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Welcome to the Carers’ Heart blog. This week is a follow-up to the blog post and podcast about Feeling lonely, even when you are not alone posted on the 1st July. This time I am exploring a bit deeper into how at certain times of the year, like faith and cultural special events, such as Christmas, Ramadan or Hanukkah, being a carer can mean that you might feel even more isolated or lonely if we are unable to join others to celebrate these special times. I will share some activities and exercises to help reduce the sense of loneliness or isolation, not just at these times, but throughout the whole year.

In the last post, I spoke about the different ways we can experience loneliness as carers and that it doesn’t matter whether you are physically alone or in a room filled with people, that experience can be real and distressing, particularly if experienced for a long period of time. I provided lots of activities, resources and exercises to help you to manage and reduce any feelings of loneliness. BUT the most important sentence in the post was that having feelings of loneliness or even having a sense of being lonely, is completely normal. It is a natural response to circumstances and situations and is something that most of us will feel at some point in our lives but there are things you can do to reduce it.

In this post, I am diving deeper into what is loneliness and exploring that it may not be so much about focusing on being alone, as an external experience. But perhaps it is more about what we are feeling internally, for example, what emotions are we feeling, and how they can evoke a sense of loneliness. To begin to understand and recognise where the emotions are coming from and to start to acknowledge them and live with them is a step towards changing the hold loneliness can have on us. 

Before I start to explore this, I just wanted to share the Cambridge definition of loneliness with you (we do love a definition!).

loneliness (noun) “the state of being lonely”.

Now, that obviously isn’t an earth-shattering revelation, I bet it didn’t take long to come up with that!

However, it is the related words that accompany it which are enlightening and a useful place to start to investigate why loneliness is so much more than being or feeling alone.

bitter, guilt, melancholia, remorseful, mourn

When reading the related words in the definition, I got an immediate connection to the feeling of loneliness, but was struck by these words in particular:

bitter is resentment.

guilt is well  our old friend ‘guilt’

melancholia – is sadness

remorseful – is a combination of shame, guilt and resentment

mourn  – is grief

They are all emotions that caregivers experience regularly, hitting us like waves, sometimes several at a time but they are also words used to describe loneliness!

So, a feeling of loneliness may be less about searching outside of ourselves for something or someone to meet a physical or psychological needs. It might be that by exploring, recognising and accepting what we are experiencing as a feeling of loneliness, might actually be thoughts being evoked by difficult emotions, such as sadness, grief or guilt. A different way to consider what loneliness might mean to us and we will return to this idea in a while.

Particular times of the year, in any culture, will have periods of special celebrations, when friend, families and communities come together and share times of festivities and companionship. However, as a caregiver, particularly this year, 2020 with the pandemic, it is possible that for many reasons, possibly for the first time, we will not be able to physically join others to celebrate. Even though we understand the reasons, it is distressing to not have that usual shared experience with those we love and that alone can make us feel lonely and isolated, even if this is something that we do not normally experience.

For others, however, being confined to one location, perhaps because a loved one is unable to leave the home or can’t be left for any periods of time, this year will be not be a new experience, in fact, it might be ‘life as normal’ for them and their sense of loneliness could be intense or at times, overwhelming. Bearing witness to the happiness and togetherness of others at special times of the year can be emotionally and psychologically draining and highlight the limitations of our own situation and lives.

Special times of the year can also evoke a sense of having lost something, a person or time in your life when you felt you were particularly happy and part of something bigger. This sense of nostalgia, sometimes looking back with rose-tinted glasses, can make us feel that even though we are with others, with those that we love, it isn’t the same as before and we long for something we can never have again, and it may seem that now, loneliness is our only companion. 

In the above scenarios, the sense of loneliness might be experienced in similar ways, but the intensity might be different. We have thoughts in our minds telling us stories about how lonely we are, how alone we are, perhaps even that we are not worthy of sharing these special times with others. Or that actually, we want to be alone right now, but have a sense that we should want to be with them and that there is something wrong with us for feeling like this.

Thinking back to the words that were related to the definition of loneliness, which were actually describing emotions, starting to develop that idea, to move forward and consider a different way to look at recognising and reducing our loneliness, I just want to say again that having feelings of loneliness is completely normal. However, despite being a normal condition and something that a lot of people will experience in their lives, it is a feeling that is letting you know that something is not quite right for us and allows us to have an opportunity to start to think about how we can change the story.

In the previous post about loneliness, I shared some of the psychology theories that might be behind the feeling of loneliness and some of the negative consequences of not addressing it, particularly if you have experienced it for extended periods. Then I explored some ideas for getting connected such as joining forums, meet up groups and volunteering. However, although all of these activities are proved to help people to reduce their sense of loneliness, they are all external activities, things that we can do, but they might not help us to identify and deal with, what might be causing the loneliness in the first place.

So, in this post, I want to share with you the idea that our sense of loneliness, however, intense, may be triggered by the stories our minds are telling us about how we feel about our situation or our lives.  Along with loneliness, we can often have a sense of isolation or aloneness and although these feelings can coexist with feeling lonely, sometimes we may feel just one or two them at a time. In the last post, I shared that I have been lonelier while in a relationship than I have ever been on my own and while this is true, when I reflected on the feelings I had at the time, I think I was actually feeling sad, frustration and grief at the life I was living, rather than actual loneliness.

The more I reflected on how I felt when I was writing that blog, the more I recognised that I don’t actually feel loneliness in the way it is described in the Cambridge definition “the state of being lonely”. What I often feel, as a carer, is isolation and when I allow my mind let to go of the story in my head that is telling me I am isolated, I recognise an emotion, which is often resentment. When I feel a sense of aloneness, it is actually most often when I want or need to be alone, not that I am feeling alone. Then again, when I think about the story, I am telling myself about that, it is often because I need physical and psychological space at a lot of the time and can, again, resent my loved one when I can’t achieve that.

So, I started to spend more time researching, reading and thinking about one possibility, that if the sense of loneliness is a response to the thoughts and stories our mind are telling us, then what we are actually feeling is the physical and psychological response to emotions, such as sadness, grief and remorse and they manifest themselves as a feeling of loneliness. If this was true, or at least a possibility for some of us, then the way to reduce those feelings, is to try and recognise what those emotions might be and find ways of dialling them back and letting them go.

This would mean that rather than blaming our loneliness on external circumstances, such as the absence of others or having our lives restricted by the circumstances we find ourselves in as caregivers, we can take responsibility and control, for our internal emotions that might be evoking the sense of loneliness. This might then release us to think differently, to take positive action and create a different, better future, without loneliness.

There are two exercises or activities that lend themselves to starting the process of seeking the answer to our loneliness, self-compassion and mindfulness or mediation. I have spoken before about the power of self-compassion in several posts and as I practice and learn more about it, the more I am feeling the benefits in allowing my emotions to surface and live with them until they fade away. I will add Kristin Neff’s 3 exercises for exploring self-compassion in the notes below, in both audio and written forms. I would recommend starting with self-compassion, as one important element of it is being present in our own lives and acknowledging the challenges we are facing right now, without getting caught up in the drama of them. Then allowing yourself to experience some comfort from knowing that they are shared challenges, with millions of other people around the world and show kindness to yourself for being an amazing human being you are.  

The next activity I would recommend is to start with small, short exercises of either mindfulness or meditation. They can be as little as a one or two minutes a day to start with, then building until you spend 10-20 minutes a couple of times a week. Find a quiet space to be really present in your life and to give yourself permission to see if the story you are telling yourself about being lonely, might actually be emotions you have not recognised or perhaps been trying to push away or ignore. I have also found mindfulness and meditation really useful and worthwhile activities, so much so that I recently qualified as a Meditation and Mindfulness Teacher and have included a 15 mins guided meditation, both written and audio versions, prepared by the very experienced and talented meditation teacher, Itai Ivtzan, School of Transformation.

As you start to practice this or perhaps another meditation you have found that works well for you, begin with just noticing the story your mind is telling you about being lonely. Then, as you practice and become more comfortable with recognising those stories, allowing your mind to quieten, notice any emotions that you are feeling when you think about the story of loneliness. If you have a strong sense of one or two particular emotions, gently breath in and out a couple of times and bring yourself back to room, acknowledge the emotions and feelings they bring, then let them go. Try to name them if you can, but don’t worry if you can’t particularly when you first practice this, just give the emotion any name you want, so you will recognise it again in the future.

Over several days, weeks and months, take as much time as you need. When you have a sense of loneliness, try to focus on the story your mind it is telling you about that feeling, and identify the emotion that you may actually be experiencing. It becomes easier to notice the difference between those unhelpful thoughts and stories about feeling lonely, and the presence of emotions, that before you may not have been consciously aware of.

The last suggestion I have for you is to read (or listen to) the four posts I published in November, about building emotional resilience by recognising and managing negative emotions such as guilt, grief, resentment and anger. In each one, I share some of my experiences in dealing with these emotions and provides some practical activities to help you build your own emotional resilience.

I hope this post has given you a different way to think about your loneliness, that it might actually be emotions at play, rather than an externally driven sense of needing to be with others. If you have found this useful, or not!  please do share your thoughts with us and let us know if there is a topic you would like us to cover by dropping us a line at enquiries@carershearts.org

The next episode, What a special thing it is that you do will be published on the 16th December. No, I am not repeating myself!  This post I will be reflecting the power of being an unpaid carer, the love you so willingly share with your loved one and celebrate what am amazing thing it is you do!

Thank you so much for reading this post, I know this topic is difficult and emotional to talk about, particularly at this time of year if you celebrate Christmas, but whatever special events you celebrate throughout the year, it is important to explore them together and support each other, so I hope you found them useful. I hope you can join me next time and remember, what a special thing it is that you do.

References and Resources

Ease loneliness meditation

Kristin Neff’s 3 Self-compassion written exercises

Kristin Neff’s 3 Self-compassion audio version

Lonely, not Alone – where you yellow socks!

Elefriends

Headspace – What is loneliness?

Marmalade Trust – Christmas Cheer

Young people more likely to feel lonely – Independent

Co-op and British Red Cross – Tackle Loneliness in the UK

Study shows older men feel ‘excluded, overlooked and cut-off’

UK Government – Let’s Talk Loneliness – Resources

UK Minister of Loneliness

We Know About Mental Health. What About Social Health?

The Science of Happiness – Episode 75 – A cure for Loneliness

Cambridge Definition of Loneliness

Music Composed by Michael Coltham – Black Lab Music

Black Lab  Music