Definition of Loneliness
While common definitions of loneliness describe it as a state of solitude or being alone, loneliness is actually a state of mind. Loneliness is defined by researchers as feeling lonely more than once a week.
Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people. Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, if you feel alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness plays into your state of mind.
For example, a businessman might feel lonely despite being surrounded by other business people and colleagues. A businesswoman beginning their two week business trip abroad might feel lonely, despite being constantly surrounded by business people.
Causes of Loneliness
Contributing factors to loneliness include situational variables, such as physical isolation, moving to a new location, and divorce. The death of someone significant in a person’s life can also lead to feelings of loneliness. Additionally, it can be a symptom of a things such as depression.
Loneliness can also be attributed to internal factors such as low self-esteem. People who lack confidence in themselves often believe that they are unworthy of the attention or regard of other people, which can lead to isolation and chronic loneliness. It can also be attributed to things being totally out of their control…this is where our friend the pandemic has probably come in…
It’s something I’m learning to cope with and learning to deal with. Here I was running a business, which accelerated during lockdown, constant zoom calls, phone calls, coaching and writing. But as I sat there in my garden towards the end of the day I was always overcome with a wave of unrelenting loneliness. I kid you not, the pandemic almost killed me through the sheer loneliness that I felt and have endured. I love my dog Penfold, but trust me he is a useless conversationalist, and it’s why I needed to look into and research what could happen unless I took steps to try and solve that feeling.
But this piece is not about me, We all know how stress walks hand-in-hand, knuckles white, with entrepreneurship, because of the constant need to put out the fires in front of us. Entrepreneurs, after all, are crazy enough to believe fighting fires is more fun than fire prevention. We often look to stress management – exercise, more/less sleep, yoga/Pilates, mindfulness – as a way to prolong our lives in this, the madcap life we’ve chosen.
But we never, as proud business owners and entrepreneurs, talk about the real silent killer: Loneliness.
We aren’t talking about simply acting alone, because we are proud people. Many entrepreneurs start out believing (and, more importantly, trusting) themselves and themselves alone. After all, entrepreneurship generally comes from a product or idea sprung from your head, and so a company is uniquely yours. It is a part of you.
Along the entrepreneurial journey, there are a good number of successes to share with your team, with your stakeholders and your customers. But there are a ton more failures and setbacks. Few people around you share in those. Simply because no-one wants to hear about failure.
That means you are essentially alone. You can only rely on yourself. And I truly believed that and perhaps are still struggling to control that. That’s, though, when solitude can turn to the more corrosive loneliness.
And that’s where the health problems start.
Loneliness has a wide range of negative effects on both physical and mental health, including:
- Alcoholism and drug use
- Altered brain function
- Antisocial behaviour
- Cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Decreased memory and learning
- Depression and suicide
- Increased stress levels
- Poor decision-making
These are not the only areas in which loneliness takes its toll. Lonely adults get less exercise than those who are not lonely. Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing us to premature ageing.
Advice is cheap, and readily ignored, particularly by the entrepreneurial and proud self-employed set, but I’ll try anyway. There ARE ways to avoid loneliness, or at least take away some of its killing power. Here are just a few:
While your instinct might be to always go it alone, you run the risk of self-imposed isolation, which almost always leads its close cousin, depression. Rather than isolate yourself, take on a partner or co-founder. Create a team of people around you. My favourite saying is “You are the sum of the 5 people you are surrounded by.”
I usually say this when it comes down to being a success or a failure. If you’re surrounded by 5 failures you’ll fail. If you’re surrounded by successful and inspirational people, you’ll succeed. So why not when it comes to loneliness too?
For one thing, you’ll have someone to talk with who is invested in your success. Second, it gives you the opportunity to get someone with complementary skills. Maybe you’re a tech whiz, so you need someone who is a skilled marketer.
True, having a partner sometime sucks, and you might find that even a founder needs to be fired down the line, but it can also be a wonderful, productive relationship.
I must admit I’ve struggled with this…it’s in my nature that when something is wrong I push people away. I always feel that I shouldn’t feel a certain way and if I do, it’s my mess that I got into, so it’s my mess to get out of right? Or that I didn’t feel important enough to people because here’s me a middle aged single guy, away from his family and that’s my fault. These guys have families and friends and that means I’m down the pecking order. I’m learning to combat those feelings, because I’ve learned that couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you insist on keeping all leadership functions to yourself, it might help to simply work adjacent to people just like you. Instead of operating your business from your kitchen table, spring on renting a desk or office at a co-working space. There, you can work alone amid a bunch of other companies doing the same thing. It’s a great way to meet people who might be able to help you work out problems, or network with like-minded founders to find funding or business opportunities. Plus, it forces you to put on clean clothes most days, which will also make you a far more desirable business partner.
Tillich’s contrast between loneliness and solitude is instructive. Theologically, solitude is never really being alone, since the feeling potentially brings you closer to your God. Practically, looking around you, seeing no one, and taking that as an opportunity for inner reflection, rather than outer isolation, can only be a positive for you. Call it prayer, meditation or talking to yourself, reflection always gives your mind the pause it needs to recharge. Be still, and know you are not God, but you can do great things.
I cry. I’m not ashamed of it. On Father’s Day I didn’t get to see my son, because he was in his bubble with his mum, and recently widowed grandfather. I bawled. We go through a range of emotions, but they really only get us in trouble if we let them manage us, rather than the other way around. Loneliness is a feeling, nothing more. After all, you can be lonely in a crowd of friends. Like all feelings, they need to be felt and then addressed. Cry it out. Have that pity party for yourself. Then wipe your nose and move forward.
Depression is the cancer of entrepreneurship and more and more business leaders are handling their own mental issues more effectively. If loneliness is leading to a true mental-health condition, find a therapist, or a coach…I have…and she’s simply amazing. If you just need to talk about where your life or business is heading, hire a coach. If it’s a spiritual crisis, find that bar where the priest and the rabbi always seem to walk in. Talk to your mentor. Call your dad. The greatest loss that comes from loneliness or depression is perspective. Only someone who isn’t you can truly see you without the biases our internal mirrors show us. My experience has been that people generally want to help others, so unburdening is rarely a burden.
I’d never presume to tell people how to live their lives, and experience tells me that lonely entrepreneurs are the least likely to listen anyway. But life is too important to spend it lonely. Take a few steps to correct that, and I promise I’ll leave you alone.