If you’ve never met Jake Calabrese, you should find a way to. He makes me happy every time I see him at a conference or get a text from him. Mostly, it’s due to him being an absolute wacko who knows how to make people laugh and makes everyone in the circle feel connected to him and the silly story he’s telling at that moment.
I’m thankful to have many friends like Jake, but seeing him this year reminded me how much I need people like Jake in my life.
He’s a member of the same crew who attends the Agile Alliance conference every summer. A community, like many others, who were interrupted from gathering regularly during the pandemic. Thankfully, this past July I got to fly to Nashville for Agile 2022 and see many friends I’d been separated from. Jake was there.
One day, during afternoon snack time, there were piles of mini Babybels everywhere. They were very popular. Later in the day, I was sitting with Jake and Inger Dickson (another amazing person) having a chat when all of a sudden Calabrese pulls out handfuls of Babybels asking if we wanted some. He spent the rest of the week randomly walking up to me asking if I wanted a Babybel.
Do you know what he did when he got home? Texted me a pic of a one asking me if I wanted one. So it started a game where we would take pics of the small wheels of cheese in random places. It’s quite fun and has helped me stay more connected to him post-conference.
The feeling I had flying up to that conference was excitement. It was a group of people I hadn’t seen in so long. I definitely needed to be with them. I was lonely for my community, and thankfully I feel less so now.
What exactly does it mean to feel lonely?
I know, its kinda silly to give voice to that question. Should be pretty simple to state what it means to feel lonely, but ask several people you know. Many can’t quite agree on what it means to feel lonely.
Does that mean it’s a difficult topic, or might not exist in reality? I like to think it’s a challenge to describe because it manifests differently in each of our lives rather than not existing.
When we aren’t connected to who or what we desire to, we feel on our own. Like we are the only person to feel this. The only one experiencing these particular circumstances. Perhaps we aren’t the only ones feeling what we are, or how we got here, but we don’t feel accepted by others.
That is loneliness, and it affects us every single day.
Most of the time, I experience this feeling in my day-to-day professional interactions post-2020. Since I still work a matter of feet from where I sleep, it’s difficult to experience connectedness with my colleagues. I can’t get a lot of people to even turn their cameras on for one-on-one sessions, let alone feel close to them.
What the past three years have taught me, however, is I’ve experienced feeling alone for quite some time. COVID just taught me how to identify it sooner and more easily.
There are many types of loneliness.
In meetings with colleagues, I’ve been the only one to advocate for an idea. As a consultant, you get accustomed to being the lone voice in the room. As an agilist and coach, you often feel like you’re on an island asking if the teams are up for an experiment of change.
Before I became a professional in the IT industry, it was built into me to experience loneliness. I was a kid who was picked on during recess. A love interest spurns your advances. Friend groups have more appealing applications to their clique. A sports coach would rather start someone else. Teachers preferred the writing style in other papers.
Rejection, or a lack of acceptance, creates a feeling of being alone.
From a clinical perspective, those experiences are more common than you think. According to the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — And Keep — Friends, there are three main categories of loneliness.
There is the intimate kind, which is you don’t feel connected to someone in times of need. That can be a close friend, a life partner, or a family member, among others. The person you want to call first when you get good news, and also immediately turn to when things turn south. Feeling alone in this manner can be the most devastating because this relationship is crucial to our feeling of meaning in the world. Here’s where I show appreciation for my amazing bride. Beth is this and then some.
The second type of loneliness is relational. Usually, this is a network of people who are connected by a common aspect of life. These could be colleagues at the same company. Perhaps your neighbors or friend group. My college buddies fall into this category (good god has it been forever since I have seen any of them, but we text during NFL games like clockwork). This is described by Marisa Franco, Ph.D. in the book as your “core social network.”
Finally, the third kind is collective loneliness. Even though this group is more loosely-tied than others, the identity being tied with this group can be just as powerful. The feeling I had of being back together in Nashville for Agile 2022 definitely fits into this category. Being an election year, this can also mean your ties to a political party. Fans of sports teams also count. Ever been one of the only fans of your team in an opposing stadium?
What does it mean to identify loneliness?
Just like any other emotion, it can be really difficult to identify when you look around and see yourself on an island. Often, it comes after you’ve been sitting in the emotion for an amount of time. Hopefully less every time it happens, right?
I’ve struggled with loneliness because my feelings of struggle don’t always present as feeling disconnected. When I have a frustrating conversation with my peers and I’m the only one advocating for an idea, I just equate the frustration with them being wrong. When I’m not as connected with my spouse as I want, I get upset that she’s choosing something different to do with her time. The team making a decision without checking with me first comes across as selfishness on their part, not me being alone in this.
When I later learned how I’m getting upset because I feel alone, it certainly frames the emotions I felt differently.
If I see my team or peers as still desiring a connection with me and not rejecting me as a person, perhaps it can allow me to listen to their ideas. I can stay close to my wife and support her in attending an event elsewhere on her own. My college buddies love it when the Cowboys lose but aren’t rejecting me (I’ll spare you the sarcastic comment here.)
When people tell me to remove emotion from an idea, in essence, they are telling me they desire a connection with me. If I managed to see all of my connections as secure enough to have the necessary conversation at that moment, would I respond differently?
Should I call out loneliness when I see it?
On its face, I don’t think that it’s very appropriate to tell anyone they seem lonely no matter the context. Just like we aren’t always capable of seeing the source of our negative emotions, you may not get a great reaction by pointing it out in others. Seeing the disconnection in others is quite possible, however, so what are we to do?
When I shared the feelings of loneliness of my youth above, it caused me to have extreme empathy for how I felt at that moment. Having the benefit of knowing it all worked out great in the future, I hurt for the former me in holding onto those things. The same can be said for seeing people close to us feeling on an island.
There’s also the stigma associated with loneliness.
Admitting to feeling that way is not seen as positively as it should be. Regardless of your age, life stage, income, etc., you will rarely find someone willing to admit to their loved ones they feel that way. Almost as if there’s something wrong with you. Scratch that, people definitely think something’s wrong with you feeling lonely.
Considering the opposite of loneliness, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to reach out. Admitting you could use some connection. There’s no negative association with being connected to those in our community. To people we work with. To those we share a home with.
Psychologists would most likely say the first step is to admit you are feeling disconnected from the world. That your idea doesn’t require them to like you to accept it. That we must be brave and know as we age it’s harder and harder to make new friends (especially men, there are studies).
Connection is something you realize once you’ve had it, or are in the middle of having it. When you end a professional conversation that was particularly enriching, send them a note of appreciation. Write down how it felt to be appreciated for who you are. Pay no attention to the details of the event, because all of those circumstances usually aren’t the reason for the connection. It was just you and as many others as the moment needed to be tied together.
Keep your ears open for long sighs during meetings. Voices of frustration knowing there’s a long road ahead to meeting goals. A desire to not be the only one caring about quality. Questions as to why their ideas are so terrible. Someone asking for a pair on a task. These are tactical in nature, sure. There’s more than that there, though. It’s a person desiring connection.
Give it to them.
It’s how I first got close to Jake when we figured out the other was cool enough to chat with. Turned into something more. Got me to a place where every time I walk into the grocery store, I walk straight for the cheese section.
By the way, if this applies to any of you please know I’m here to listen. Please reach out to me here if you are so bold. Would love to hear from you!