Loneliness, to me, feels like being trapped in a suffocating box. You know those big, thick boxes you only have to deal with when moving house? Inside one of those, with the lid closed, in the dark, for days.
I have a busy life in a big city, have people around me all day, and sometimes I can still feel the harsh walls of that box holding me in, preventing me from any real, deep contact with the people around me. For me, this is about vulnerability; being able to show, and share, my moments of joy, but also the moments when I feel low, a mess, lost.
Having people around me, who I know will listen and really hear me, when I am in those moments - that, for me, is what makes me feel less lonely. It is not just having relationships with people, but building trusting, nurturing relationships that make me feel cared-for, even when I’m on my own.
I am not alone in this. Throughout this year, The BBC’s Loneliness Experiment has surveyed 55,000 people, asking them to complete an online survey about how lonely they feel, what helped, and what didn’t. The findings are quite shocking. Across all age groups, between 30 and 40% of respondents said they feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘very often’. Young people reported the worst feelings of loneliness stat here, followed by those aged 35-44 stat here .
One of their respondents, Michelle, echoed my experiences of loneliness as a young woman living in a big city: "If I'm in a group I often find myself saying 'I'm great' when people ask how I am. It's almost like an out-of-body experience because I can hear myself saying these positive things, when I'm thinking about how I struggled to get out bed yesterday. It's the loneliness of knowing how you feel in your own head and never being able to tell people."
The lonely share our offices, they live next door, we know to smile to on the commute, in a coffee shop, or in the pub. Like Michelle’s, their loneliness stays hidden. Many respondents said they were ashamed to admit their loneliness to others.
The BBC survey gives some context to this. It found that on average, people with higher levels of loneliness are less trusting of others and more anxious; this makes breaking through the walls of our individual boxes and admitting our vulnerabilities to others all the more painful. What’s more, if an attempt at genuine contact with someone goes awry, the feelings of rejection and hurt are more likely to sting and close us up again. Ironically, the survey found that lonely people tend to be more empathetic, but anxiety about new people can render them unable to translate this understanding of others into lasting relationships.
The survey offers some ideas to help beat loneliness: Joining social groups to meet new people; finding hobbies to distract you; or CBT counselling to address anxieties about meeting new people.
But the most interesting results came from the comparisons of different countries. In short, in Europe and North America, where there is a cultural expectation for people to be independent, they are more likely to be lonely - and more reliant on partners to prevent loneliness. In countries in Asia and South America, where larger family groups are more normal, this is less of an issue. Of course it’s important to try out ways as individuals to beat loneliness and improve our lives, but it would also be interesting to think about the effects of our culture and lifestyles on our loneliness.
If independence is the ‘norm’, how does this impact on us when we feel lonely, imperfect, and not good enough? If we go on social media and see pictures of perfect, happy lives - however airbrushed those images may be - how can we make sense of our own flaws and unhappy feelings? Social media interactions are something, but they can’t place genuine, real-world connections with each other.
Loneliness is a common, universal human experience. How would it be to exist in a culture where some of the shame of admitting our mutual humanity, in all its flaws, is more acceptable? Would it help some of us to break through the walls of our individual boxes more easily, and make genuine contact with each other?
Written by Claire Lamont