Loneliness and relational awareness

The experiences of loneliness and isolation have profound impacts on our physical and mental health (Cacioppo 2018). The UK government appointed a Minister for Loneliness in 2018, with a commitment to act on reducing chronic loneliness. Despite these efforts, there is growing evidence that loneliness is not limited to older age groups; increasing numbers of young and middle aged people are reporting increased feelings of loneliness.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly added further complexity to the experience of loneliness in our time and for some it has highlighted that they want something different as there is hope of easing the restrictions and barriers to connection that the global pandemic has caused. The question then is where do we begin to make sense of the experiences, thoughts and patterns associated with loneliness? 

It can be easy to conflate loneliness with isolation. The words “alone”, “loneliness” and “lonely” derive from Old English “all ana” meaning “unaccompanied, all by oneself”, literally “wholly oneself”. The interplay between loneliness and isolation is apparent here, with isolation leading to loneliness and visa-versa. Whilst they are no doubt entwined it can be helpful differentiating the two when we are looking to alleviate the personal suffering that they cause.

Loneliness, a felt sense that our connection with others or our relational network is limited and not as rewarding as we would like, is different to the objective physical experience of social isolation. There is no consensus across disciplines on the criteria for the pervasive and distressing experience of loneliness, although it is generally agreed that it is a cluster of experiences, for example, we may feel left out, feel a lack of companionship, feel out of tune with others or feel isolated from others sometimes whilst in their company. Rather unhelpfully loneliness is often stigmatised, trivialised or at worst ignored within our society, making it difficult for some to step forward and begin to address it (Mathews et al 2018). 

Man alone by the ocean

Reducing loneliness is not just about meeting people, nor is it solely set in terms of an absence of opportunities to connection. For some the experience of loneliness is triggered by and comes about from their interactions with others and themselves. Put slightly differently, loneliness manifests as we interact with the world between us, the world within us and the world around us (Potter 2020).

As we grow into adulthood our relationships naturally become more complex. Our repeated interactions with others cause us to develop a unique relational history which we draw upon when we interact with others and ourselves. Repeated experiences of supportive encouraging relationships can make us feel optimistic and confident about forming positive relationships with others, in turn helping us develop a compassionate and balanced view of self.

Equally, if our previous experience is tainted by critical, judgmental or abusive relationships we may struggle to feel confident and optimistic in new situations and about forming positive relationships with others. If we can be curious about how we experience criticism, success and failure, or about the shame or embarrassment we may feel, we can wonder how it may impact on our relationship with others. 

What I’m describing here is a relational approach to understanding and contextualising loneliness. This may sound obvious, but how often have you heard advice dispensed by well meaning friends, family or even professionals aimed at creating functional opportunities to connect. “You could maybe think about joining a club or something” or “you just need to get yourself out there”.  This may help for some, but for others the feelings of loneliness may persist, or worse still become compounded by feelings of failure.  

A relational approach to loneliness notices and reflects upon unhelpful thoughts, emotions and, importantly, the patterns that occur in and around our relationships. In doing this we can create space to adapt and revise the relationships we have with ourselves and with others, so that they become compassionate, balanced and authentic. Thinking relationally in this way we can ask ourselves, what are our relationships like and how would we like them to be? 

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John T Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo. Growing problem of loneliness, Correspondence, the lancet VOLUME 391, ISSUE 10119, P426, FEBRUARY 03, 2018C 

Steve Potter (2020) Therapy with a map - A Cognitive Analytic Approach to Helping Relationships. Pavilion Publishing and Media Ltd, Shoreham bySea

Matthews T, Danese A, Caspi A, Fisher HL, Goldman-Mellor S, Kepa A, Moffitt TE, Odgers CL, Arseneault L (2018). Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study. Psychological Medicine 49, 268–277. https://doi.org/10.1017/ S0033291718000788

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Coleraine, County Londonderry, BT51

Written by Michael Napier, Cognitive Analytic Therapist

Coleraine, County Londonderry, BT51

My name is Michael, I trained as a Cognitive Analytic Therapist at St Thomas' Hospital in London. For many years I lived in Cambridge and worked within a variety of NHS mental health services before moving to Northern Ireland and setting up a private practice.

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