Thoughts from the couch: The shame of loneliness
Historians will be writing about this strange period of time for the rest of the 21st century. Many of us will emerge changed as this pandemic proves to be much more than a health crisis, more, it is a human, economic and social crisis. Our lives have shrunk beyond recognition as we have been asked to follow social distancing guidelines and self-isolate to curb the spread of the coronavirus, leaving home only for essential reasons.
As the media and politicians bombarded us with ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’, few of us seemed to question what was being asked of us. The shocking numbers of people becoming infected with the virus, along with those dying, forced us inside, terrified that one of our loved ones, or indeed ourselves, would be amongst them. For most, home became a safe refuge with the outside becoming the place of risk.
One of the feelings millions of us are experiencing, as a result, is loneliness. Although sticking to the advice is essential in the current crisis, staying at home with limited human contact is proving to have a significant impact on our mental well-being and, in particular, feelings of loneliness.
ONS statistics show that loneliness in the UK is a growing epidemic with 2.4 million adults in the UK feeling lonely. It is not only older people who are affected. People of all ages experience loneliness, and research shows that loneliness actually peaks in adolescence with young adults experiencing loneliness just as severely as older populations. In 2019 ONS statistics showed that, in Britain, there were 8.2 million people who live alone and 2.9 million lone-parent families. Today, single-person households make up almost a third of the population. Loneliness comes in many forms, with loneliness being found throughout society, including among people in marriages along with other strong relationships. We know that being socially-isolated leads to loneliness, but so does being in relationships that are not emotionally rewarding.
For many, admitting to loneliness conjures up all sorts of shameful images that people don’t want to be associated with, and yet it is a human state. We all have periods of loneliness, that deep feeling of loss, and this pandemic, has perhaps, asked us all to face our loneliness in ways that are deeply uncomfortable. The dictionary definition of loneliness, "sadness because one has no friends or company," does nothing to normalise the ordinary human reaction to feel lonely sometimes, and feeds a toxic and damaging shame around it. As humans, we are born into families, communities and society. From our very first moments, we seek connection and as a result, we experience isolation as a physical state of emergency.
Self-isolation stops us from engaging with the normalcy of day-to-day life. Human connection is vital to our sense of well-being and many of the things that we have so taken for granted that have given us a sense of connection are no longer possible. For those living alone, going to the shops, eating out and going to the gym, meeting friends, going to work are all ways we can feel that we are part of something. That we, our existence, matters. Someone to touch us in a caring, non-sexual way, someone who is physically present to comfort us at the end of a challenging day, are all ways we receive comfort and an escape from haunting loneliness. For those living with friends and/or family, there is the shame that comes with feeling lonely despite being physically present with those that love us.
The poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote a wonderful poem about acceptance of all our feelings, The Guest House. It is a poignant reminder not to resist the thoughts and emotions that naturally pass through us every day, but to meet them with respect, curiosity and courage.
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house
empty of all furniture,
still, treat each honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
If we can see loneliness as one of the familiar guests that show up from time to time, if we can have it keep us company for a while before it eventually goes on its way, we will, with no doubt, have much to learn from it, no matter how unwelcome it might feel. The blessing we give ourselves and others by doing this is that we can be on hand with kindness and compassion to others who are courageous enough to admit to being lonely.
And in time, the word lonely will no longer be shameful, but a word associated with the depth of relationships we are able to have as a result of the revelation of the vulnerabilities of being human.
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