Loneliness and leadership - from aloneness to community

We are a lonely bunch. Vivek Murthy (United States Surgeon General 2014-2017) actually says we have reached a loneliness epidemic. Two out of five of adults in America report feeling lonely and the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. On average, Americans feel that when it comes to important matters, they only have two people they can talk to, down from three in the 1980s. 

Perhaps less surprisingly, half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their role. In traditional leadership styles, leaders have even fewer people to turn to than others. Traditionally, CEO's feel they can’t show their uncertainties. They don’t want to burden loved ones with their worries. They are supposed to portray confidence and direction. The saying goes that, when the CEO screws up, there is nobody to help. 

One way or the other,  all this loneliness isn’t good for us. It reduces our lifespan just as if we were smoking 15 cigarettes a day and may be more damaging to us than obesity. Loneliness increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. And at work? Loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs reasoning and decision making amid other things. 

Your loneliness isn’t just about you, either. It causes a downward spiral effect on others. “If you’re lonely, you transmit loneliness, and then you cut the tie or the other person cuts the tie. But now that person has been affected, and they proceed to behave the same way. There is this cascade of loneliness that causes a disintegration of the social network,” says Dr. Nicholas Christakis (New York Times, 2009). 

Murthy defines loneliness as “the subjective feeling of having inadequate social connections.” My own experience is far less eloquent: A harsh separation. Being an observer. Feeling cold. A deep and uneasy sense that I don’t belong. Aching longing. Unworthiness. Distance. Does any of this seem familiar? 

We have been chasing our longing for belonging for a very long time. But factors specific to the 21st century contribute to the epidemic. Take the dizzying acceleration in digital communications, globalization, data storage, and other technological advances. Our brains, which are evolving at a much slower pace, cannot come close to keeping up. We are trying nevertheless, swimming upriver in continuous stress. Bewildered, we feel increasingly isolated, seemingly alone in a world that is getting ahead.  Plus, there is this nagging sense that we hardly need live interactions anymore anyways. We can telecommute and hide behind device screens, robots can do surgeries. Heck, even animals need us less! Equipped with sensors, some dairy cows are capable of taking themselves to their milking machines these days.

So...what on earth are we still good for? Where do we belong?

Photo by Greg Rakozy | Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy | Unsplash

From an evolutionary perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Long ago, with predators all around us, our ability to build relationships of trust and cooperation helped increase our chances of survival. In other words, our loneliness has long served as a message that we need community to thrive. Belonging is who we have become. To feel the warmth of bonding and the rhythm of our heart is to be human. We can’t fool ourselves. We can’t hide behind the mask of being a CEO, behind the coolest social-network screen, the veneer of our outer competence. Because we are human, our heart will signal pain when we do. 

But here is the thing. Belonging is not the same as finding security in one’s status within a group, or feeling the satisfaction of receiving a short hit of Instagram approval. Status and approval are fickle, unreliable. It doesn't fulfill to be part of any community that defines itself through such ever shifting comparisons. Encouraged by our culture, however, we have learned to validate our worthiness through these externals.

We can’t ever win the game of externals. We can't ever solve loneliness by turning to groups to validate our worthiness. We cannot belong from a place of lack. We cannot belong without kindness and warmth.

The big paradox then: To feel less lonely, we actually, first of all, need to hang out a little more with ourselves: Alone. The philosopher Paul Tillich writes, “Our language [...] has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.” Isn’t that beautiful? In solitude we can learn to feel all one, capable, delighted, deeply loved and whole. Alone. We need solitude to experience belonging and worthiness, to befriend and ultimately let go of loneliness. We need solitude to discover kindness. And then we can be with others and create community, collaboration, the real stuff of togetherness marked by that very same kindness. This is the resiliency and truth of stepping into inner leadership, to make space for deep inner connection so we can embrace deep outer connection. 

Can I take time and explore what gives me fulfillment? Can I feel at home with my own mind? Dare I befriend what arises within me, so that nothing is alien at all? Dare I acknowledge our common humanity through this messy exploration of loneliness and aloneness? Can we then look at each other bowing to our wholeness, our unique all-one-ness, our truth? Can compassion for self and others be our cure for loneliness?

Back to the CEO for a sec: Is it actually true that when the CEO screws up there is nobody to help? What if we allow vulnerability, as a gift for us to learn with, giving us all permission to live? What if we ask for help and allow connection? What if we just listen? 

It always begins with small steps. Small moments of kind connection have an upward spiral effect. The beginnings of belonging are not really hard to build. How about a solitary walk (without podcasts, phone calls, screens)? And from a space of oneness with myself, how about reaching out? All-one, it is fun to join a peer group and talk about important matters. Kind to myself, I can find joy in collaborating with others, learning, falling, failing. It is okay to get to know one another. Really. It is okay to bond. We can make meaningful connections everywhere and through them we connect again with ourselves.

And there you have it, the circle of belonging comes home to itself, unbroken. Can we simply begin to accept and celebrate that we are in fact in this together and utterly belong?

Thanks as always for reading. Liked it? Please drop us a line and share with others. And do explore if coaching might be right for you - your transitions, dreams, goals, values, your skills as a leader - are you in sync with yourself for 2018?  If you are at all curious how the deep-conversation partnerships that we offer with our coaching might help you, or if you know someone for whom this might be beneficial, book a no-strings-attached conversation

With gratitude, sophia

Are you a subscriber? if not: SUBSCRIBE TO THIS BLOG