What does loneliness look like to you? If we’re being honest- I don’t look like loneliness; which brings up the point, that you can’t identify loneliness just by looking at someone.
Loneliness unlike other health paradigms, doesn’t have the most obvious symptoms. A person can be high functioning and lonely. Specifically, what I mean by that is a person can be social, have a wide network of friends and colleagues, and still be lonely. Lonely people don’t always “look” lonely. Quite honestly when I think about myself, I feel like I fall into that category. From the outside, I seem like a friendly “normal” person. I have a large social network. I am naturally extroverted and outgoing- and I have always been like this, even as a kid (I used to put on “shows” for literally anyone and everyone, and would PERFORM, even when my audience seemed to have way better things to do. Cough cough, mom and dad.). What I didn’t realize, is that just because I was all of these things- outgoing, eccentric, an audience seeker- didn’t mean I was immune to loneliness. Which is such a relief to now know, because I have always felt a disconnect between my environment and the way I actually felt in it.
By definition this all makes sense now. Loneliness can be defined as the gap between relationships you want and those you have, which causes emotional pain.1 Loneliness is subjective- because there isn’t a specific criteria for loneliness, you just feel it when you do. It’s no surprise that our world is getting lonelier and lonelier as we progress forward in the quest for technology and knowledge. I see it every morning on the way to work, on the way home from work, and even experience it myself- every. Single. Day. But we don’t discuss loneliness enough as a society.
So when asked to listen to our newest project share out for Quokka- the project dedicated to building social connection and reducing loneliness in young adults, I shrunk into myself a little bit. I have many emotions surrounding this project- because I would be lying if I didn’t say it hits a little too close to my inner world. Why didn’t I have this information when I was in school? Why did no one tell me that you could be a social butterfly and still feel so lonely inside? When I reminisce about my early college years- especially my first year- it was one of loneliness points in my life. Leaving high school was exciting- a new opportunity to be this person I had mentally built up in my mind- a new identity, new friends, a new place. But that was wildly different than what I was expecting. My thought process progressed from being extremely excited, to “it’s going to be okay, trust the process”, to “wait how are other people already so acquainted with each other,” to “maybe I will just recluse to my room and watch Netflix.” It definitely felt like everyone had friends, while I was just seemingly floating from group to group. I felt not only disconnected with my outer world, but with my inner world as well. I didn’t understand how I- such an outgoing, extroverted person- who was talking to people and making “friends” still felt completely and utterly alone. Not only that, I didn’t even have the language to describe what was happening to me. I was exhausted by constantly reaching out to people to try to garnish some sort of social connection, especially when it seemed like I was the only one that was really having to try.
I felt not only disconnected with my outer world, but with my inner world as well. I didn’t understand how I- such an outgoing, extroverted person- who was talking to people and making “friends” still felt completely and utterly alone.
How did everyone already have friends? Was everyone just automatically best friends with their roommate? Was I missing something? Did I just peak in high school? Maybe I’m not as social as I thought I was? I had all of these people around me but no idea how to actually connect with them. And even if I did- how was I going to know if they actually liked me?
Like I mentioned, I am a very extroverted person, so making friends should be easy for me right? Wrong. While I do enjoy getting to know people, I have a hard time making deep connections with people past a surface level. I have a very guarded approach to social connection, even when it doesn’t seem like I do when a person is talking to me. I won’t lie, like many, have been burned in the past by close friends. I have plenty of past trauma from my middle school years, (I was severely bullied), and that accounts for the way I approach social connection. While I believe these experiences made me a stronger more empathetic person, doesn’t discount the fact that those years still affect me to this day (trauma, am I right?). Even after joining a sorority- a supposed network of women to which I was to feel immediately connected with- everything still felt forced. I was wildly uncomfortable, and paranoid that I wasn’t doing enough, no one really liked me, and I was a weirdo. For at least six months it felt like I had the word desperate tattooed across my forehead.
The thing about loneliness is it can trigger a cycle of connection or disconnection depending on our perception of making friends and reaching out to people. People who are lonely generally have fixed beliefs about themselves and their ability to form friendships in general- in part this could be related to the fact that society has ingrained this idea that friendship should be “easy and effortless,” that if you have to try at a friendship it probably isn’t worth it or going to work out. We don’t embrace awkward moments as a society or being awkward in public for that matter. This project is actively attempting to shift these mindset beliefs and disrupt the the cycle of disconnection. While am still a tad bitter that this information wasn’t readily available to me when I was starting out in school, I still managed to find a way to overcome intense feelings of loneliness on my own- with time, and my own strategies- not surprisingly similar to the ones presented in the share out.
The Quokka project aims to switch the lense in which lonely people approach social interaction by changing the sense of agency surrounding how we go about socially interacting with one another. When we as individuals change the lense in which we view ourselves connecting with others- and not worry so much about the actual social interaction itself- we can use small positive social interactions like small talk to bolster our feelings around that interaction. I started to use this with my sorority peers- feeling like they would be the easiest to corral into this group of connections I was trying to make. I figured- if I could make them laugh, or smile, or leave them with some sort of positive connection, that they must or would eventually like me. Even using the awkwardness of not knowing anyone, to my advantage- humor and reliability in exchange for a “hangout” at a later date.
Everyone is lonely. So why is no one talking about it?
Drake raps about it on his newest album in the song Emotionless. We explore it on television shows like 13 Reasons Why. We hear about horrible tragedies like suicides without any prior knowledge of mental health disorders or depression. Thirty percent of college students reported feeling very lonely in the recent past 2; my own peers were struggling with their own loneliness battle. But still- why is no one making an active effort to change the conversational tone of what it means to be lonely?
We have the tools to connect to each other- that’s not the problem either. Facebook- or back in the day “The Facebook” was originally created to connect college freshman on campus. We can meet people 6,000 miles away through a direct message on Instagram- connecting isn’t the problem. It’s the depth of connection that is lackluster. The challenge is being able to talk about that loneliness and express it in a way that makes ourselves feel heard. What Hopelab is trying to do is change the way we think about social interactions, and the social norms surrounding them. Friendships aren’t as easy to build as people say they are, the best four years of your life don’t just end in college, and even the most social of butterflies are secretly hiding in their cocoons. Loneliness will always have a bit of a hold over us because its our own individual perception. But learning strategies to overcome our own perceptions and ideations of our self is how we can conquer it.
Peplau & Perlman, 1982
ACHA National College Health Assessment, 2017