Dimensions of connection: understanding loneliness

Earlier this year, I discovered the concept of the dimensions of loneliness - or connection -and found it was really helpful when trying to make sense of how one is feeling and the type of action one might take. The dimensions serve as a useful tool both during and post-pandemic.

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It’s a cruel twist of evolution - the lonelier we feel, the more likely we are to further isolate ourselves, so I’m also including a call to action to encourage everyone to play their part in ending the global pandemic that is loneliness, as we often need others to help us feel more connected.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is defined as ‘the gap between the connection we need and the connection we experience.’ (Vivek Murphy, 2020)

During the pandemic, we are suffering on both sides of this equation: we are more likely to need connection because we’re in worrying times, whilst the restrictions mean there are fewer options available to us to experience connection.

It doesn’t necessarily manifest as a sad, empty feeling and we might not label the feeling as ‘loneliness.’ It can be anxiety; ‘itchy feet’; a feeling that something is amiss; sleeplessness; the need for an alcoholic drink; overeating; irritation, and anger, to name a few.

Forming connections

Of course, the amount of connection we need, and experience, can vary from day to day, month to month, and across our lifetime. Much of the time we manage it all instinctively, through life experience.

When you’re missing your best friend, for example, you’ll probably pick up the phone, and you may even decide it’s time to get together for a good catch-up, without thinking about it all that much. You just do it.

I suspect that during the pandemic, we have to be more conscious about what we need and how to satisfy that need. Many of our usual strategies are unavailable to us. One way we might do this is by breaking it down into the four types of connection or loneliness, the ‘four dimensions of connection,’ which can be summarised as:

  • Self – what’s important to me
  • Relational – a circle of friends
  • Collective – something bigger than me
  • Intimate – a best friend or intimate partner 

Four dimensions of connection

By reflecting on each dimension, as well as what we need, what have lost or gained, and what may potentially be available to us, we can take action to reduce loneliness.

We can look at any of the dimensions to replace what’s missing, and to ‘close the gap.’ For example, you may resolve to buy a season ticket for your football club, if you realise you’re missing connection in the ‘collective’ dimension. Or perhaps you decide to start regular psychotherapy to gain a deeper understanding of how you think and feel – the ‘self’ dimension.

In difficult times, we may need more connection. Equally, it may be that one (or more) of the dimensions is not as accessible to us than the others are. Either way, we feel the impact. 

We don’t have to replace what’s missing exactly, particularly in the short term. During the pandemic, there may even be an element of ‘grin and bear it’ until our freedoms return.

Perhaps this means more phone calls than usual with your best mate, to help make up for missing meals out with a group of friends, for now at least. Or replacing your usual fitness class with a virtual version until you can join everyone back at the gym.

Better, together

What is vital in all of this, is that to really make a difference, we must help each other. We are designed for connection, but sadly the lonelier we get, the more likely we are to further isolate ourselves, even though it makes no logical sense. 

So, if you haven’t heard from a good friend in a while, maybe give them a ring; if someone seems more irritated than usual, hear them out and try to understand, and if someone asks if they can help you out, say yes rather than politely refusing.

I like the following mantra, written by John Paul Lederach:

Listen to understand, speak from the heart, and stay at it – for the rest of your life.

 When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, a greater understanding of the dimensions of connection and loneliness can hopefully help us to find alternatives that will see us through and help each other out.

And we can appreciate our connections all the more, once they return.

Loneliness research

Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of having strong connections with others for mental health and wellbeing. I believe we have an opportunity, whilst it is still at the forefront of our minds, to join together and take action to reduce loneliness.

As part of this, I have recently launched a new piece of research to understand the prevalence of, and increase public knowledge about, loneliness and disconnection, and to bust myths about what it is to be lonely.

The anonymous survey, which provides participants with a ‘loneliness score,’ is open until the end of October, to over 18-year-olds only. If you’d like to complete the survey, please visit: https://www.counsellingwestbridgford.co.uk/connection-inventory/ 

References

  1. Vivek Murthy (2020). Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Harper Wave.

Michelle Briggs

As a person-centred psychotherapist and counsellor, I believe we all have the resources within us to understand ourselves and change, given the right environment. The essence of my work is to provide and develop a relationship that allows clients to explore fundamental aspects of themselves, their experiences and feelings, without judgment. As a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist, I have been privileged to see a diverse range of clients across age-groups, class, gender, race and sexuality. I have a particular interest in depression, anxiety, bullying, self-harm, life choices and inter-relational issues. I'm also on the counselling team at Nottingham Trent University.

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