In company of one: loneliness

In an ever more digital world, we find ourselves less connected. As our society continues to evolve, otherwise welcome advances can also increase the risk of loneliness exponentially. It is time to address the elephant in the startup and entrepreneurship room: loneliness.

The Social Media Paradox was coined to describe how social media have allowed us to become more connected to other people than at any time in history. Yet at the same time, millions of people across the world report feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before. Research has shown that heavy use of social media can have negative effects on social relationships.

Even before the pandemic, across the world, people can go for days, weeks or even a month without seeing another person. That loss of social contact is incredibly damaging to our humanity and the health and wellbeing of everyone affected. Indeed, research now shows that loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as smoking. 

In England, 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely, equating to over twenty-five million people. Those aged under 25 years and those aged over 65 demonstrating the highest levels of loneliness. This shows how far isolation can affect the most vulnerable in society, and how vital it is that we take it seriously.

Unpacking solitude and loneliness

“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company“ - Jean-Paul Sartre.

With our more digital ways of working than ever, I wanted to take a few moments to explore the difference between solitude and isolation. Quite often, we can see solitude as the perfect working style of an introvert. Yet, research has found no evidence that introverts enjoy solitude more than extraverts.

Solitude as a term can have many positive associations. In some cases, it can bring about a greater sense of self-awareness. Indeed, solitude for some is a vital part of being productive. For some, it can be a state of being alone, without being alone. For others, it is essential for deep learning, reading, and being at one with nature. There are a lot of people who feel energised from being alone, and get their energy from being in such solitude. 

Compared to this, loneliness is more of a negative state. As terms, loneliness and solitude are used interchangeably, yet I find this problematic. The only similarity is the fact that someone is alone. Loneliness as a term is far more damaging, as it is anxiety-inducing and defeating. Indeed, though solitude is usually self-imposed, loneliness is an involuntary sense of estrangement.

As an extrovert, and being neurodiverse, I get my energy from others. The pandemic has thrown a massive spanner in the works in terms of everything I do. Over this period, my heightened levels of isolation and loneliness have seen a productivity drop. I find it difficult to navigate this space, as I’ve often felt isolated due to being different.

The side of entrepreneurship you don’t see: the case of female founders

Research has shown that entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey. Nevertheless, it remains not only ignored but rarely discussed. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, they found that half of the CEOs from the CEO Snapshot Survey reported experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of these, 61% believe it hinders their performance.

For founders or those who are self-employed, isolation can be a very real challenge. In 2016, the Self-Employment Review found that isolation was cited as one of the biggest challenges faced by business owners and sole traders. Within this, 30% of respondents found that Isolation or working alone was a problem. The 2019 Rose Review noted that women were 55% more likely than men to cite fear of going it alone as a primary reason for not starting a business.

I wanted to take a minute to speak to three different women who are in different industries to examine how lockdown has affected them. Jessica Bruno, a founder, social media and branding expert noted that one of her challenges during this time has been hyperfocus. “Lockdown and isolation trained my mind to go hyperfocus, ignoring the things around me. This has been great for business, less so for self-care”. 

Melissa Baksh, a founder, art Historian, writer and broadcasting professional found that a sense of community virtually was incredibly powerful during this time. “I found a lot of support and energy from various communities I’m in, especially in this difficult time”. Going further, Nina Fischer-Yargici, a founder, nutrition and lifestyle coach, gratitude has been a foundation to her. “I’ve been starting to reflect more and write down every day what I am grateful for every day. It can be easy to lose sight of this with all of the chaos going on around us”.

Regardless of being self-employed, starting or setting up a business, it is hard to be a leader. It can be incredibly lonely to be the person responsible for all decision-making. It can be rough at the top, especially if you are in the company of one. Entrepreneurs are more likely than other kinds of workers to report stress and worrying a lot.

What can you do?

Facing long periods alone at home is something many of us have never experienced, and you (like me!) may find yourself unprepared for the feelings of loneliness. I know I’ve increasingly felt this myself, especially with feelings of disconnection. A couple of things I’ve been doing have helped.

The first is to actively practice self-compassion. It is incredibly important now, more than ever, to be kind to yourself. Feelings can come and go, and if we resist those feelings, they can persist. Embracing those feelings is important. Also, we can often feel like we aren’t being productive compared to others. 

The second, source of comfort in the littlest of things and prioritise self-care. I’ve found it vital for my mental health and to combat feelings of isolation, with implementing ‘comfort measures’. For me, this looks like cooking comfort food and digging into a new book. I've actively sought to not feel bad about any guilty pleasures - so crap sci-fi, Korean face masks and bubble tea.

The third (and by no means last), is cementing the feeling of the community especially in the virtual world.. I’ve found connecting with like-minded people, as well as groups that align with my values to be incredibly centring. I’ve been able to engage with more people, foster a unique knowledge exchange network and ultimately make a positive impact.

If you’re feeling disconnected, there are many things you can do that will help. Just remember, you aren’t alone even though you may feel like it. We are all in this together.