The stigma of loneliness
By admitting that we’re lonely – even talking about it –
we risk outing ourselves as being a person who is of no worth.
No wonder there’s a stigma.
I’ll be honest with you: Loneliness is a terrible subject to write on. There are fewer topics that make us humans recoil quite like it. While some of us have a clear understanding of the source of our loneliness (bereavement or the absence of a loved one, for instance), the sources of chronic loneliness are varied and unique to the individual. It’s chronic loneliness to which I refer through this post.
There is, without doubt, a stigma to loneliness. As humans, we find it repellent. Lonely people are depicted as clingy, insecure, needy and desperately sad. When we are lonely, we can be consumed with thoughts of not being a burden or an inconvenience to those around us. There's a lot to overcome before we can readily admit to being lonely.
I want us both to honour that part of you that brought you here to my words: you may be reading these words because you recognise that you might be – or are – chronically lonely. You may have even battled through some thoughts and feelings from the stigma of loneliness. I admire your courage and bravery.
Why? Read on.
First, the stats
Humans were reporting high rates of loneliness, even before the world was affected by a pandemic that’s keeping us physically apart. The pandemic has merely highlighted how disconnected we are from each other.
The latest statistics from the United States show that 61 per cent of Americans in 2019 were lonely. This is up from 54 per cent in 2018. Fifty-two per cent sometimes or always felt alone in 2019 (this was up from 46 per cent in 2018). In 2019, 47 per cent sometimes or always felt that their relationships were not meaningful (up from 43 per cent in 2018). Twenty-one per cent said that they had no close friends. Fifty-eight per cent reported that they sometimes or always felt like no one knows them well in 2019 (compared to 54 per cent in 2018). Forty-nine per cent sometimes or always felt that they lacked companionship in 2019 (compared to 43 per cent in 2018). And 53 per cent responded that they find it difficult to make friends because they are shy in 2019.
I could go on providing statistics until I hear the sound of your jaw hitting the floor at the scale of the problem. But I need to get on with the rest of this post. If you want to review some more very sobering data, go here.
This data tells me a few things:
- There are a great many of us humans who admit in the safety of surveys to being lonely.
- While an inelegant extrapolation, based on the data above, half of us are sometimes or always feel alone.
What of rates of loneliness in the gay community? Or of loneliness in the LGBT community more generally? This data is harder to come by, but the LGBT Foundation in the United Kingdom published a report in July 2019 referring to Age UK research stating that older LGBT people are more vulnerable to loneliness as they are more likely to live alone, be single and have lower levels of contact with relatives.
Statistics are hardly perfect; they can hide a great many details. However, they are a good place to base a conversation.
So, let’s have a conversation about why half of all those who respond to surveys state that they’re sometimes or always lonely but it’s difficult to openly talk about and engage on issues about loneliness.
Bring on the sabre-toothed tigers
We’re hardwired for connection and to feel part of a group – irrespective of whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert. We all need to be seen and to feel that we belong. We need to feel that we matter; that we’re worth something to someone. Back in the day, those who were excluded from the group were at risk of attack by a sabre-tooth tiger (it’s always a sabre-tooth tiger attack, isn’t it?) or another grisly demise delivered swiftly to those who were alone. Only now, rather than attack by wild animals, we fear exclusion on social media, in the workplace or in wider society. FOMO, fears of not being seen and of not mattering can dominate our lives.
Loneliness stems from the belief that we're not something enough. That we're not smart enough, that we're not attractive enough, that we're not wealthy enough, that we're not funny or lovable enough to be loved, to be seen and to feel that we belong.
Loneliness is, at its core, a feeling of a lack of worthiness. To rephrase: loneliness is the feeling that we’re without worth.
By admitting that we’re lonely – by even talking about it – we risk outing ourselves as being a person who is of no worth. No wonder there’s a stigma.
And HALF OF US are reporting that we always or at least sometimes feel like this.
Half of the people you’re seeing in your Instagram feed smiling broadly while living their best life in skimpy swimwear and sunshine with thousands of followers and endorsement contracts are always – or at least sometimes – lonely. Half the men you’re seeing on Grindr, Scruff, Tinder, Squirt or any of the other dating/hook up apps are always – or at least sometimes – lonely (perhaps no surprise there). Half the men at the Pride party. Half the men in the club. Half the people in your workplace. Half the people in the line at the supermarket, at the gym, at a bar, at a party. Half of your friends. Half of your family.
It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?
The big problem
What does loneliness look like?
It’s not as simple as identifying people who are alone. Loneliness is different to being alone – being alone can be a conscious choice. Loneliness is a feeling, and it’s entirely possible to feel alone and to feel like you’re worthless in a crowd and surrounded by familiar people. Further, loneliness is great at wearing masks and pretending to be lots of other things.
Type in ‘lonely’ into your preferred chat app. What emojis do you see? In my experience, when I feel lonely, I don’t make those faces. I simply feel hollow. I may lose my temper. I may not feel any kind of connection with the people that surround me. We all experience loneliness in myriad different ways, all of which may not align with what we think loneliness looks like.
Loneliness manifests in behaviours that attempt to show that we matter and that we belong, are needed and are connected to something or someone. It can manifest itself as depression and anxiety. It can be a driver in addiction to, or reliance on, alcohol, drugs, sex (including porn and/or anonymous sex), work, exercise/working out, shopping, social media, constant busyness and being the people-pleasing nice guy.
You can read about my loneliness story here: www.thelonelinessguy.com/about.
It’s the Nice Guy syndrome that I feel applies to me. I'm a reformed Nice Guy. I desperately wanted to be universally liked. The Nice Guy syndrome is a topic that warrants its own blog post. For now, I see evidence that I’m not the only sufferer of this affliction. People-pleasing Nice Guys are always accommodating. We’re always saying yes. We’re always putting the needs of others ahead of our needs. If we have any boundaries, they’re so flimsy that any request for our help or any opportunity to help smashes them. We Nice Guys can never be enough, but we’ll do everything in the attempt to be seen and to feel like we belong. We crave external validation to validate our existence. We’ll do anything to be noticed and recognised but dismiss any praise coming our way.
For me, if I’m being everything to everyone, then I’m being nothing to myself.
I also wrap myself up in constant busyness, work and - at times - working out, as ways to fill the void within me (again, each the topic of future posts). Luckily, I have people in my life who call me out and call me forward when they’ve noticed that I’ve absentmindedly strayed into those behaviours.
Ironically, we can glorify these four behaviours (being the Nice Guy, busyness, work and exercise/working out). They’re ‘good’, socially-acceptable, ways of numbing. Whatever. Numbing is numbing. The effect is the same: disconnection.
How do we fix it?
Rather than continuing behaviours designed to numb the thoughts and feelings that come with loneliness, what about seeking the spark of connection? The spark of connection is something that I’ve already written about (see here).
For me, the spark of connection is a shiver up and down my spine when I’m feeling seen and heard by the person with whom I’m speaking and I’m really in the moment. This feeling is everything for me and is a reliable sign that I’ve gone from a mere social interaction into real connection. The connection that only happens when I’m not trying to look like I have my life sorted or I’m being judged for my looks or what I’m saying. The spark also happens when I feel like I belong somewhere, like what I’m doing aligns with me and I am part of something bigger than myself.
I believe that this is the fix.
Rather than asking ourselves and each other ‘Are you lonely?’ and engaging with the stigma of being a failed human that comes with such an admission, we can ask ourselves ‘Do I need more authentic connection in my life?’ We can ask this safer question to each other.
Few of us will ever say that we don’t need more authentic connection in our lives and reframing the issue will help us take an enormous step in the direction of de-stigmatising loneliness and promoting authentic connection for gay men globally.
After all of this, do you need more authentic connection in your life?
Remember, you don’t need to process this question alone. I have created a private space on Facebook where we can go deeper in a safe space online in a chat with me and others. It’s a space where you can give and get support as you work to connect authentically with yourself, those in your life and your communities. This space is available for premium subscribers only. You can become a premium subscriber by hitting the 'subscribe and stay connected' link below. A basic subscription is free and is also available through the link below.
Also, I have a list of organisations here with whom you can talk to trained mental health professionals if you feel you need that.
Where to now?
Connection is the antidote to loneliness. Subscribe to my website through either a basic subscription (free) or premium subscription (monthly charge) and let’s stay connected as we work to de-stigmatise loneliness and promote authentic connection for gay men.
Thank you for reading this post. I hope that you’ve found it helpful. I’m now asking for YOUR help.
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You may not feel lonely and have just the right amount of authentic connection in your life, but sharing this article could really help a friend who may be quietly struggling with the thoughts and feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
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~ Thank you ~