoughts and feelings, sometimes even finding the language to do so, can be difficult and anxiety provoking. To share ourselves authentically with another person may feel unbearably exposing, particularly if we have not had positive experiences of doing so in the past. We may not have been received with acceptance, empathy and understanding.
For many people, communication with others in day to day life can be limited to disconnected exchanges in the workplace, in the wider world and often at home. Many factors can impact on the quality of interaction we share with others. Time restrictions, fear of the other’s response, fear of judgement and rejection, lack of confidence and self esteem and at times, disinterest, anger and frustration may all present as barriers.
The strength of difficult emotions and even some of our more pleasant feelings, can seem overwhelming and fill us with anxiety. Allowing others to be with us in these feeling states and communicating a sense of this can feel impossible when we are already highly stimulated. In these states, fully alive and seen by another you may feel very vulnerable and this can be very uncomfortable to start with. The researcher Dr. Brene Brown has written much on the themes of vulnerability and shame, widening discussion on the role it plays in relationships and communities.
‘If we do not sense our connection with all things, then it is easier to destroy or ignore these things’ (P. Levine)
Being in relationship with an other can be unpredictable, painful, exciting, tiring, exhilarating and evoke many feelings in between. Experiencing all those feeling responses can be tiring and disconnection can seem like the safer and more manageable alternative. Connecting with another can be fearful. To experience them fully as human and to be present with our response and theirs involves navigating the unknown of intimacy. It is also often a deeply fulfilling experience and an ongoing opportunity to better understand ourselves and others, to challenge our relationship with trust and to develop and grow in the process.
Authentic communication and being seen as we are, deepens relationships and can provide a way out of loneliness and isolation. There are many ways to start communicating more authentically, but all involve sharing those parts of ourselves which might be clouded with shame, guilt, helplessness and inadequacy, that we are less proud of, that we think are wrong or not good enough or that are deeply sad or in pain. This may seem unattainable and unmanageable at first. We can start small and integrate living more openly in daily life, holding in mind that all we share should be done willingly when we feel safe enough to do so. As we integrate this new way of living, we might notice a loosened grip, less struggle and an opening as we start to experience being with ourselves and others.
Bringing Self Care Into Daily Living
Caring for yourself may feel easier for some but is vitally important for every one of us. Regularly considering our own mental health and well-being needs to come first and is a skill which can be learned. For those who are fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to learn these skills, perhaps when they were younger, looking after yourself and knowing how to do so may seem obvious. Others may not have been taught or shown the importance of doing so, may not have given this a great deal of thought and may be at a loss to know where to start. This is an important part of valuing yourself so it may be worth starting by reflecting on why you struggle in this area.
Low self esteem and confidence or an existing mental health issue may lead you to question the importance of being well and healthy in the world. You may feel you are too busy looking after others, working or surviving to spend time looking after yourself. If you notice a pattern of continuously prioritising the needs of others over your own you may be curious about where this pattern originated. Perhaps looking after others became normalised during a much earlier part of your story.
Self care is important wherever you are on the spectrum of mental well-being. It is not just important when you are experiencing distress or crisis, but may support you to remain well and build resilience. It always deserves to take priority and can help to ensure you are better able to love and care for others. Perhaps a fear of failure and concerns about not being good enough prevent you from saying no to requests and opportunities, but understanding your motivation can be key to providing space and time to build a more healthy relationship with yourself and avoid illness and burn out.
There are many free and easy ways to bring self care in to your daily life. As a starting place, the New Economics Foundation introduced the Five Ways to Well-being, which are five simple ways to improve your well-being. The Ways are named ‘Be Active’, ‘Connect’, ‘Keep Learning’, ‘Give’ and ‘Take Notice’. These are open to interpretation and can be tailored to best suit the individual. Being active may involve committing to a daily walk, regular visits to the gym or gardening. Connecting with others and nature involves meaningful and healthy interaction and may involve contact with family, friends, pets, nature or even therapy. There are many ways to keep learning, many of which are free. There is the opportunity for every one of us to learn every day in small ways if we are willing to commit to doing so. Walk a different route to work, find a free music event or talk in your area. Visit a building you have walked past many times before or speak to someone new. Giving may be something which already dominates your day to day life, in which case you may want to concentrate instead on the other Ways. If not, giving can really involve any expression of kindness towards another. A mindfulness practice or simply slowing down and taking time to recognise feelings and better understand your thoughts will support you to take notice and develop awareness. Taking notice may be as simple as finding a patch of grass to lie on in the sun without distraction.
Some clients have found that putting together and committing to a plan to work on all Five Ways provides a framework and gentle reminder each day that being with yourself, understanding your own needs and knowing that you have the capacity to facilitate meeting them is valuable and possible.
A Language for Loneliness
‘We are born into language. Our body is a language, many languages, and words imprint it. There are many ways to formulate an intimacy between words and life and rupture between words and life’ (M. Eigen)
Loneliness has been much discussed in the media recently. The stigma surrounding the subject is starting to shift. ‘The Age of Loneliness’, shown recently by the BBC, is one
such example of a more mainstream discussion of an emotional experience which we are all likely to experience at some point during our lives. Like many painful feelings, it can be very difficult to talk about. The shame which may be tightly tied around the experience can add to the discomfort of discussion. To share yourself in one of your most vulnerable states can take a great deal of bravery. You open up to both an authentic experience of yourself and the feared judgement and potential rejection of others. What is it to be lonely? Perhaps you fear being not good enough to find connection with others or with yourself. Aloneness and loneliness are different experiences. However, if you are alone and lonely then the panic response which might come from recognising yourself as an individual in the world and what that really means can be frightening for some. Loneliness can be an overwhelming experience, but it is a universally human one.
Perhaps circumstances so far in adult life have prevented you from becoming familiar with loneliness. A life change such as the loss of a partner, moving away to a new city without a support network, or illness may lead you to sitting with powerful feelings you have not yet had the chance to be with or put words to. If you do not feel you had a choice in shaping your new situation, loneliness may be felt more strongly. You may find that if you allow yourself to be alongside the loneliness for long enough you are reminded of familiar feelings from your school days, within your family system or of a general sense of being other and on the outside of something. How did you manage these feelings then? If your current loneliness doesn’t have an obvious trigger, the story of your loneliness in the past may provide some important information about your response now.
‘Aching loneliness can stretch endlessly, like a measureless sea’ (S. Buechler)
It is understandable that a creeping loneliness, with the sense of despair, darkness, isolation and hopelessness it can bring, is a state that many people would immediately want to move away from. You may try watching television, listening to the radio, over-eating, over-exercising, spending time in unhealthy relationships, drinking, drug taking or over-sleeping to manage some of these feelings. You have not failed because you are feeling the full force of loneliness. If this is accepted, starting open and authentic discussions with yourself and others is more possible. You will be able to work towards sitting more comfortably with loneliness when it appears throughout your life, become more familiar with your personal experience of loneliness, have a better understanding of the triggers and manage moving away from the state more responsively if you chose to.
Struggling to communicate experiences of loneliness to others may perpetuate the sense of disconnection you can feel in this state. It can be difficult to describe your felt experience to another, particularly if you are only just starting to understand your own loneliness. Finding individual words, quotes or images to share can be a good starting point. In researching loneliness in the past I’ve found photography to be a helpful way to start to have these important conversations. In a state of loneliness you can feel very exposed and finding a creative way to make this more bearable could lead you back to a place of connection if you are willing to take the risk of really being with yourself and others.
How are you?
How often do you consider your emotional well-being, through pausing to consider your mood, nature of your thoughts, energy and needs? It can be difficult to answer colleagues, friends, family and partners when asked ‘How are you?’ if you are not in contact with how you are feeling or have not assigned language, words, or perhaps shapes and colours to these feelings. Some have been building a language to express their feelings for many years and have been supported and guided in the process. Others may come to this at a later stage, perhaps because they have not had the space, encouragement and safety to do so.
There is always more to learn about our feelings, their size and depth, where we feel them and our response. This is always changing. Sadness may seem manageable one day and leave you feeling unable to carry your body with the weight of it the next. The more we can allow ourselves to be in the landscape of our emotions, exploring, playing and being still, the more able we are to know ourselves and depict this landscape to others.
Feeling disconnected from others or lost in that landscape alone can at times feel like a fearful, overwhelming and lonely place to be. We might be better equipped to manage these times if we feel able to communicate these felt experiences to others, whether this is verbally or through other means such as art, movement or music. Spending five minutes each day noticing your felt experience and any accompanying thoughts may enable you to move away from a place of loneliness to one of connection. With practice it becomes easier and provides you with an opportunity to become familiar with feelings you may want to move away from or be closer to, those you would like to hold on to and those you would rather never experience again. You may become less fearful in the process after noticing that there is constant change and you can manage how you respond to feelings. Learn how to express your own landscape!