Loneliness Awareness Week takes place from 14th - 18th June 2021. Started by Marmalade Trust in 2017 to raise awareness of loneliness and reduce the stigma surrounding it, this year’s theme is ACCEPTANCE.
Marmalade Trust are asking everyone to make this the year loneliness is finally accepted as a natural part of being a human being, by supporting the ‘we get lonely’ campaign. A clever play on words, using the word ‘get’ creates a double meaning - ‘do you get lonely?’
Because part of what it means to be human is accepting the full spectrum of human emotion – that’s the challenging, messiness and negative emotions of feeling sad, angry, lonely, disappointed, anxious, depressed as much as the happy and joyful feelings.
It’s so important to give ourselves and others permission to be human and also to rethink how we see ‘loneliness’.
Isolation as Punishment
From an early age isolation is dished out as a punishment, so experiences of solitude are often negative. Off you toddle on your tod to the naughty step, to have ‘time out’ alone for bad behaviour, or to your room, banished to be by yourself to think about what you’ve done.
At school, this continues when children are sent out of class to sit alone or sent to isolation, excluded from working together with classmates. Solitary confinement is the ultimate punishment in prisons. No wonder there’s a stigma surrounding solitude. Since childhood, we’ve been taught to associate alone time as bad time.
Meanwhile, togetherness is encouraged, as we’re expected to move from our family tribe to school to work and on to having our own families. Making friends and meeting a mate are held up as the ultimate prizes in life and the only way to be truly fulfilled. And while relationships are important to wellbeing and survival of the human race, we are not taught the importance of positive solitude or how being alone can be good for our health.
We are not taught the empowering nature of solitude; that children who spend some time alone get the chance to learn self-reliance; to entertain themselves; to rise to challenges without always asking for help by default.
Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how we see solitude, and reframe loneliness?
Taboos around Loneliness
According to the Campaign To End Loneliness, despite a fifth of Western populations self-reporting loneliness, almost two thirds of those people felt uncomfortable doing so. So much loneliness remains unreported and hidden. As such, talking about loneliness is something we seem reluctant to do and yet, the more we talk about it, the more we see how common it is and the less taboo it becomes. #LetsTalkLoneliness
The truth is loneliness has nothing to do with popularity, as we know that having a few good-quality connections is more important and has a more positive impact on our wellbeing than having lots of poorer-quality ones. Yet these fears and subsequent silence mean many miss out on all the available help and continue to feel lonely.
What if we taught our children about the great benefits of alone time and the great inventions and creations borne from time in solitude? What if we reframed the naughty step as ‘reflection time’ to disassociate isolation with punishment?
What if we talked about loneliness more openly? The more comfortable we become doing so, the more we can remove the stigma by acknowledging that loneliness is just one part of the mental health conversation that we’ve begun to more willingly discuss.
And what if we changed how we talked about loneliness? Rather than ‘admit’ to feeling lonely or ‘suffering’ from loneliness and equating it to social failure, we could remind ourselves that loneliness is quite normal as a response to an unfulfilled human need; that there is nothing wrong with you if you feel lonely. Consequently, we could normalize loneliness, because we are all somewhere on the loneliness continuum.
What if we reframed loneliness as simply being a useful signal – alerting us to the fact that our connection gauge is empty and we need to take action to interact in order to fill it up?
Loneliness as a Signal
As evolutionary scientists have been saying for years, loneliness, like hunger and thirst, has developed as an adaptive cue to drive us towards doing whatever is necessary to reproduce and survive as a species, to connect socially and intimately with each other.
Tribes, families, couples have historically given us the mutual protection and help we need in order to survive. We have always banded and bonded together. In an evolutionary context, disconnection becomes life-threatening, as early humans were heavily disadvantaged when they were isolated from their tribe. This has led loneliness to evolve as a warning sign; a call to action to reconnect and thus survive.
Viewing loneliness from this evolutionary perspective can shift things.
We don’t feel shameful when we say, ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m thirsty’, but we might when we say, ‘I’m lonely’. Yet, loneliness, like hunger and thirst, is simply a feeling that flags up that we are deficient in the nutrients of connection.
In this way we can reframe loneliness as a helpful warning sign, which can then guide us into taking the tiny steps toward what we need for our survival; towards connection. We can then see loneliness not as something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, but as an evolutionary prod, guiding us towards finding something that is missing.
My hope is that my mental health handbook, Navigating Loneliness, can be that guide, reminding people they are not alone in feeling lonely and equipping readers with practical tools to rediscover a connection to self and cultivate meaningful existing connections and develop supportive new ones.