My loneliness story
The way to authentic connection is through our selves.
I had a sneaking suspicion that I was lonely in my late-30s.
I so desperately did not want to be lonely. Loneliness seems so sad. Lonely people seemed so clingy and needy. Type in 'lonely' in a text message and take note of what emojis are offered. I wasn't crying. I didn't have a sad face. I had a wonderful job that I loved. I had so many people in my life. I had a wonderful family who I knew loved me. I had friends. But I had no one who I felt I could call and say, 'I need you to listen to me' without feeling like I was intruding or asking too much.
I simply thought that disconnection was my lot in life. I thought that loneliness was the price that my life demanded. I doubled down on my work and sought the praise and attention of others. I put my head down and continued on doing what I was doing. That surely was the way out of this feeling. I worked hard on avoiding and numbing my feelings.
I also felt that I couldn't speak up. I was living what looked like a perfect life and one for which I had worked so hard. I felt terrible that I no longer felt such enraptured gratitude for everything. The life I was leading was coming at a price, and I was scared to consider that I wasn't willing to pay it anymore. I loved my job, but the job came at an emotional cost. I couldn't ignore that anymore. Moreover, I thought I was alone, because no one ever spoke about the physical, mental or emotional costs. When we did, the topic changed quickly after someone says a variation of 'get over it' or 'this is just how things are'.
In Australia, it’s not good to have a reputation for being a whinger.
But something within me refused to accept any of this. I knew that my life did not have to be like this. It did not have to be this way, but I needed help. I turned to Dr Google. If you've done this, you'd also know that the standard advice is to put yourself out there and do things that you love to do and do them with other people. Connection is important. This is sound advice, to a point. From where would this time to pursue my hobbies magically appear? I was so busy at work and at home. What could possibly give?
Someone suggested to me that I get out on weekends to do something I enjoyed. I joined a swimming group. But this petered out after a few months and swimming isn't really a sport where one can chat with others too much. Besides, I felt so tired. The thought alone of getting out on a Sunday afternoon to meet people was exhausting.
My employer has a contracted counselling service provider, so I called it a few months later. I spoke to a lovely person who listened empathically and then told me to find what I loved to do and 'put myself out there'. When I reminded the counsellor that 'out there' was in a non-English speaking country, they cheerily said, 'Oh. Well try anyway'. This was not the easy solution I'd hoped speaking with a counsellor for a few minutes would be.
But this is what I was beginning to appreciate about loneliness: any cure or treatment seemed too hard; an exhausting mountain to climb.
Weeks went by. My funk got deeper. I realised that there were days when no one, NO ONE, asked me how I was. On reflection, my masks of competence and good humour meant that I wasn't giving people much of a reason to ask. It simply appeared that things were great with me.
I also know that this is a common feeling for those who are lonely.
I feared that people had formed relationships with my masks, and not the real me. Any cure for loneliness would inevitably involve me taking off my masks and hoping that people in my life would still like me, that they would still love me. This was terrifying and kept me from seeking out more help. Even when I was asked how I was, I'd keep the mask on out of fear.
To compound this fear, I felt shame for not being able to handle everything within myself with effortless ease. Being a man surely meant that I needed to handle everything on my own.
Then, one day in October 2016, I received an email from Mike Campbell. I'd read Mike's book in 2014 and I promptly followed his blog and followed him on social media. I'd even sent him an email to let him know how good I thought his book was.
I was surprised to get his email telling me about a program he was putting together and if we could talk. We spoke twice over the next few days. Each time we spoke I knew that he saw straight through me and my excuses and he encouraged me to join his program.
I was terrified and I worked so hard to worm out of it. But I did the hard thing.
Reconnection - the ascent
It was just what I needed. I had the support of Mike and some other amazing men in the program. At the end of the five-month program in March 2017, and after a lot of hard work, I felt like I had stepped into myself for the first time. This is a powerful feeling.
Critically, I worked out what I found unsettling about the 'just put yourself out there and connect with people who share your interests' mantra. I'd been focusing on the out there and the interests. My problem had been with the yourself.
Owing to the work/family cycle, working hard for others' approval and having listened to the voice in my head that told me that I wasn’t good enough and that I wasn’t worthy of love if I showed the real me for far too long, I had lost me. I was scared of what other people thought of me.
Shit, I was scared of what I thought of me.
The connection I needed was not only to other people, but to myself. I needed my own approval.
This was a revelation. I needed to know and accept myself before I could connect with others and the world around me. I learned that what caused me to feel shame and hide away from others – including my suicide attempt at 14 years of age and my sexuality – were nothing to be ashamed of: They became my superpowers and gave me powerful insight into loneliness and the human condition.
I am worthy of love and belonging. Great things can come from this realisation.
Having started to reconnect with myself, I started to put my authentic self into the world. I began to reach out to people in my life - both past and present - with whom I wanted to connect. This included those people physically around me, and others with whom I was still in contact over social media, but may not have seen them in person for years. I decided to use social media for good.
The major impediment to this connection was busyness. I lost count at the 'I'd love to, but I'm really busy' responses.
When the connections happened, they REALLY happened. I was having real, open, honest, courageous and vulnerable conversations with people. Shit got really real. This was me, really me, connecting. This was them, really them, connecting. It was beautiful.
I was having these real conversations within myself. I was having them at home. I was having these conversations at the office. I was having these conversations over the phone, by email, by text. And now I'm having these conversations with people through this site and on www.thelonelydiplomat.com.
But these attempts at connection did not always go well. With some people I noticed that we'd drifted apart. Our life experiences had meant that I no longer shared interests with some people from my past. This was sad, as these were friendships with people who I believed would always be there for me and I'd be there for them. I'd changed and some friends had changed. I needed to let other people evolve and change too.
Moreover, I have told some people that I was lonely, want to reconnect and told them that I’m gay and I’ve been met a few times with words or sentiments like 'you deserve it', 'this lifestyle is your choice' or 'you should have expected to feel lonely'.
This is hard to hear when I'm putting the real me out there. It really hurts.
Happily, I'm faster at getting to the point where I know that those who say that I deserve my loneliness have kindly outed themselves to me as not being worthy of me in their lives. Besides, I can simply talk with those special people in my life who I know love me for being me and I know that they can listen to me, and that I will listen to them.
Sometimes I can see that my candour and openness holds a mirror up for people. This can make them feel uncomfortable. I may speak to the voice within them that's telling them that things within themselves aren't as excellent as they want them to be. That's OK. It took me years to get to this point. I'm familiar with the discomfort.
While you may feel lonely and scared, you're no longer alone. Let's be lonely and scared together.
Here I am. I'm Phil. I'm still prone to feeling lonely but I know a way out. Let's go together.