I’m a pretty sociable person, and no one in my life would label me shy or an introvert.
I happen to have a large family and what I consider a good number of friends. I find myself easily surrounded by people when I want to be social. It’s usually nice.
I have also been, at heart, a deeply lonely person since I was 10 years old.
This wasn’t always a loud buzzing loneliness. More like a dull pain in the back of my heart. Something that would hit me unexpectedly while sitting in a restaurant with a friend, or while at home playing a board game with my family.
I believe this loneliness came from my inability to connect with others on really important parts of my identity, and it could also be the reason why you feel lonely even in a crowd.
What is Loneliness?
Typically, one thinks of loneliness in the sense of being physically alone. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “sadness because one has no friends or company”.
Thinking about loneliness may bring up an image of a person whose spouse has recently died, or a grandparent who lives in a nursing home whose family doesn’t visit. You may think of a young child who seems to have no friends.
Loneliness can lead to a wide range of physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, depression and increased risk of suicide.
But you don’t have to be alone to be lonely. It’s perfectly common and unfortunately easy to feel lonely despite having people you do feel close to.
How Identity Comes into Play
I haven’t always been able to talk about many of the difficulties in my life related to executive dysfunction and my various psychiatric conditions. And I didn’t realize until recently that these experiences were a singular part of my identity.
I wouldn’t have wanted to talk about them because I thought they were embarrassing, and I was ashamed of my struggle. I thought I just needed to put my head down and work harder, and be less sensitive.
In reality, I wasn’t being totally myself with anyone and hiding huge parts of my identity away. We can’t often be 100% ourselves all the time around everyone or anyone we know.
Reasons We Hide Our Identities
- Lack of trust:
- If you don’t think you can tell someone something in confidence without worrying that they will tell others, you may be more inclined to clam up or be more private with them
- Need for boundaries:
- You may feel more triggered or uncomfortable around certain people because they have, or someone similar has, broken your trust in the past
- You may put up more boundaries between yourself and others to avoid being re-traumatized
- The unknown judgement factor:
- Maybe you don’t know how someone will react if they know more about you, and you worry about their judgement
- This can extend easily to your religion, sexual orientation, gender, mental health matters, physical conditions, or interests
- These are all common parts of our identity that we choose not to share with others because of fear of judgement
- Shame or embarrassment:
- We all experience things that make us feel ashamed of ourselves, and it’s not an easy subject to broach with others because shame is uncomfortable
- This may extend to things you think about, things you know or suspect about yourself, how you view the world or how you operate, or things you’re interested in
Seeking Out Community
We tend to break ourselves apart into separate identities that we feel comfortable using in different environments – at work, at home, at social events, running an errand in public.
Because of this, we tend to seek out communities (both online and offline) where we can live out various parts of our identities as openly as possible without trust issues, without needing boundaries, without fear of unknown judgement, and without shame.
Having a community who shares part of your identity can be affirming. It can allow you to feel that you’re living a shared experience with others, and they may just seem to understand you. You may be able to let down your guard while in your community and it can be a wonderfully freeing experience.
Why You Might Still Be Lonely
Have you ever had a secret identity? Something you knew or suspected to be true about yourself that you didn’t tell anyone?
I suspected for many years that I was an alcoholic. I also often experienced what I’ve seen so eloquently labelled as “Piece of Shit Syndrome” for many years prior to my ADHD diagnosis. Because of my executive function difficulties, I felt behind and lacking in something I couldn’t quite name. And I didn’t really open up about either of these experiences, and they both made me feel incredibly lonely.
I felt like no one really understood me, and no one knew the struggle I was going through.
This made me feel immensely lonely because there was a huge part of my identity that I couldn’t live freely. I felt these things were unseemly to talk about, or no one would understand, or I was overexaggerating their effects on me, so I kept them inside.
Loneliness can occur, even when you’re surrounded by people, if you have a secret identity that no one knows about. It becomes a situation where no one knows “the real you” except yourself. And not living your identity out loud can make you wonder if anyone else feels or experiences the same things.
What Can You Do About the Loneliness?
The best we can do to curb our loneliness is to seek out others who experience the same things as us and who share our different identities – even the parts that we think might be embarrassing.
This may mean being part of many communities. And they don’t all have to be communities that take up physical space.
Here are some places that you can find community:
- Twitter is essentially an online conversation that never ends
- You can find people who share your identity by searching for hashtags they commonly use to signify their community
- For example: the neurodiverse community frequently uses #ADHDlife, #NeurodiverseSquad, and #AskADHD or #AskAutistics; the sober community uses #RecoveryPosse and #SoberCurious
- Discord is basically a large chatroom for people with common interests or identities
- There are many public servers available for anyone to join
- Each server may include many channels that focus on different chat topics
- Some Discord servers you can request to join include ADHD Party, Think Divergent, adhdclubhouse, and HowToADHD (send me a note if you’d like invites to any of them!)
- Reddit calls itself “the front page of the Internet”, and is a website dedicated to communities
- There are various pages called subreddits that focus on broad or specific topics or interests
- Search for whatever you’re interested in and Reddit will suggest subreddits, each with a description and its own set of rules for posting; you don’t even have to post – you can just read what others are going through!
- For example: r/ADHD, r/ADHD_anxiety, r/IntrusiveThoughts, r/ADHD_partners
- Facebook isn’t just for yelling about politics!
- There’s a feature called Facebook Groups, and you can join any number of groups relating to your different identities and interests
- Groups are moderated by admins and typically have rules about what you can and cannot post
- They can be an excellent place to find people going through your same or similar experiences
- Check out my recommendations for ADHD Facebook groups
Does Community Really Help?
Until I started to open up about my difficulty with alcohol and my struggles with ADHD, I felt incredibly alone.
I still have rare days where I worry that no one really understands what I’m going through or that my experiences aren’t valid.
But because I no longer feel that I have a secret identity, and because I’ve been able to find a place where I can safely talk about those parts of myself, the loneliness has subsided a lot. The lonely moments are few and far between.
I hope you have places where you can safely be all of the interesting and unique parts of yourself. If you don’t know where you can do that, come talk to me and we’ll look together!