There is an epidemic amongst men that they don’t want you to know about. It’s something they’re hiding from you that brings them great shame. They’re hiding it because admitting it exists strikes at the very core of something they learnt a long time ago. Men learnt to hide anything that isn’t consistent with being the man everyone expects them to be.
It’s something that I experienced for many years and still do from time to time. In fact, the last time was this morning and even admitting it now feels edgy for me to say.
The truth is, sometimes I feel lonely.
Admitting to being lonely is often met with pity. Men base their identities around them being strong, popular and self-reliant. A common perception of loneliness is to be weak and alone. Therefore, admitting to being lonely will emasculate many men.
The reality is that loneliness isn’t what you think it is. You can be lonely in a crowded bar, surrounded by your family or when speaking with friends.
It’s an epidemic
A UK study in 2015 suggested that 2.5 million British men are lonely and have no close male friends. In the study, 50 percent reported that they had two close friends or fewer. Approximately 20 percent reported they had no close male friends at all.
There is a terrible irony that we live in the most connected age in history, yet so many of us are feeling more lonely than ever before.
I once read a story about a man who was nervous about his impending marriage. He wasn’t nervous about making his vows but that he had no close friends to ask to be his best man.
The impact of this is very real and studies have shown that loneliness and isolation can increase the risk of premature death by up to 30 percent. It can cause health problems such as depression, anxiety, stress and addictive behaviours. One report suggested loneliness was more dangerous to your health than being obese or having a mild smoking habit.
But what is loneliness?
Before we go any further it’s important to more accurately define what we mean by loneliness. There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely for example. The difference is the feeling that accompanies it. For example, you could be joyful in being alone. There are times in my life that I crave solitude and an opportunity for reflection that I get from being alone. Being lonely is different. Feeling lonely is the sadness at being alone and is often accompanied by shame or guilt.
Loneliness is a feeling of sadness where a physical, mental, emotional or spiritual need for connection is not met. Below are four types of loneliness to help describe the breadth of what many are facing:
- Physical Loneliness — You crave physical touch and the physical company and connection of others. This is the traditional understanding of what loneliness means.
- Mental Loneliness — You feel different to everyone else. You feel misunderstood and on a different level to others.
- Emotional Loneliness — You don’t feel “seen” by others. You crave emotional connection and feel distant to those around you.
- Spiritual Loneliness — You feel disconnected from a deeper sense of who you are or what you’re a part of. You’re unable to share or receive this from others.
Examples of loneliness for men
One of the problems men have in admitting and dealing with their loneliness is how they have learnt to perceive it. Loneliness isn’t just the elderly man sat on his own waiting for his family to arrive. Lonely comes in various forms including:
- A successful man who has no one to talk to about his struggling relationship.
- A good man who has lost any sense of purpose in life. He is ignoring his feelings and battling alone.
- A thoughtful artist or thinker who can’t find anyone that understands his ideas.
- A man who is angry and instinctively pushes people away. No one listens and understands him or his problems.
- A seeker who is looking for more out of life but has no one to share the journey with.
What’s the cause?
Men have a predisposition to seek solace and isolation more than women. The role of men through the ages has been to set and achieve challenges. That programming is still in many of us today. As a result, we need space to rest and recover before we push on again. If this behaviour goes unchecked then it can snowball and become lonely and isolating.
Boys learn to hide feelings and develop self-reliance at a young age. They learn that expressing emotions is not acceptable. As a result, they go underground and wear a mask to hide their true feelings. Boys learn a code which was to show no signs of weakness, otherwise, that weakness would be taken advantage of. As a result, they learn to “man up”, to not share feelings and not admit when things aren’t going well. As a result, seeking help, support and kinship from others isn’t valued.
Our traditional social groups have changed. Men are no longer growing old in the towns and communities they grew up in. As a result, their relationships from childhood become long distance. Maintaining these relationships stops becoming a priority and men lose touch with each other.
Times are changing
How men create and develop their friendships changes when a man reaches his early 20’s. Until this time men have relied upon various social structures like school and college to help develop friendships. After this time men take the focus off male friendships and towards other things like finding a partner and career progression.
Social networks provide some degree of interaction but it gives a false impression of friendship and connection. This form of connection only meets a surface level need. The “connected age” could be more accurately defined as the “superficial age”.
The UK has a particular problem with loneliness and was recently classed as the loneliness capital of Europe. That’s because there is a certain culture that men are born into. Male friendships are more commonly created in the company of alcohol and groups of men. A drinking and sports culture results in men developing drinking buddies and wing-mates rather than confidantes. This culture doesn’t support men in having their emotional and spiritual needs met which can lead to them feeling isolated and lonely.
Recognising and accepting loneliness
Because there is a stigma to being lonely we don’t easily admit to or recognise it for what it is. This belief makes us hide from the problem and stops us from taking the steps necessary to do something about it.
Two years ago I was going through a difficult time in my life. A men’s group I was in helped me to define the dissatisfaction I was experiencing with my life. At first, it presented itself as sadness and then eventually as loneliness. Once I put a word to it, I felt embarrassed. I smiled awkwardly as I imagined their pity, before suggesting it must be something else. However, the feeling in my body told me a different story. I knew it was true, and my resistance to admitting it somehow made me more sure.
Once I recognised it they encouraged me to embrace it instead of trying to fix it. Yes, I could go out and fix some of the causes of my loneliness but what I did was embrace what I felt. This was tough to do but you can’t heal what you don’t feel, so I sat with it and listened for what I needed to take from it. Raising my awareness of my needs was an important first step before taking action to have those needs met.
You’re not alone
Loneliness is a normal feeling and we shouldn’t demonise it or shame men for experiencing it. We need to change the stigma around loneliness by talking about it more and encouraging men to reach out for support. It’s important to help men realise that it’s alright to feel lonely. The more we accept this and embrace it as part of being a human being and not a negative condition of what it means to be a man, then men can more readily reach out for support.
If we experience a full life then chances are we’re going to experience loneliness along our journey at some point. The problems come with the negative stories we attach to it. The more we can accept and be at peace in our aloneness, without shame or judgement, the more content we will be.
It’s important to know you’re not alone. Think of your friends. Is there one you’ve been thinking about recently who you haven’t spoken to for a while? Chances are he’s been thinking about you too, so give him a call. Or even better, write down three friends you haven’t spoken to recently and give them all a call. Even if this isn’t something that you need, because you never know the impact that simple gesture may have on them.
I run Inspiring Men Programmes for groups of men to create more purpose in life and kinship amongst other men
Men’s Group Directory have a global list of men’s groups including many in-person groups
CALM (Campagin Against Living Miserably) offer free support.
I hope this post was helpful. What has been your experience of loneliness? How did you to manage it? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.
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To your success