Loneliness and belonging: What therapy has taught me

Group of individuals laughing

“We are all just walking each other home” 
– Ram Dass

I started this week’s newsletter off writing about the strange nature of the therapeutic relationship, but then found myself questioning the strange nature of our modern relationships. In an age dominated by screens, social media, and artificial intelligence, online connections seem to have replaced our genuine human connections with artificial ones.

As a practicing psychotherapist, the therapeutic space offers me not only a lens through which to understand the untold struggles of my clients but it also acts as a mirror through which to examine my own journey towards connection and fulfillment. Through years of clinical practice, I have come to understand that our need for connection and belonging are not merely abstract concepts, but deeply rooted experiences that shape our perceptions, beliefs, behaviours, relationships, and ultimately, our satisfaction with life. However, I feel that our core psychological need for connection and belonging have been thwarted by our pervasive disconnection — both from ourselves and others. Our online connections serve as mere smokescreens for deep-seated loneliness. 

Illusionary Connectedness

The epidemic of disconnection looms larger than ever before. Almost daily, being immersed in the trenches of modern psychotherapy, I witness first-hand the profound impact of this digital era on our collective sense of belonging and connection. I’ve come to understand the subtle yet pervasive ways in which technology has reshaped the landscape of our relationships, leaving many of us adrift in a sea of loneliness and isolation.

Never before have our experiences only gained value once they have been posted online. Just the other day, as I leisurely strolled through the park, I couldn’t help but observe a family comprising a mother, a father, and their two daughters, sharing a simple moment of joy over ice cream. However, what caught my attention was the mother’s juggling act of simultaneously instructing her daughters not to indulge in their treats just yet, while frantically extracting her phone from her pocket with one hand and clutching her ice cream with the other. With practiced precision, she orchestrated a series of moments, aiming to capture the perfect what I could only presume to be an Intsa reel or TikTok vid. Moving around the girls, her phone swayed up and down, until she finally paused, instructing them to begin licking their ice creams, only to halt moments later for a carefully curated photo. As the girls playfully smeared a bit of ice cream on their lips (for yet another snapshot!), the father remained on the periphery, mindlessly absorbed in his own phone, seemingly oblivious to the moment unfolding alongside him. It would have been the perfect irony if he had been called out for his lack of presence! 

This scene vividly underscored how our ability to truly experience life and connect with one another has been overshadowed by the relentless pursuit of digital validation. Even in our moments of supposed togetherness, our digital identities keep us apart, robbing us of the genuine connections that enrich our lives. The genuine connections that show up to bring you soup when you are ill. The connections that you can rely on to feed your cat. The connection you can call when you have lost a family member and need some groceries. These are connections worth nurturing. 

Increased Social Anxiety

It is this fake connectedness that I think is a key contributor to what we are seeing in the world at large today. People feeling lost, alone, disconnected, burnt out, depressed, anxious, and addicted, with little energy or motivation to reconnect. People are emotionally and mentally too depleted to want to invest in relationships. Additionally, people have come to fear social interactions, avoiding making friends, making light conversation, or just being in a stranger’s space without a phone to escape into. Where did small talk go? It often gets a bad rap, but we need small talk to initiate conversations, it is our social gauge.

Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect that relationships should just happen like everything else in this fast-paced world. We treat relationships like menu items like it is something that comes pre-prepared and ready to be enjoyed. Relationships take time, effort, patience, and practice. As I always say to clients, just as you cannot squeeze a fruit to ripen, you cannot squeeze a relationship to its maturity. You have to let the fruit ripen in its own time, otherwise you will just end up bruising it. 

Screens as Dictators of the Self

There is a part of me that is so deeply grateful for having experienced a screen-free childhood, where you were forced to socially connect — using actual human skills. For example, if someone upset you “back in the day” (*bloody hell, I’m actually that person now*), you were forced to “say your peace” or “kiss and make up” because the chances of you seeing that person again were highly likely. There was no such thing as ghosting or cancelling people. Additionally, if you were frustrated or hurt by something, you would either go find comfort in others or you would just sit and digest that furball of emotions yourself. You would not just immediately whip out your phone and emotionally bleed all over the internet for everyone else to comment on your deep emotional experience(s). Only to open yourself up to being emotionally attacked by people who will never see you, do not know you, and most likely do not even care about you (*Utterly bananas 🍌🍌🍌 me thinks!*). But this has become our reality, where a screen with a few sentences or images dictates how you feel, what you desire, what you believe, and what you should be doing with your life. We haveoutsourced our sense of worth, self-trust, and personal agency.

Furthermore, true connectedness is rooted in vulnerability. Sadly, people think online vulnerability equates to in-person vulnerability. It does not! It is very easy to switch on your camera and record yourself crying about something, with no one present. Yet, sitting face-to-face with another person and baring the raw truth of our emotions, risking rejection, is an entirely different ordeal. Vulnerability demands laying bare parts of ourselves, knowing full well that rejection by the other party is a possibility.

Purpose is Otherness

Apart from providing us with a sense of belonging, our relationships are what gives us meaning and purpose in life. People often come into therapy wanting to figure out what their purpose is. They do all the practical things, like evaluating their strengths, passions, interests, abilities, etc., hoping to find their purpose. Sadly, you will never find your purpose in things, you find it in others. Purpose does not come in thought, it comes in experiences. We feel worthy if we feel needed, appreciated, and valued by others. If you seek to enhance meaning in your life then direct your attention outwards, turn towards others. Find something or someone to feel responsible for, something or someone that you need to show up for. Hmm… Ever thought of getting a pet? Assuming responsibility for another being contributes significantly to your sense of worth, meaning and fulfilment in life — provided the giving always respects your own boundaries and comes from a place of pure volition, autonomy, and independence.

In the end, we really do need each other. You cannot expect to succeed in life or career if you choose to travel alone. So, as scary as it may seem, instead of burying your head into your phone to escape your own discomfort, why not actually talk to someone? (*Extraverts, we kinda need your help here!). It is these connections that illuminate our lives, offering solace in moments of despair, celebrating triumphs, and weaving a tapestry of shared experiences. It is in the realm of genuine connection that we find our truest selves, our deepest joys, and our most profound sense of belonging. So, instead of falling prey to the perceived salvation in digital connection, reach out, connect, and human a bit.

If you liked this article, let me know by giving it a clap or drop me a comment. You can also connect with me on LinkedInInstagram, and Medium, or join my weekly NewsletterLessons from the Couch — where I share nuggets of wisdom, insight and lessons straight from my therapy couch.


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