“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love.

There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.”

Mother Teresa

I fell into conversation with a Spanish man earlier this year.

We discussed his new life and why he was working here in the UK. He told me of the difficulties he had in finding and making new friends, despite being slap-bang in the heart of one of the world’s most vibrant and populated cities. He explained the terrible loneliness he felt.

There was a pause.

“Tell me,” he asked, earnestly; “how do you stand it?”

Personally: with a hard-earnt resilience that can easily wax and wane.

As a society increasingly addicted to numbing behaviours: not well. Not very well at all.

Last month, the relationship charity Relate published the results of their report into the state of British relationships in 2014. Their wide-ranging survey, one of the largest of its kind with over 5,000 participants, makes for sobering reading.

For while 4 out of 5 say they have a good relationship with their partner, 1 in 4 say they’re dissatisfied with their sex lives, with 1 in 4 of those surveyed admitting to having an affair.

But the more worrying revelation notes that 19% of people never or rarely felt loved in the two weeks prior to the survey. Think those were just singletons? Think again;

A further surprising – and worrying – finding was that over one in ten people currently in a relationship said that they had rarely or never felt loved in their day-to-day lives, suggesting that a significant minority of us could be in a ‘loveless relationship’. – Relate

Add to this the news that 1 in 10 people don’t have a close friend (a rise of 4% in 4 years) and it’s clear why the idea of a ‘loneliness epidemic’ has become a hot topic, for both the old and the young.

The way we are now infographic

Tips to avoid loneliness often put the cart before the horse; ‘Join a Meetup.com group! Do more activities! Call up old friends! Talk to strangers!’

The advice is well-meaning but ignores the crippling fear, and subsequent pain, of rejection. A pain which, as fMRIs show, is as much physical as emotional.

Loneliness is not a state which can be easily banished; it’s part of what makes us human, and can trigger us to make a positive change in our lives. What we can do more readily is build up our resilience to it. So, what can we do if we’re feeling lonely?

  • Find professional support. No, there’s nothing wrong with you if you feel lonely. But when you’re feeling isolated, when your soul yearns to be understood, when you long to be seen and heard .. start by seeing someone whose job it is to see you and hear you fully. So many of us feel lonely in a crowd because those we socialise with are not listening but merely waiting for us to finish so they can talk. And our hunger to be heard can, ironically, repel those who feel overwhelmed by the need they sense in us. Practise with a professional, and rediscover how to self-soothe and to bring, rather than take, something with more everyday encounters.
  • Show yourself compassion. Being lonely can be painful, debilitating, depressing and disheartening. We are neurologically wired for connection and belonging, so the pain we feel is entirely normal and justified. Criticising yourself because you feel a ‘failure’ will only exacerbate these painful feelings. As too will numbing yourself with busyness, food, alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. Allow yourself to feel what you feel and to comfort yourself with things that bring you joy instead; time spent in nature, soft blankets or clothing, being creative.
  • Show others compassion, too. If others aren’t giving you what you feel you need, it’s easy to start the ‘blame game’. People are not mind readers and many of us (myself included) have hidden our loneliness due to feelings of shame and guilt. Accept yourself, and you automatically change your relationships with others. Work out what it is you need then try asking for it. If that feels too unsafe, explore the discomfort with a professional.
  • Start small. Making friends, finding a partner, deepening connections with those already in our lives, asking for what we want, allowing ourselves to be more seen and more heard .. can all seem overwhelming tasks. So turn it into a fun game, and start small; say hello to the next cashier you meet, or smile at someone in the queue, ask a question which requires a more thoughtful answer, ask for brown sugar in your tea, count ‘one elephant, two elephants’ as you enter a room before hurrying to a seat in the corner. And celebrate what you do, not how others react (or don’t); the path to change is built up of the small, steady, consistent steps you can make each day.
  • Remember you’re not alone. Right now, at this very moment, at this very second, somebody somewhere is feeling the same sense of isolation or lack of companionship. What keeps us separate is our sense of shame about admitting what may feel, in this hyper-connected-extrovert-rewarding society; a fear that it’s personal failure and reflection of our own lack of loveability.

Photo credit: Steve Webster

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