The Vocabulary of Loneliness

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Image description: image of dictionary definitions in black and white.

“How do I find the vocabulary for what’s rattling around inside my head?”

Moved from house to house as a child, Tom Hanks lived a sort of nomadic existence growing up, saying on Desert Island Discs in 2016 that it led to an acute feeling of loneliness as a young adult. When asked by Kirsty Young what the feelings rattling around in his head were, Hanks’ voice caught in his throat. When he found the words, Hanks said, “What it was, it was the vocabulary of loneliness… I didn’t have the vocabulary.” 

Listening at the time, I was struck by his honesty and how candidly Hanks was able to talk about something difficult to describe at the time. Listening back now, he hits on a nerve. I find the first item of vocabulary to add to my list: absence. Just like Hanks, a few months ago, I didn’t have the right words to explain what I was feeling. Lacking the vocabulary to talk about loneliness is detrimental and is characteristic of the feeling itself.

A dictionary definition of “lonely” will typically try to convince you that loneliness has its origin in the state of being alone, entailing a physical absence. Loneliness is, however, distinct from whether you are by yourself or in the middle of a crowded room; it may be better described as a reaction to perceived isolation. A psychological rather than physical mechanism, loneliness is an emotional response that doesn’t get talked about enough.

The difficulty in studying rates of loneliness lies in its very nature; loneliness relies on participant response. When studies are documented, they are usually based on questionnaires, which rely on both the discretion of the participant to truthfully describe how they are feeling, and their ability to do so accurately. This can quickly become cyclical, when we neither have the words with which to talk about loneliness nor the willingness to open up the conversation. Here, we find another piece of vocabulary: cycle. Not talking about loneliness can only lead to further loneliness. 

When a child at the school I was working at hugged my knees, or clambered onto my lap at breaktime, I felt a surge of emotion, even though Covid-19 rules held that we were supposed to avoid direct contact. 

The loneliness I felt on my year abroad quickly became cyclical before I even knew it. It began as what I described as homesickness, a yearning for things familiar: my Mum’s cooking, birdsong and getting hugs. It was a cultural and situational loneliness, emerging from the impact of my own environment on my sense of isolation.

But, loneliness means seeking intimacy and connection, two things which a pandemic doesn’t accommodate. I craved human contact in a world that prohibited it. When a child at the school I was working at hugged my knees, or clambered onto my lap at breaktime, I felt a surge of emotion, even though Covid-19 rules held that we were supposed to avoid direct contact. 

Shame can prevent you from finding the words to talk, when in fact that’s the bravest thing you can do. 

Amongst all of this, I found it hard to properly talk about what I was feeling, and here I find my next item of vocabulary: shame. Surrounded by people, it feels strange to admit you feel alone. Talking to my loved ones, I felt as if I were complaining. I was worried they would think it was their fault, as if they weren’t showing me enough love. I felt embarrassed to be so down all the time. I felt ashamed that I was finding it so hard to live my best life when your year abroad is built up to be this momentous, exciting experience.

When you wonder whether everyone else is having fun 24/7, suddenly, telling someone you feel lonely feels humiliating. Even now, there is a part of me that still feels ashamed and embarrassed as I sit here, writing this. But, not talking about loneliness can only ever make you feel lonelier. Shame can prevent you from finding the words to talk, when in fact that’s the bravest thing you can do. 

You know an event or phenomenon is particularly significant when it impacts upon human language. As well as being cultural or situational, “lockdown loneliness” has now become a type of loneliness in itself and has been frequently used in research into mental health over the course of the last year. Recent surveys by UCL and YouGov have found that rates of loneliness have risen over the course of the pandemic; the UCL COVID-19 Social Study found that over one third of people felt ‘sometimes lonely’ in just the first few months of the pandemic. Social distancing and national lockdowns led many to social disconnection, allowing conditions to flourish in which people feel a lack of intimacy.

This is particularly detrimental for those already vulnerable. The elderly, single, those with an illness or disability and those from minority ethnic groups are all at greater risk, whilst a Red Cross survey found that sixty percent of people from BAME backgrounds did not feel confident talking about being lonely. In the current climate, discussing loneliness is more important than ever. Some people think that loneliness can be beneficial, allowing oneself to appreciate the joy of living, and for me, this holds some truth. For others, in the long term, loneliness can be far more damaging. By talking about it, we open up the conversation and provide others with the ability to talk, making dealing with loneliness easier. 

We can find strength in loneliness if we find strength in ourselves.

Strength. My final item on the vocabulary list might seem out-of-place, yet talking about loneliness is the strongest thing you can do. Both for yourself, and for others who feel the same, it is important to appoint words to such a powerful and isolating feeling, to begin conversation about an emotion felt by everyone at some point in their life and one that is so rarely dealt with.

We can find strength in loneliness if we find strength in ourselves. For me, that meant explaining to my loved ones what I felt and, to my surprise, sometimes hearing that others had felt, or were feeling, the same thing. When Tom Hanks said that he couldn’t find the vocabulary for what he was feeling, he didn’t mean that it didn’t exist. It’s just never talked about. The onus isn’t on the words because they’re there. 

Image by Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash

 

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