Why feeling lonely doesn't mean you're alone
Loneliness is a natural side effect of being a leader. Standing apart, speaking out, and stepping towards our vision, can feel uncomfortable. How can we navigate that discomfort?
In this month’s blog, Creative Coaching’s programme director Melissa Mehta, explores how we might see loneliness as a mirage, and reconnect with our resourcefulness as leaders.
Loneliness is a feeling. It’s possible to feel lonely in a room full of friends, while hugging a loved one, or on a packed train.
Being alone (or not) is a physical fact. I’m alone in my office right now, alone in my house too. I certainly don’t feel lonely (at the moment). I’m rather enjoying the peace and quiet!
The feeling/fact distinction is useful. As we get curious about the feeling of loneliness (and its independence of physical circumstance) its grippy-nature releases its hold on us.
Why might we want to shift the feeling of loneliness?
Well, it doesn’t feel good, by definition.
“Loneliness is [an]… unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship” (Perlman and Peplau, 1981)
On top of that, this less-than-resourceful state is often self-sustaining. When I feel lonely, I know I could call a friend, or connect with those I might be with in that moment. My feeling of disconnect, of worthlessness, of anxiety (that all pile in when I try and work out the loneliness problem) make those possibilities deeply unattractive. And then I beat myself up about that too.
When I remember that loneliness is a feeling not a physical fact, I know the lonely thoughts can change in any moment. Humans have an innate capacity for fresh thinking about anything, including whatever looks really difficult right now. So what new thinking might come up about loneliness, if we’re quiet and still for a moment? Let’s see.
When my children were very small, they would be distraught at the idea of me leaving the house without them. I would explain to them that they were a part of me, I am part of them (literally some of their fetal cells are still in my body), so we’re always together. While it didn’t persuade them, it assuaged my guilt enough to unwrap their clingy arms and give them a confident and reassuring goodbye.
This notion of innate togetherness also helped me to deal with the loneliness of rejection (our memories together still exist, even if we’re no longer together), miscarriage (that baby is still part of me too), and grief (that beloved person lives on in our memories of them, through their influence on the world).
The idea of innate togetherness is also a comfort when glorious peace and quiet becomes lonely and unwelcome. If I see through the temporary nature of the feeling of loneliness I can remember my connections to people everywhere, whether locally (a conversation with a new neighbour), professionally (connections with workshop participants) and socially (friends who know I’m there, and whom I can call as soon as I feel like it).
This is all very nice, I hear you say, but what’s it got to do with leadership?
Well, everything to do with humans is to do with leadership… If you want specifics though, the role of a leader (titular or otherwise) can feel lonely. We heard last month about the concerns of an associate partner who felt vulnerable about sharing his vision for fear of exposure, ridicule, or rejection.
The social threat, of being cast out from the group, is a real consideration for the amygdala (reptile brain) of any bold leader. Leadership is in part about being comfortable with the gap between the ways things are and the way we want them to be - stepping into that gap, trusting that the right people will follow. Being the first in can feel lonely.
Seeing the difference between the feeling of loneliness - which will pass - and recognizing the innate nature of togetherness - which is immutable - ensures loneliness is held lightly. We can retain an openness to a fresh way of experiencing it at any moment. From here we can be more resourceful leaders.
Who do you know who’s started a new leadership position recently, and might like this blog? Feel free to share this message with them, and let them know they're not alone.
Photo by Edu Grande on Unsplash
Posted on Thu, March 30, 2023 in Coaching General Leadership Personal Development
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