You want to feel less lonely?

The BBC recently collaborated with the Wellcome Collection and psychologists from the University of Manchester, the University of Exeter and Brunel University London to explore loneliness.

The study led to a series of broadcasts on Radio 4, and nine recommendations. Many of the recommendations have a CBT feel about them. In other words, we are being asked to change the way we think about our situation, and we are being challenged to take steps towards more socialising. These suggestions are good (and fairly obvious) as far as self help goes. But I believe there is more.

Their third suggestion, namely “Change your thinking to make it more positive”, might sound rather CBT but on further reading, it makes an important revelation.

“In our survey we tested empathy levels and found that people who say they feel lonely showed higher levels of empathy for other people’s social pain.”

My own experience as a counsellor informs me that not only do we become more empathic when we feel lonely, but our awareness of other people’s unconscious communications is heightened – and not only their pain. At this point we depart from CBT into a more psychoanalytic framework. In particular we’re in the world of projective identification, where the person knows intuitively what the other person’s unspoken messages are. Psychoanalysts believe this is the process by which an infant communicates with its mother or other caregiver, who in turn instinctively knows what the infant needs. That is a far from lonely place. In fact it is a place rich with social interaction.

As a counsellor, some of the work I do involves being open to projective identification. If I respond as if I’m somehow psychic, it’s because I’ve picked up something that’s from you, but is not in your own current awareness. A counselling relationship can consequently feel like it has a richness that isn’t normally experienced in everyday life.

So rather than try and distract yourself away from loneliness, maybe try and embrace it. Of course you will still need to meet people, but the quality of the interaction will feel very different. You might not be the most interesting person at a party but in a less distractive setting, such as a quiet coffee or a walk with someone, don’t force yourself to be the life and soul, open yourself up a bit and see what happens.

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