Loneliness in Childhood
“For fear of being alone, you do so many things that aren’t you at all.”
Some time ago, I had to give a presentation in an Ontology class all about loneliness and solitude. What is the difference between the two? Where does loneliness come from? Can we change bleak loneliness into the contentment of solitude? There were loads of interesting questions to consider but there was only one thing on my mind – that I had never knowingly experienced loneliness. Never. I didn’t know what it was like to ache for the presence of other people or to fear the emptiness of long days alone. It wasn’t because I had always been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people for my entire life. In fact, it was often the complete opposite – I spent a great deal of time by myself. But I never felt lonely in my aloneness.
When I started to research for my presentation, I discovered the different kinds of loneliness that many of us experience. I found out that loneliness isn’t always about being by yourself. You can live your life blanketed by crowds of other people and feel entirely detached. You can exist in a swirl of endless parties and gatherings, meetings and greetings, and still feel like you are on the outside looking in. And this type of loneliness was a familiar friend of mine. It still can be today. As a naturally introverted person, I grew up finding socialising difficult. I’m lucky that I now work in a profession where deep conversations are essential because social situations can be where my loneliness sits, waiting for me to say something stupid or overshare some weird detail about my life that would push away potential friends.
But why am I telling you this?
Because between my research and my presentation, I changed my mind on what it means to be lonely. I think loneliness is something that we all experience from time to time. It’s that space within ourselves that we cannot fill, the silence that we cannot sit with. It’s not about people or aloneness. It’s about “being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you” in the words of C.G. Jung.
If you often felt lonely and detached in childhood, you might identify with some of these feelings and behaviours:
· Feel in a constant state of detachment and separation from other people. This may be accompanied by a sense of ‘unreality’ – the feeling that you are living in a dream or a nightmare. You might feel like you are not living your own life but are instead watching a movie of your life.
· Be prone to oversharing intimate details of your life with strangers and panic about it afterwards. This can range from telling your new work colleague about your sex life to disclosing highly sensitive information to someone you literally just met. The main feeling that you are left with is regret. You wish you had never said anything is the first place. Oversharing often comes from the desperate desire to feel connected with people.
· Feel compelled to be overly helpful – even when it involves making huge sacrifices in your personal life. You might take on far too many tasks at work or find it impossible to say NO to anyone in your life. This may be an unconscious attempt to get people to like you and subsequently want to spend more time with you.
· Struggle with maladaptive or excessive daydreaming. A rich fantasy life can often take the place of loneliness and make life feel more bearable when we are at our most alone. Daydreams and fantasy are very resourceful ways of combating childhood loneliness but it can be difficult to let go of them in adulthood. You may find yourself retreating to fantasy when life gets tough which can result in procrastination and avoidant behaviour.
If any of this resonates with you, don’t panic (easier said than done, I know)! It’s not just you. According to one study, at least 70% of people reported feelings of loneliness during the pandemic. I imagine the actual statistic is actually much higher than 70% although we may never know the true figure.
Loneliness is a universal experience and an intrinsic part of being human. It doesn’t mean that you are defective, wrong, unlikeable or any of those other things you might tell yourself. Sometimes loneliness just is. We all get tapped on the shoulder by it at some point. But like with all emotions, loneliness will pass. You may need a bit of help with helping loneliness move on. That might involve talking to someone about it, experimenting with new activities or tapping into your creativity.
Empower yourself to disempower loneliness.
Thank you for being here today.