I think we’ve all been lonely at times. It’s part of the human experience. Potentially it’s something that we might have to accept. In an ONS report in 2018, it was found that 9.8% of young people aged 16-24 and 11.3% of young people aged 10 to 15 years said that they were often lonely. According to AgeUK, 3.6 million older people in the UK live alone, of whom over 2 million are aged 75+. But just because it might be likely, doesn’t mean we have to like it. I wonder if we can enjoy it.
I have run skills based sessions and discussions on loneliness and the following occurs to me. People are very different. Some of us prefer to be alone. Whether being by ourselves gives us time to re-set or we find being in a group or crowd difficult. Whatever our reasons some of us thrive in our own company. I think that’s great. It’s incredibly powerful to be able to sit with yourself. But it’s a choice. For some a courageous choice.
Being alone is different from being lonely. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “you not lonely, you have so many friends” or “don’t be ridiculous, you’re can’t be lonely, you’re so busy!”. I hope most of us recognize that these are unhelpful and unempathetic responses. You can easily be busy or surrounded by friends and family and still be lonely. I know I have been and I don’t think I’m alone in this.
So what’s the difference? Being alone and loneliness are different. Being alone is a choice. Loneliness isn’t. If I choose to take some time to be alone, that is my choice. It might be difficult but often I’m challenging myself. Or maybe I’m having a much needed break. I’ve learnt that sometimes I don’t like silence. If I’m home alone the absence of noise chafes. Other days I crave the silence. I have sensory overload and I need the quiet. In those moments, I’m not lonely. I’m by myself certainly. But loneliness isn’t a foregone conclusion.
When I’m lonely it’s a visceral feeling. I feel alienated, isolated, ‘othered’. Sometimes I see it coming. Most frequently it sneaks up on me. For seemingly no reason, other times I might be triggered. Someone says something or does something and suddenly I’m lonely. No matter whom I’m with or what I’m doing. Loneliness swamps me. It’s not a choice. It’s often a struggle. And that to me makes all the difference.