I had hundreds of online acquaintances, thousands of Instagram followers, and over a million followers on my Facebook page. But when I logged off and shut my laptop, I was just another lonely mom.
In the real world, I had no support group. No circle of friends.
In 2016, we relocated to a new state, and I wasn’t prepared for the crushing loneliness that was to follow. Dealing with my young children’s emotions and related behaviors due to the huge transition in their lives, in addition to my own, I needed a village more than ever. Yet, when I looked around, no one was there.
It wasn’t that I missed chatting with other women about the recent episode of The Voice, or that I wanted a girls’ night out without the kids. The problem wasn’t that I longed for the family cookouts we had with extended family or being able to drop the children off with grandparents on a whim for a dinner date. I did miss those things, but at the root of my loneliness was this:
I missed being seen.
Feeling seen by others is a basic human need. This need has an evolutionary basis. Our ancient ancestors knew that being seen equated to safety and not being seen equated to death. If your tribe did not see you, if you were left alone, you were likely to die. Therefore, our brains register loneliness as a threat and sends off an alarm. While we are no longer living in nomadic tribes, our brains still have this wiring. Not being seen still feels like a threat, and though it may not be a threat to our physical survival, it is most definitely a threat to our emotional and psychological well-being.
Paradoxically, our need to be seen is behind the unbelievable popularity of social media, and yet it does not satisfy our need. With every photo and status update, we are saying “Look at me. Do I matter?” We want others to notice us, and those likes and comments give us a small dopamine hit, but to some extent, we are aware that what we are putting out there for others to see is not the whole truth. It is most often not our true and vulnerable selves. And it is our true and vulnerable selves that we need to be seen. Face to face. Heart to heart. This is why we can have a multitude of followers, as I did, and still feel extremely lonely.
The Disheartening Statistics
A survey by Channel Mums of over 2,000 respondents found that somewhere between 55 to 90% of mothers feel lonely. More concerning findings from this survey include:
- 51% felt other moms were cliquey and cold.
- 42% of moms felt that their lives weren’t as perfect as others. (source)
- 55% felt their loneliness led to feelings of anxiety.
- 54% of new moms feel more “friendless” since giving birth.
- 38% haven’t shared their lonely feelings with their partners.
- Only 30% have initiated a conversation that has lead to a new friendship.
- 47% feel stressed out by their loneliness.
Loneliness isn’t strictly a mother problem. The transition into fatherhood can be lonely, too. Caring for a new baby can be isolating. Invitations to hang with the guys dwindle once the baby arrives, and their partner’s attention is diverted to the baby. In an article published at Fatherly by Virginia Pelley, she writes, “As the concept of fatherhood rapidly evolves from the stereotypical non-nurturing, mid-20th-century breadwinner and disciplinarian, psychologists are realizing that more study is needed to address the problem of loneliness among new dads.” Psychologists Charles Schaeffer, Ph.D. says, “It’s really lonely trying to figure out fatherhood when you don’t like the old model but don’t feel you can ask anybody.”
Schaeffer says it’s difficult for many men to share their feelings of loneliness. “Whether we agree with them or not, we breathe in gender roles and norms all the time, unfortunately, and one of the hallmark experiences of being a man and trying to live up to the traditional gender roles is the independence piece, and with that can come loneliness.”
Too Busy and Striving For Perfection
Research analysis by psychotherapist and retired faculty member of Antioch University Seattle and California School of Professional Psychology Phillip Cushman, Ph.D. found that since the world wars, we have put such a heavy emphasis on achievements and self-actualization that we are losing our sense of community. We feel we must always do more, accomplish more, and be more, and this has taken precedence over relationships and meaningful socialization. In our busyness and the desire to be it all and do it all, we have lost our village.
In an ideal world, we’d put down our cell phones and our filled-to-the-brim calendars and be present with one another again. We’d lay aside our differences and embrace each other as brothers and sisters in humanity. We’d rely less on connecting on Facebook walls and would connect within the walls of our homes.
Rather than seeing one another’s kids on Instagram feeds, we’d be watching them play together. It is my hope that one day we will collectively find our way back to each other. Until then, we can prioritize connection with those around us. We can stop communicating in 280 characters and listen to each other’s voices again. If we truly want the village, it is up to each of us to do our part in cultivating it.
An Unusual Cure for Loneliness
Emotions Researcher and best-selling author Dr. Brené Brown says, “In the absence of love and belonging, there is always suffering.” The way out of our loneliness - out of our suffering - is love and belonging. This is the simple but hard answer.
One of the paradoxes of new parenthood is the intense feeling of loneliness while never actually being alone. Brown says, “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
This is a good place to begin - improving our own self-acceptance. Brown reminds us that the only true belonging that exists, and the connection that underscores everything else, is belonging to ourselves. If we do not love and accept ourselves, how can we truly belong anywhere else? We will simply try to “fit in,” sacrificing parts of ourselves to appease others.
Research corroborates this idea and has actually shown that loneliness is correlated negatively with self-esteem. Self-esteem acts as a suppressor between loneliness and life satisfaction. While self-esteem and self-acceptance are not the same, by improving one, you positively impact the other.
Three Ways To Increase Your Self-Acceptance
1. Forgive yourself. Letting go of guilt is an important part of moving on from any mistake. Guilt is informative. It comes to teach us a lesson, but oftentimes we invite it inside and give it a place in our bed. We can learn to see guilt as a way of receiving information, and therefore we are able to let it go. Make amends where needed. Change behavior when necessary. Then, let it go.
2. Tame your inner critic. We all have an inner critic. Sometimes it might be just a whisper, at other times it can be like an annoying little gremlin in your mind, and sometimes it may be a large and hungry monster. The key to taming it is to respond to your inner critic by replacing negative and critical thoughts with more accurate information. Instead of “I’m a terrible mom for yelling,” you might try, “I was feeling overwhelmed and doing the best I could do in the situation.”
3. Acknowledge your gifts and strengths. If you’re like me, you can stew for ages on a mistake or weakness but sweep your talents and strengths under the rug. In an effort to “grow and improve” I have sometimes focused on fixing my problems rather than identifying and developing my strengths. When it comes to self-acceptance and self-esteem, focusing on what you can do well can boost your confidence. Try writing a list of your strengths and repeat them to yourself daily as affirmations.
When we accept our whole selves as we are, we are, in a sense, seeing ourselves. Finally, feeling seen and accepted by ourselves, by belonging to ourselves, we can go forth and present that to those around us. We can say “I see me. I see you,” and this is the foundation for cultivating healthy relationships that result in a village of support and belonging.
*Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother.