Often during coaching sessions with women, we come to a critical juncture.
Having spoken about the symptoms – what is coming up in this woman’s experience and her analysis of why it might be happening – I often pause and ask her ‘but, what it is that you’re feeling in your body?’ or ‘how do these circumstances make you feel?’
This shift – from the intellectual, to the intuitive and emotional, leads to profound clarity almost immediately. So often our analysis of the situation and the narrative we have constructed bears little resemblance to what is actually going on.
‘I feel … lonely’, she says.
And in that moment, I can feel the stinging of tears behind her eyes. But I also feel relief – as if she has recognised something in herself and has released the burden of it. She isn’t quite sure why she feels lonely, given her life may in contain all the trimmings, relationships and busy-ness that is required of a modern woman. But she understands and is intuitive enough to realise that there is a contradiction between this – the feeling in her body – and her reality wherein she is actually surrounded by lots and lots of people.
This comes up in most conversations I have in circle, on retreat and in coaching sessions – and it’s a painful feeling I too experience at times. In fact, the void of my loneliness, my fear of abandonment and my search for connection has and continues to be my greatest teacher.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand about loneliness and it’s opposite, connection, – and what a modern woman really means when she says ‘I feel lonely’.
1. I am ashamed
Underneath almost all feelings of loneliness, is shame. Not guilt – which is the idea that we’ve done something wrong, but shame, which is the concept that there is something wrong with us. When we feel ashamed of something – be it our body shape, something that occurred in our past, where we are or are not in our career progression, our money and spending habits, or the food that we consume – our tendency is to withdraw from others for fear of being judged, abandonment or social isolation. I’ve seen two patterns emerge from this withdrawal – judgement and criticism, where we sling arrows at others before they abandon us, or deep internalisation, where we become hyper-introverted, anxious or scared of new or social situations. Brené Brown talks about the importance of having ‘shame buddies’ – those who we can speak these untruths to and be met with non-judgement and compassion. I have certainly found in my life that the more I share these things, the less they have a hold over my compensatory behaviours and relationships. The truth is that we all do things or have traits that we feel are unloveable, it is a universal human experience. The more we, as women, find safe spaces to connect and share our deepest secrets, the more we realise they do not make us unworthy of love.
2. I have abandoned my body
When I was 12 years old, my big sister and best playmate went off to high school, leaving me at home to complete Grade 6 (I was homeschooled until that point). My adolescent brain – itself going through massive upgrades in favour of connection, belonging and peer feedback – struggled to find equilibrium during this transition, and on some level I perceived that I may be being left behind. The truth of the matter is that I was still wholly surrounded by peers and friends and others who I had grown up with, but my nervous system registered this earthquake differently. It was at this time that I began to use food to comfort these big feelings – sugar was my drug of choice and I needed it as surely as someone addicted to heroin or ice.
In those moments of bingeing, I abandoned my body – the house of my soul which during this stage in my life felt unsafe. I abandoned her both because the feelings felt too big and I had no other tools to soothe myself and I abandoned her because of the shame and discomfort I felt after pushing those feelings down with food. It took many years to begin to restore my connection with her, and it’s something I still struggle with today. But in my case, and in the case of most of my clients, abandoning our bodies is something that we have been conditioned to do. And nothing feels lonelier than going through life as floating head.
3. I seeking external validation – and not receiving it
Another thing that promotes floating head syndrome, is our conditioning around achievement and our favouring of intellectual, rather than emotional intelligence. When we say ‘I am lonely’, what we can often mean is ‘I am not been seen the way I would like to be/need to be’. Culturally we place an extremely high value on how others view us – take an innate biological hardwiring to connect and add on a couple of hundred years of patriarchy – and we have successful bred a whole generation of women who’s sense of self is derived almost entirely from outside forces.
Colleagues, bosses, instagram, children and peers. It’s easy to see how this – coupled with the whole abandonment of our bodies thing mentioned above – can promote loneliness. We have come, on some level, to equate love and connection with achievement and productivity. And we desperately scan our horizon almost constantly looking for a way to get that need for validation and love met. I am acutely aware, for example, how my attention swings between motherhood, relationships, parenting, friendship or house matters depending on where I feel I am getting the most success. In my nervous system, it feels as though succeeding is a matter of life or death – an imprint that many of us develop as children when we seek approval from our caregivers.
This pattern at its worst can lead not only to chronic disease (the stress in our systems that keep us striving for that approval isn’t great for our physiological functioning) but – when the validation dries up – or we find ourselves in a situation where those around us don’t automatically sense our desperate need for approval – we can get ourselves into an anxious, overwhelmingly spiral of self criticism and self punishment.
The question, for me, becomes ‘at what point do we truly decide to start living our lives, based on our own innate selves and values, rather than living a life that may get the approval of those we love?’. There’s an opportunity in loneliness – to heal from this conditioning, to pull out a huge piece of paper and all our best stationary and write down all the things we could do and see if we were free of trying to making other people happy. And so, on some level, I reckon we owe those big feelings of loneliness some gratitude for being the messengers of things ready to be healed.
4. I am lacking emotional intimacy
Because we are not particularly adept as a society at dealing with strong, negative or uncomfortable emotions (there’s a quick fix for everything, right?), loneliness can be derived from it’s best mate – denial. In so many of those conversations I have with women, I gently draw their attention again and again to what is actually happening in their experience, versus all the things they feel should be happening in their experience.
Acknowledgement and acceptance – of where we we are and how we feel – coupled with deep forgiveness – goes a long way to stopping the desperate clawing for external validation. I truly believe that at our heart – we are struggling to connect, particularly with other women, because we are struggling to truly connect and acknowledge ourselves, warts and all.
A few months back I had a conversation with my husband. You know, one of those ones where you project all your bullshit onto someone else and expect them to wear the blame for your issues? Basically, I was telling him all the ways that he wasn’t been vulnerable with me and therefore how I felt as though our emotional intimacy was suffering. Over the next few weeks, I slowly started to question this premise. I started to see all the ways that he was showing up in a vulnerable way. And I started to see all the ways that I wasn’t. All the walls I was putting up. All the vulnerability I wasn’t sharing because of my own fears about how they might be met. I realised that my pattern of waiting for a knight in silver armour to come and save me from my emotions was playing out in my relationship. And I decided to be vulnerable with myself – to feel the hurts of where I hadn’t been seen before, to acknowledge the suffering in my life, and heal some BIG wounds around my body and sex and to foster the deep emotional intimacy with self that I was seeking in him.
And I realised that – deep down, the thing we crave the most is deep emotional intimacy with self. Freedom from the harsh self criticism and judgement. A hand on our chest saying, ‘I’m here for you’. Unconditional love from self. We need to become the parent we always wanted because it is only us knows truly what we need.
When we stay there with ourselves in this way, when we continue to be there for ourselves, our desperate need for approval and all the behaviours that go along with it – disappear. It opens a portal for connection with others unparalleled because we finally don’t expect that other person to behave in any way. We free them of our expectations and judgements because we have freed ourselves of them. We no longer act defensively or criticise others because we don’t need to wear an armour – afraid of what they may see. We have seen it all, witnessed it all, held it all, and loved it all – before anyone else even gets close. And that, my friends, is true power.
4. I have an emotion that needs to be expressed
I heard this great acronym the other day for ‘fine’ – feelings inside not expressed. When we answer ‘fine’ to the question, ‘how are you’, we are failing to acknowledge to ourselves or others what is really going on inside. We may be feeling sad, or scared, or overwhelmed because life, sometimes, can feel like that – especially in transitions. I can’t tell you how many times a day, a week, that I have to remind myself to feel.
Being emotional has been deemed unacceptable for women in our highly individualised, masculine world, which makes living an authentic life pretty hard and painful as we seek to repress any and all emotions – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I hate to be the bearer of bad news… but we are emotional beings. Our emotions are the messengers that are guiding us to survive, to thrive, to connect and to live. Aiming to be unemotional, I hate to say it, equates to dead person goals.
Women are both emotional and cyclical – two facts that left unacknowledged can leave us feeling alone as we wonder why every month we feel irritable, anxious, overwhelmed or forgetful. Contrary to what it may feel like, the more we come to truly own and be in wonder of our feminine nature, including our emotions, the less alone we feel. The more we feel what we feel and express it in the moment, the more connected to ourselves and our essence we become, the more confident we are at building that life that reflects our true selves, and attracting like minded souls who see and celebrate us exactly as we are. This is where women’s circles are changing the world – offering safe places to be seen in our full, expressive, selves without judgement, without anyone trying to fix us out of our emotion, and without anyone putting a label on said emotion. We are allowed to be witnessed as the emotion comes in, is acknowledged, is expressed, and then passes. A practice that we can also learn to give to ourselves in our daily lives through self compassion work or simply reminding ourselves that no matter what – we will be there with ourselves through it all.
There are lots of ways that we can begin to re-pattern our nervous system and heal our fear of abandonment. If you want to chat about one-one retreats, coaching or circle, send me an email and we can explore your individual needs. I also recorded a Facebook Live about these practices, which you can view at my Facebook page here.
I’d love to hear from you – what does ‘I am alone’ really mean to you? What are some of the ways that you are working to create emotional intimacy with yourself? And how has your practice changed the way you connect with others in the world?