Your loneliness is a gift. Stop ignoring it.
Loneliness is an awful emotion to experience. The thoughts, feelings and beliefs we have about loneliness makes us feel like a failed human. Even reading an article in a magazine about loneliness can have us wrestling with some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
If that’s you: thank you for starting to read this article. I’m proud of you. Simply reading this has taken some courage. Even if you’re ‘lonely curious’, I want to say hi and thank you for reading these words.
Your experience of the pandemic may have brought loneliness to your attention. You may be mourning the loss of a loved one or the ending of a relationship. However you’re experiencing loneliness, please know that you’re not alone. Your loneliness makes you gloriously human.
Loneliness is part of the human condition. We all experience it, just like we experience happiness, joy, grief or anger. Like hunger is a sign that we need to eat and thirst is a sign that we need to drink, loneliness is our signal that we need to reconnect with ourselves, those most important to us and to our communities. While we know this, we find it hard to feel loneliness within ourselves.
Loneliness is everywhere, but it’s a tricky emotion to pin down and define. A standard dictionary definition says something that loneliness is the absence of people or meaningful connection with others. For me, I go with the definition of ‘if you feel lonely, then you are lonely.’ But what does loneliness feel like?
It can feel like apathy.
It can feel like a void within us.
It can feel like an all-consuming feeling that we need to be physically close to someone.
It can feel like an all-consuming feeling that we need to be physically away from everyone.
It can feel like a constant struggle to be seen and heard by those around us.
It can feel like we don’t belong anywhere, even when we’re with family and friends.
It can feel like anger and lashing out against anyone and anything who challenges us.
In short, loneliness can make us feel like shit. Yet, unlike asking someone for water or a snack when we’re thirsty or hungry, we don’t ask for help when we notice we feel lonely. This is not a wise choice for us to make. Rather than experiencing loneliness as a temporary emotion, we do nothing and let our loneliness become chronic.
This is bad. Some oft-repeated statistics from renowned loneliness expert, the late Dr John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago, compares the health outcomes of chronic loneliness with other well-known risk factors that reduce longevity. Dr. Cacioppo’s studies show that obesity reduces longevity by 20 per cent, drinking by 30 per cent and smoking by 50 per cent.
Loneliness? 70 per cent.
Indeed, feelings of chronic loneliness and social isolation increase our chances of suffering a stroke or heart attack by 30 per cent.
How? Loneliness puts us into an almost chronic state of fight or flight. This is a great response when escaping a deer when having alfresco sex in Royal National Park during a lockdown, but it is bad when we stay in it for months or years.
Loneliness can make us hypervigilant, always on guard to see everyone and everything as a threat, someone or something to avoid, ignore or destroy. We even begin to see those around us who are reaching out to support us and be with us as a threat.
Left unchecked, loneliness kills us. And loneliness is everywhere.
The loneliness we feel is not the result of a global pandemic, or social media, or Grindr, or more people living alone. The pandemic has highlighted what was already there. Indeed, in 2019 61 per cent of Americans surveyed admitted that they’re lonely. That’s way more than half, and is getting towards 2/3 of people. Who’s talking about it? Where’s the conversation about it? Why do we answer truthfully in anonymous surveys and not talk about our loneliness and our need to connect with each other?
In one way, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of connection in our lives. When all else is stripped away, there we are.
About me, Phil McAuliffe.
Goodness. Where are my manners? I’ve jumped straight into the loneliness bit without introducing myself. I do that.
Hello! I’m Phil. I’m a Dad, partner, son, brother, cousin and friend. I love a good coffee, a good chat and a good laugh. I’m endlessly curious about myself, others and the world around me. I love to move and challenge my body by going to the gym, running and swimming. I’m a plane nerd. I have been known to bust out some awesome white-boy Dad dancing moves when the mood strikes. I take a lot of photos of things that capture my attention. Indeed, music and photos connect me to people, places and feelings. While I’ve been based in Canberra for the past 22 years, I have lived in Venezuela, Darwin, Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand during that time.
Also, I’m gay and I get lonely sometimes.
It took me a significant portion of my life to be able to write that last sentence and leave it as a simple declaration. For most of my life I would happily share the other parts of my life with you, but I would be terrified of anyone – including me – going near the whole ‘gay’ and ‘lonely’ bits. OK, I’d have been reluctant to share the whole Dad-dancing part, too.
If you permit me, I’d like to share some of my story with you. I’ve been going through a process of ‘becoming Phil’ over the last few years. That statement glosses over a lot of tough decisions. Becoming myself has involved my ex-wife and me ending an awesome marriage and altering our kids’ lives when I came out as gay. It’s also involved me coming out as lonely and working to connect with myself, those most important to me and to my community. I’ve learned that coming out as gay was, in many respects, easier than coming out as lonely.
For me, loneliness felt like I was living someone else’s life. I believed that I was supposed to feel happy and ‘on’ all the time, but I was beginning to feel empty and apathetic. I was suffocating beneath the masks I was wearing and the combined weight of expectations I felt were on me. I felt that I couldn’t tell anyone; I didn’t have the vocabulary, nor did I feel that society would allow it. We men are meant to be self-sufficient physical, mental and emotional islands, right? I internalised all this and, as a result, it took me years to realise that I was lonely. I denied it for a long time, because I have a loving family, have friends and was – by all standard metrics – successful. But I realised that I had no one in my life with whom I could be really me, and this included within myself.
I got help. I engaged the services of a coach. It was one of the best and hardest and bravest things I’ve ever done. I did a lot of work within myself, and with support from others within the program, I began taking off my masks and engaging with the world as myself. This involved knowing what is important to me, why it is important and then acting on that in a way that aligns with myself. Over time, how I parented, worked and lived changed. It involved reckoning with my sexuality, which ended a beautiful relationship when I knew that I had to live life as a gay man. Over time, I became more myself and I know that I am seen, I am heard and that I belong to myself, to those I love most and in my community. It’s not been easy, but it’s always been worth it.
Realising that I was lonely was an uncomfortable truth. Indeed, coming out as lonely both internally and publicly was harder for me than accepting my sexuality and coming out as gay. It felt like there is a greater stigma to loneliness than there is about being gay. We’re all about ‘connection’ as a society, but there’s extraordinarily little about the reason why we all need more connection. I feel that we need to know why we’re lonely before we get to connect. This way, the connection we do have is real. It’s genuine. It’s authentic.
During this process of ‘Becoming Phil’ I felt called to create two loneliness-centred websites based on my lived experience as a way of providing help and support: The Lonely Diplomat for diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life (thelonelydiplomat.com) and The Loneliness Guy for gay men (thelonelinessguy.com). I’m deeply passionate about de-stigmatising loneliness and promoting authentic connection for gay men globally and work to do so through my blog and podcast.
About loneliness in the gay community
Loneliness is antithetical to what we believe being gay and being part of a community should be like. When we scroll our social media feeds and see pic after pic of beautiful men living their best lives in skimpy swimwear in exotic locations, we’re comparing what we see with how we feel as we sit alone in our trackies on a couch on non-pay day Thursday on a cold night in July. We’re hardly living our best life.
When it feels like we only celebrate and acknowledge the good, the bad thrives in the silence and the shadows. Loneliness loves the shadows.
Yet we all know it’s there. Loneliness is so abhorrent that while we know that loneliness is a problem in society – and especially within the LGBTIQ+ communities – we rarely, if ever, want to admit that we’re experiencing it ourselves. We’re happy to engage with loneliness as a general concept affecting ‘people’, not a feeling that we feel in ourselves.
Scratch below the surface and there’s evidence of loneliness everywhere. There’s the hustle to be seen, there’s the hustle to both fit in and stand out, there’s the hustle for approval.
This behaviour can manifest in lots of different ways, often in the form of searching for external validation. It can include: posting thirst trap pics on our socials; putting in those extra hours at the office; substance abuse or dependence; numbing through shopping, gambling, sex, work, exercise or infinite other ways; the connivances of the Mr. Nice Guys; the anger of the keyboard warrior in LGBTIQ+ spaces online and the seeking of connection through contriving drama and gossip. There’s no limit to what we use to feel accepted and prove that we’re worthy.
The cure to loneliness
So loneliness is bad and it’s everywhere, so how do I fix it?
We cure our loneliness by allowing ourselves to feel lonely. We fix it by accepting the gift that is our own loneliness.
If you feel that you’re lonely – and even if not – stopping every now and then and listening to what your feelings are trying to tell you is the way through. We need to put down the phone. We need to turn off the TV. We need to switch off and find a nice, quiet place to sit for a few minutes and pay attention to what’s happening around us and within us. I know that this is easier said than done, but it really helps.
The purpose of loneliness is not for us to go quiet and fix it ourselves, even thought that’s what we desperately want to do. No, the purpose of loneliness is for us to reach out for connection: to our authentic selves, to those most important to us and to our community. This always requires courage when we’re feeling lonely as we risk judgment: not least our own. So be kind to yourself as you engage with and begin to speak your loneliness. If your loneliness has you thinking some dark thoughts and feeling some wretched feelings, know that there are professionals who you can speak to at any time to help you through that awful moment. Speak to someone who you feel has earned the right to hear your story. Reach out to me if you feel I can listen and support you.
We also cure our loneliness by being our authentic selves and connecting from that place. This sounds wonderful and inspiring until we go to take the step. We want to be sure that we do it right, so we won’t take a step until we know that we’ll do it right and without upsetting, troubling or inconveniencing anyone.
This is part of the stigma of loneliness and it’s this stigma that can stop us from admitting to ourselves and to those around us that we need help. This stigma is how our loneliness moves from being an emotion that we’re meant to experience temporarily into something that becomes a chronic condition.
Loneliness is a difficult emotion to experience. But you’re human and you’re going to experience it from time to time. When you do, remember that you are a glorious human. You’re a work in progress. You are not broken. You are not unlovable. You are enough. You are worthy. You belong. Just as you are in this moment.
Take a step.
Phil McAuliffe, The Loneliness Guy