Deena Kara Shaffer
Ever feel lonely in your relationships? Unheard in conversations? Loneliness can be exacerbated by how we do, or don’t, listen. And this can affect both the physical and psychological health of individuals—and communities. For insight on the subject of loneliness as it relates to listening, I turned to the wisdom of three Toronto-based listening experts: Tenniel Rock, a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and public speaker specializing in holistic counselling for black, racialized, queer, and trans individuals and couples; Dr. Diana Brecher, clinical psychologist and Scholar-in-Residence for Positive Psychology at Ryerson University; and Heidi Bornstein, meditation and yoga teacher, and co-founder of Mindfulness Everyday.
Tenniel Rock explains that “loneliness is a deep sense of detachment and disconnection and has more to do with the perception of one’s life and relationships than the reality.” Loneliness arises, Diana Brecher adds, when “feeling disconnected from oneself and one’s community.”
And Heidi Bornstein confirms that “loneliness is the sensation of being without interconnection.”
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. In fact, feeling lonely has little to do with being on one’s own. “It’s not the same as solitude,” says Bornstein. “We can experience loneliness even when we’re surrounded by many people.”
Loneliness is the discomfort or angst that emerges when we feel something is missing in our relationships, particularly when set against the kinds of relationships we want to have. Loneliness lies in this discrepancy—between the relationships we have and the ones we desire.
Loneliness is a feeling, whereas isolation is about a lack of social support or community. Put differently, loneliness is experienced subjectively, but isolation occurs when one’s relationships are few to none.
“The unhappy, cut-off feelings of loneliness can send a nervous system into fight-or-flight mode,” says Bornstein, “and limit the feel-good hormone dopamine, produced when physically close to another.”
Rock adds that “spiked stress hormones can lead to increased susceptibility to chronic diseases like diabetes, along with difficulty concentrating, learning, and remembering, not to mention depression, anxiety, and panic.”
“Yearning for connection arising from prolonged loneliness,” explains Brecher, “can lead to feelings of desperation, in turn leading to poor choices in relationships and companions.”
As Rock explains, “Human beings are social animals. We all need close relationships and inclusion in groups to survive and thrive. Loneliness impairs contentedness and intimacy in relationships, leading to further detachment and thus more loneliness. For communities, higher rates of suicide, family breakdown, and addictions can be linked to unaddressed chronic loneliness.”
Intimacy and inclusion in communities enable spaces where individuals and groups can develop, learn, create, and grow together.
“Social media provides an illusion of connection and intimacy,” says Rock. “Many of us have hundreds of ‘connections’ online to people we don’t really know and couldn’t count on in a crisis. These inauthentic connections blur the lines of real relationships.”
“Loneliness can result from or be worsened by an inability or unwillingness to listen,” says Rock. “At the core of most feelings of loneliness is a sense of abandonment, showing up in thoughts like ‘no one cares about me’ or ‘no one understands me.’
“When we learn how to listen to our own needs, and to those of our loved ones, we’re better equipped to address the core thoughts that accompany loneliness.”
“Because loneliness can exacerbate negative self-talk and self-deprecating narratives, it’s important to see loneliness as an emotional messenger,” Rock points out.
“Through mindfulness, through practice, we can begin to see how loneliness functions as a filter that only heightens our loneliness,” says Brecher.
Studies reveal that loneliness negatively affects blood pressure, sleep, and mental health, and ultimately worsens quality of life and life expectancy.
How can we listen in ways that create less loneliness and more connectedness? Brecher suggests we listen less with our ears and more with our hearts, taking what’s said at face value and bringing whole-heartedness to our interactions.
When we’re lonely, according to Bornstein, we ruminate on the past and present, fuelling disconnection. Mindfulness can help us manage loneliness by revealing the underlying ways that we’re always connected, regardless of external circumstances or internal thoughts.
Brecher explains that “when we engage in creative acts, we often enter a state of flow which leads to intense concentration on and connection with the activity, quieting loneliness.”
Presentness, awareness, and focus on true listening deepen interconnection, bonding, and belonging—it grows genuine closeness and compassion. To listen mindfully is to be fully available to what the other person is saying, allowing what they say to be the anchor for our attentiveness when drawn away into our own inner commentary.
Bornstein reminds us that “there is a fundamental ‘we’—we are not alone, we share in humanity, we all experience feelings of loneliness, and awareness can deepen our interconnectedness.”
Heidi Bornstein offers some quick tips for mindful listening—what to do, and how some habits derail mindful listening.
Deena Kara Shaffer, PhD, is a learning specialist and co-creator of the Thriving in Action initiative at Ryerson University, educational consultant, freelance education and wellness writer, and published poet. @deenakshaffer