ENDING THE STIGMA: How to cultivate meaningful connections

Loneliness is often overlooked when we think about both our mental and physical health. Unfortunately, it’s a hidden epidemic threatening our well-being on every level.

In May, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory laying out a “first of its kind” framework for a “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.” Murthy says in the advisory that, “In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones and support systems.”

Wendy Tamis Robbins

The cure for chronic loneliness is not surrounding ourselves with more people or isolating ourselves to avoid rejection, but to connect in authentic ways. To feel fully connected, we must fully reveal ourselves. This is a big, courageous ask, no doubt.

Reframing loneliness
The 13-century poet Rumi said, “Our pains are messengers. Listen to them.” When we feel hunger pains, we feed our body. When we thirst, we drink. These are messages that we are lacking something vital to our very existence. What if we reframed loneliness as a similar messenger? A fierce protector asking for what it needs — deep connection with self, authentic connection with others and meaningful connection with the world it inhabits.

What if loneliness is a loyal friend reminding you there is more connection waiting on the other side of vulnerability and fear?

What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a subjective feeling of disconnection resulting from thoughts of abandonment and emotional isolation. No one can tell you that you are not lonely. While social isolation is quantifiable, loneliness is not. It’s the gap between the connections you have and those you think you need.

Why we feel lonely in a crowded room
Physical proximity to people and the amount of connections you have are not predictors of loneliness. The depth of loneliness and the strength of connection is all in our mind. When we are with those we know the best and love the most, if you feel like no one knows the REAL you, you can feel lonelier than when you are alone. It’s all about whether you feel seen, understood and supported by others.

How does it show up?
Loneliness shows up mentally as anxiety, depression, irritability, hostility, addiction, exhaustion and even anger, rage and violence. It shows up physically first as pain. Neuroscientists identified that the region of the brain that responds to loneliness is the same region that feels physical pain. There is also a powerful body of research showing that lonely people are more likely to become ill, experience cognitive decline and even die early. Experts suggest that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 30%, a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Why do we need connection?
Loneliness is derivative of our greatest fear — rejection by the tribe. Loneliness is a biological desire based on an evolutionary, primitive adaptation that drives us to seek out others because of what it meant in terms of resources and protection. Left alone, we had little access to food and water and were more vulnerable to predators. Consequently, loneliness triggers our fight or flight response because it’s interpreted as a threat to our very survival.

Most people function like icebergs — the tip is what we reveal to the outer world while our inner world remains hidden below the surface. Unfortunately, this perpetuates feelings of isolation. Fundamentally, all humans want to be seen, to matter and to be loved. It’s essential to the human experience. You cannot be fully accepted and loved if you are not fully seen and you cannot be fully seen unless you fully reveal yourself.

Connecting with self
The foundation to genuine connection with others is being connected with yourself — that inner world. You can’t be vulnerable enough to show up and share authentically unless you have a strong sense of worth, value and self-love. Self-loathing leads to perfectionism and people-pleasing because you don’t feel like you are enough as is.  
You can cultivate this connection through self discovery, exploration and reflection. You can practice meditation and journaling right at home and engage in therapy or coaching to examine your behaviors and beliefs.

Connecting with others
Robin Williams said, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. It’s to end up with people who make you feel alone.”

Once you have that internal foundation, you can share more openly without fearing rejection. Momentary discomfort of courageous vulnerability is worth the deep connection on the other side.

Wendy Tamis Robbins

Marblehead resident Wendy Tamis Robbins is an anxiety expert, author, wellness speaker and coach. Learn more about her work at wendytamisrobbins.com.

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