How to cope with different forms of loneliness
People who feel lonely often think that everyone else is doing OK while they aren’t. Loneliness is an isolating experience. You can be physically alone with little or no support from family or friends, or you can be in a crowd of people and feel misplaced. What’s more, the scenarios that cause a person to experience loneliness vary significantly.
According to a 2021 global survey, two in five people (41%) report becoming lonelier in the preceding six months. And in England, 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely.
When in the midst of loneliness, it can be very difficult to find a way out, and it has dramatic consequences on health, leading to disrupted sleep patterns, feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, depression, stress and lower immunity.
It’s an especially tricky problem because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma and makes it hard to ask for help. We speak to three people about their experiences…
“I felt lonely, sad, and guilty. I’d worked in that organisation for two years, and I thought I was part of the team, a community of like-minded professionals.”
Sonya Barlow experienced loneliness in the workplace after stepping onto the career ladder. The isolation began to stifle her ambitions, which prompted her to create a professional networking community called Like-Minded Females aimed at connecting with others who felt the same way. Since then, the network has seen much success, and Sonya has become a Radio Host for BBC Asian Network’s The Everyday Hustle, as well as authored Unprepared to Entrepreneur.
What’s your experience with loneliness?
After graduating in 2015, I started working in the tech sector, but felt out of place, like I didn’t belong or that I wasn’t in line with what was expected. I realised how lost, insecure, and unsure I felt. I’d later understand that what I was experiencing was imposter syndrome.
When I moved jobs, I decided to start fresh, but past experiences made me wary about getting too close with colleagues. I’d negotiated a £20,000 pay rise, was working in the city, and surrounded by the hustle and bustle, yet I still felt like I didn’t belong. So, during my journey to and from work, I’d think about what I was feeling, why, and what I could do to change it.
One day while I was sitting on the train, I was scrolling through my chats and realised how limited they were, adding to the feeling that I had no community. That’s when I decided to message one of my close friends from uni, and we ended up chatting about my situation. At the same time, I started searching for networking events and opportunities in London, and I asked my friend to come with me as moral support.
In spring 2018, I went to my first ever networking event and I loved it! I was sold into this notion of meeting and engaging with interesting new people. But, the cost of entry was way too high – half of the living cost in London. I was shocked, and then I got angry because meeting like-minded people should be accessible. This made me determined to do something about it, and that’s how Like-Minded Females was born.
Do you recall any particularly challenging moments?
The most challenging – which became a determining moment – was when I was moving from long-term employment to my second ever corporate role. Though this new opportunity came with a higher salary and new responsibilities, I felt sad about leaving. I thought that my last day would include the traditional farewell lunch, with my managers and colleagues wishing me well and a little praise.
It was anything but that. That day I spent it alone, eating lunch outside the office. My managers, it turned out, had forgotten to notify the team I was leaving and to make it worse, they decided to work from home – on my final day. Handing my laptop to HR, I felt empowered about growing professionally.
But, when I was walking to the tube from the office, instead of feeling elated, I felt lonely, sad, and guilty. I’d worked in that organisation for two years, and I thought I was part of the team, a community of like-minded professionals. That’s when I truly felt alone and lost in London, wondering who I was and what my purpose was.
So, do you think you can be lonely despite being with a group of people?
The idea of loneliness doesn’t mean that you don’t have friendship groups. I’ve always had very good friends and a supportive family. I was lonely because I had no sense of identity when I was working in the corporate world. I was trying to fit into a mould that wasn’t me.
For me, loneliness isn’t always about people. It’s about the relationship we have with ourselves when we’re alone. It has a lot to do with finding your purpose, knowing your value, and building your sense of self.
How can feeling lonely in the workplace affect career building?
When I was working in the tech sector and climbing the corporate ladder, I struggled to name close colleagues. I felt I had nowhere and no one to turn to discuss challenging work scenarios.
I felt out of place because I wasn’t being myself. I found myself conforming to the standards and norms of what being a woman in technology meant. I’m quite an energetic, ambitious, and confident person who often thinks out loud and wants to get hands-on in the projects I work with.
But the tech sector – or at least where I was working – wasn’t giving me the space and conditions to grow as a professional. It wanted me to be a heterogeneous machine where everyone thinks and acts the same. I felt stuck because my skills weren’t aligning with who I am.
Unfortunately, these situations can make you stop progressing professionally and even question your own sense of worth.
What would your advice be for others who feel lonely in the working world?
I’d recommend professionals build their confidence and self-esteem by acknowledging their value and what makes them unique.
Loneliness also comes from a lack of belonging, which is why finding your community is so important for professionals who feel lonely – it also helps with building confidence.
Some of the things you can do to create a community are to connect with others in their workplace or online. If you work remotely, schedule co-working sessions or virtual coffee chats.
How have you aimed to overcome professional loneliness?
I’ve done two things:
- Work on building and strengthening my community as well as shifting my mindset around creating connections. For example, instead of stressing out about the concept of networking, I see it as starting a conversation and listening to others.
- Understand that no matter who people are or their profile, they’ll also struggle with self-confidence and loneliness. That helped me accept that it’s ok to feel like this and lean on my community. Some of the actions I’ve taken to lessen feeling lonely are connecting with other entrepreneurs, scheduling virtual meets, talking it out, and allowing myself to feel emotions.
At the end of the day, we must be positively selfish to ensure that we’re good before we can be good for others. This means taking time to understand your skills, acknowledge your gaps, and take time for self-care, be that reading, walking, or investing in spa treatments.
Do you remember your first-ever LMF brunch meet up? Was it apparent others felt the same way as you?
The first LMF Network brunch, its first-ever event, was a failure. After forty-five minutes and no shows from the 12 confirmed guests, the waitress kindly asked for the table back.
It took three attempts to have one person at one brunch, and it was what I needed to confirm that it wasn’t just me that needed a community like LMF. This person reassured me that what I was feeling and experiencing was similar to other professionals’ situations.
So, slowly but surely, the community started to connect and grow online. We moved from LinkedIn to Instagram to in-person events and workshops. I also realised companies were interested in working with us to build community forums where individuals could meet other people and discuss careers, confidence, and skills.
It sounds like the LMF network has filled a loneliness gap for you. But do you still get lonely from time to time?
Of course. I recently went through a period of social burnout when I started to have higher profile work at LMF, The Everyday Hustle at the BBC Asian Network, and as a LinkedIn Changemaker.
This increasing awareness has meant more meetings, more networking events, and being more out there. So long story short, I didn’t know how to handle it, which made me feel tired and like I didn’t want to meet more people.
Even when I was surrounded by people, I felt out of place and alone because I wasn’t liking who I was at that moment which impacted my identity. I was putting emphasis on people rather than why I was doing the work I was doing at LMF Network. So, I decided to delete all my apps and learn to love myself again.
“Being in contact with people in similar stages of grief makes it easier for me to express how I’m feeling”
Tony Holmes lost his wife to cancer in July 2021. Since then, he’s had to adjust to life without her and grapple with feelings of loneliness and grief. Here he shares what’s helped him on his journey following bereavement. This includes an app called Untangle which has connected him to a community of other people who are going through the same experience.
What’s your experience with loneliness?
I feel my experience with loneliness stems from the fact my wife and I spent a lot of time together (just me and her). We did socialise and have family gatherings, but most of the time it was mainly just the two of us. I suppose my loneliness now is more prominent because she’s no longer with me. I feel so isolated at times. It’s definitely a different feeling from any experience of being alone that I’ve felt before.
Bereavement is typically a time when many people reach out. What made you realise you needed to look for support outside your social group?
I looked for bereavement groups because I felt very isolated. I was in regular contact with family and friends, but nobody seemed to fully understand my grief. They were supportive at first, but then after a few months, I got the impression that most people thought that I was getting over it. I wasn’t, I’m still not, and I don’t think I ever will be. Being in contact with people in similar stages of grief makes it easier for me to express how I’m feeling.
Have you found there’s a stigma (particularly with men) around talking about loneliness?
Yes, definitely! Men seem to be guarded when showing their emotions. I feel that men don’t want to approach the subject of grief and loneliness. They’ll try to change the subject when it’s brought up.
So, what was the reaction from others when you began to speak about loneliness?
At first, they were very sympathetic. But as time’s gone on, I feel that most people don’t really want to talk about it or feel uncomfortable.
You started using the app Untangle, how has this helped you?
It’s put me in touch with people who are in similar situations to me and are suffering from grief. I feel that reading other people’s experiences helps me to understand my own grief better.
Is there anything else that’s helped relieve some of your loneliness?
As strange as it may seem, spending time alone to take up hobbies such as painting. I also read a lot and I watch videos on YouTube that deal with the subject of grief and spirituality. I find these things help relieve the sense of loneliness I feel.
What would you say to others who are at the start of their journey with bereavement-related loneliness?
I’d say be kind to yourself. Take your time to process your thoughts. Think of the happy memories you have with your loved ones. Try not to isolate yourself from people. And don’t bottle up your emotions! If you need to cry, just do it.
“London is the kind of place where you can be surrounded by people, and yet still feel lonely and isolated”
When Holly Cooke moved to London she had no established social circle. It led her to set up The London Lonely Girls Club which aims to facilitate activities that women feeling lonely in the big smoke can do together. Three years on, the group has gone from three members to more than 15,000. Here she reflects on what she’s learned from the community.
Is The London Lonely Girls Club grounded in your own experiences with loneliness?
I set up the London Lonely Girls Club three and a half years ago after moving to London and knowing absolutely no one. It was my lifelong dream to live in this incredible city. However, I very quickly realised that, although it’s one of the coolest and most incredible cities in the world, it can be one of the loneliest if you don’t know anyone.
I had the longest list of things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go, and restaurants I wanted to eat at, but unfortunately, I had no one to do these things with. London is so busy and so large, that it’s the kind of place where you can be surrounded by people, usually on a boiling hot and packed tube, and yet still feel lonely and isolated.
So, from this LLGC was born. My only aim was to hopefully meet one or two friends. But it’s gone well beyond that!
Do you remember how you felt setting up your first-ever meeting?
Monthly in-real-life (IRL) meetups are one of the key components of LLGC, and what we do as a community. This was really important to me from the outset. But actually, organising the first one was absolutely terrifying. I had no idea if anyone was actually going to turn up, so one of my uni friends came along with me just in case every person was a no show. But thankfully they weren’t, and three other girls came along too!
What kind of things do you get up to in the club?
LLGC is both an online and IRL community. We have an active community forum where members can post, comment, engage and interact with each other. Alongside this, we run between two to four meetups every month, which have ranged from brunches and dinners to day trips, cocktail making, pottery classes and more! Our members also often organise their own meetups as well as go to gigs, and concerts, have picnics, and go clubbing.
Did the club remain active in lockdown – no doubt when it was needed most?
Yes! During lockdown, we stopped all our IRL meet-ups, and had sessions online once a month. We did quizzes and games, and also just opened up the space for people to chat.
The community more than doubled in size during the lockdown, which just really goes to show it was needed and how many women were feeling so lonely and isolated during the pandemic. It was also a great space for people who lived in specific areas to connect with those who lived nearby to go for a run or walk in the local park.
What’s surprised you most about the club?
The fact that anyone wanted to join! When I started the community all I wanted was to make one or two friends. I had no idea that so many people would feel the same as me, or that three and a half years later we’d still be running and have more than 15,000 members!
What kind of people turn up to the club?
LLGC is a completely diverse community in terms of those who join our Facebook group. Ages vary from 18-60, and due to this so do their professions.
Our IRL meet-ups are typically attended by those aged around 20-35, but they’re open to all members of our community.
Do you have any tips for others dealing with social loneliness?
- Try and become as comfortable as you can with being on your own and being in your own company. Even if that’s just taking yourself out for a walk. I found that being able to take myself out for brunch or lunch, or to the theatre on my own, has been such an empowering thing, but it’s definitely something that becomes more comfortable over time.This also means that if you do have things that you want to do, but no one to do them with, you’re more likely to feel able to go on your own and not miss out just because you don’t have anyone go with.
- Be open to every and any opportunity to meet new people. Don’t close yourself off physically or mentally. You never know when or where you might meet someone that’s just your kind of person or the type of person you need in your life at that time.
- Join a community! Whether it’s something like LLGC, a local sports team, book club, or craft club. Just get yourself out there and talk to new people. It can be the scariest thing ever (trust me, I’ve been there) but if you step out of your comfort zone and try, it could have the best results!
- Feel the fear but do it anyway! When talking to community members, it seems one of the scariest steps is messaging someone after a meet-up or after being in a group setting to see if they’d like to hang out one-on-one. The fear of rejection, someone telling you to go away or just ignoring you is awful. I still get this now if I’ve met someone I fancy going for a drink with after meeting them at one of our events. But it can be so worth it! One message can change your life and be the start of an amazing friendship. You just have to push past the fear and anxiety, which I know from personal experience is easier said than done.
Do you still get lonely from time to time?
Running the community has made me realise just how normal loneliness is and how common it is for people to feel that way, especially if you’re new to a city or those around you are in different life stages or have different priorities at that point.
London is such a busy, transient city, so people are always moving on and leaving, but then new ones are always arriving too.
Holly, Tony, Sonya’s stories as told to Molly Raycraft
Can you relate? Here are some handy links for loneliness
- Alonement: How to be Alone and Absolutely Own It by Francesca Specter (check out our podcast with Francesca)
- What a Time to be Alone: The Slumflower’s Guide to Why You Are Already Enough by Chidera Eggerue
- A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
- The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
- Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari (Ella Henderson recommended this one on The BALANCE podcast)