Loneliness and reconnecting: Be mindful of the tea
I was listening to an interview with Simon Sinek the other day. When the interviewer asked how he was, Simon openly and honestly replied that he was lonely. He then went on to talk about the challenges of loneliness, particularly as it is felt now in the post-pandemic era; an odd and unsettling time that we have been unwittingly catapulted into. There has been a gradual and deleterious shift in the loneliness landscape. Increasingly, psychologists have become concerned that loneliness will become the second pandemic; a consequence of the first. So many people are lonely.
How did we get so lonely?
Lockdowns, lock-ins, lock-outs all served to incrementally isolate us from each other. Although we were slowly able to reconnect, something changed. As we started to emerge from the worst of it, life did not get easier. In fact, it got harder. The demands of life increased dramatically and people became significantly more burdened. Then, an odd thing happened. Instead of reaching out for help, we closed ourselves off. We actually stopped turning to our friends and they stopped turning to us.
A case of too much emotional tea
Everyone worries that we are burdening others, so we don’t talk. We don’t vent. We don’t cry with others. We keep it all in. This is dangerous though because this only tends to increase our sense of burden. Concerningly, the bottling up of problems, worries, emotions is making the little cup inside us too full of emotion tea. The tea is slopping around in there, overflowing, and we are getting drenched by it. We have no room for anyone else’s tea and we believe that they have no room for ours.
So, now we find ourselves texting to talk about things in abstract and indirect ways. We gingerly talk around the periphery of the concern. We wait for the perfect time, some unicorn of a time when our friend will be completely available and completely unlikely to be burdened by our needs. Another thing we do is avoid talking about it entirely; just push that mess down and hope it goes away.
Get some tea out
Well, I, and many of my psychologist colleagues agree with Simon. Undoubtedly, we need to start talking again. Because, like trying to hold a beach ball under water – all that mess will definitely pop back up again and this time will probably hit you in the face. Bit by bit, we need to make room for our friends, our families, and our co-workers. We also need to take a leap of faith and believe that others will do the same for us.
It is about how you share the tea
Often, we are unsure if the person we want to talk to can handle what we want to tell them. So, ask. It can be as simple as: “OMG girls, I have had the worst day, have you got a minute,” for instance. Otherwise, you might consider asking a friend if they have time for a coffee to talk something through. At work, could your favourite colleague have time for lunch so you can get something off your chest?
Pick your time though, folks. If they’re busy typing an email or changing the baby’s nappy, now might not be the right time.
Respect their boundaries. If it does feel like too much for them and the listener suggests you speak to someone like a counsellor or psychologist, probably take them up on the suggestion.
Be mindful of time. Of course, this person might not have hours, but they have got some time and that is what is on offer. Use it wisely and don’t over use it. Choose what is important to share. Lots of detail might not be necessary and could use up valuable time.
No dumping and running. We need to be cautious that we are not just offloading onto others. Crucially, talking things out is not about handing your troubles over and expecting someone else to hold this for you. Often this does lead to the listener feeling burdened. Instead, talking it out is about helping you to sort through your thoughts, express your feelings, and maybe get some advice.
No story topping. Remember, if the person you are sharing with wants to share back, make some room for that. No one is doing it more-or-less hard than the next – it’s all relative.
It is about how you hear the tea
Specifically, this will be about how you are listening. We are less burdened when we just listen and don’t feel the pressure to fix. You can validate, yes. You don’t need to fix. A person is permitted to feel bad about something and just to talk about that without needing any resolution to the problem. Importantly, part of diminishing the emotional charge around a problem is sorting through our thoughts, so that we can then go on to problem solve. That can be well achieved by talking it out loud and expressing how we are feeling about the problem.
Carl Rogers’ views on empathy could be useful as we start to listen and hear again. He notes that we can sense another’s concern “as if it were our own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality”. This means to sense another’s “anger, fear or confusion as if it were your own, yet without your own anger, fear or confusion getting bound up in it.” We can listen to our friends, and they can listen to us without needing to be burdened by the communication. In short, we can listen without taking it all on ourselves or needing to fix it for them.
If we can get back to a time when we called the best friend, the sibling, or a co-worker to talk about our day or a problem we are having and express how we are feeling about it, it is a good step towards preventing this pandemic of loneliness that is on the horizon.
Here are some tips on managing loneliness
Embrace vulnerability: Share your feelings of loneliness with trusted friends or family. Opening up can create deeper connections and remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.
Seek meaningful connections: Actively engage in activities and communities where you can find like-minded individuals who share your interests and values. Building genuine relationships is essential to combatting loneliness.
Foster empathy: Show kindness and understanding towards others who might be experiencing loneliness. By being compassionate, we can create a supportive environment that uplifts everyone.
Invest in relationships: Cultivate meaningful connections by dedicating time and effort to nurture friendships. Regular catch-ups, virtual hangouts, or even a simple message can make a significant difference.
Disconnect to connect: While technology connects us, it can also contribute to feelings of isolation. Take breaks from screens, prioritise face-to-face interactions, and be present in the moment. You can feel connected even when you are by yourself and this is achieved by feeling connected to the world around you.
Simon Sinek’s talk was a reminder to me that loneliness is a shared experience impacting so many. Positively, we have the remedy in us already – the capacity to share and listen. Start testing the waters, folks. You might be surprised how much less burdened you feel when you start sharing. You might also be surprised to see how much more capacity you have for others. Ideally, this exponentiates and we all start to feel a little less burdened and the tea is more manageable.
Written by Dr Kim Eaton, Clinical Psychologist
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