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Successful on the Outside, Lonely on the Inside: Our Hidden Epidemic

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I say “Loneliness. Isolation. Invisibility.”

You ask “Eleanor Rigby?”

I say “No. Your co-worker. The person next to you in the grocery store. The new CEO they just hired. The person who just repaired your washing machine. It’s all around you.”

I think this is one of the least recognized and most wide-spread social epidemics of our time. I’ve been hearing this issue come up among clients for several years now but I’ve never brought it in to the light for us to talk about collectively. It’s time I did.

Here’s what I am hearing:

“I feel like my purpose is to just make money for my family…I’m a huge wallet to them. I don’t really matter.”

“I’ve been there for everyone and everything else…I give myself to my job, my spouse, my kids, my extended family, the bills. Honestly, when you ask me what I want, I don’t even have enough of a relationship with myself to be able to know. I keep thinking ‘if I only had time for myself’, but I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did.”

“People keep telling me I should be grateful. I have so much. I feel guilty because I know they are right in a way but I can’t help thinking that there has to be more than this. It seems like all I do is work, watch TV, crash, and start all over again. I’m not passionate about my life or what I do. This can’t be all there is.”

“I’m really lonely. The truth is, I don’t REALLY have friends that understand me and get where I’m coming from. Sure, we go out and have dinner, and see people socially, but it isn’t like I can confide in them. They don’t seem to think about the same things I do. I yearn for those conversations that used to happen in the wee hours when I was in college but now we just seem to end up talking about movies, and the kids and what we are thinking of buying next for the house.”

I’m hearing comments like these from every corner…doctors, business executives, stay-at-home parents, coaches (yes, I said coaches), IT professionals, service professionals, entrepreneurs, those out of the workforce due to illness or retirement…men and women, adults of all ages.

Six folks gathered in a group I conducted recently, despite being spread across the country and having very diverse backgrounds, kept coming back to the same issue:

Is it me? Is this really all there is? Surely there has to be more? I just can’t sit here anymore and let my life go by!

One astute member recognized that what the folks in the group are seeking is “self-actualization”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it was introduced by Abraham Maslow who postulated that we have a Hierarchy of Needs. (My brother said he actually learned about this concept on a White Castle commercial a couple years ago!).

Basically, the first needs are food, clothes, shelter…security…later we want to be individuals, break away from our parents…then we keep moving up and start thinking about being productive and creating and generating and up at the top of the list we have Self-Actualization.

We don’t all get there. Arguably very few may even try.

This is the stuff of “why I am here?” “what does it mean to be ME in this life?” Big questions. Hairy questions. Deathbed questions for some. Too scary to ever consider for others. And for others a compelling quest.

Well, if any of this resonates with you I want you to consider why the journey is particularly hard.

In the U.S. (can’t speak for elsewhere) we have a culture that actively discourages self actualization. As a culture, we are stuck in the basic food, clothing, shelter level (and let’s not forget all those ads for ‘physical enhancement’ in our e-mail boxes). After 9/11 we were told that the most patriotic and brave thing we could do was go shopping. For God’s sake, don’t let them think they can keep us out of the malls that easy! Our economy NEEDS you!  

The message is: Our economy needs you to be focused on the most basic needs…keep feathering your nest. We are encouraged to be addicted to material possessions. Yes, addicted…have you ever bought something you really didn’t need because it was such a great price? I’ll admit it. I have. It’s very seductive, all this “stuff”.  

And it is FEAR that perpetuates this pattern.

Can you be a CEO and drive a 10 year old Ford?

Can you wear that 5 year old dress to the office party or interview?

Can your kids wear non-name brand sneakers to the t-ball game?

We get tempted to buck the system (‘next Christmas I am not going to buy all this crap…the kids don’t even appreciate it…I don’t even remember what I got last year!’) but then the questions come:

What will people think?

What will they assume about me?

What will it cost me if I don’t play this game anymore?

Can I afford to pay that price?

Is my family willing to pay that price even if I am?

Why can’t I just be happy?

What is wrong with me? Is this a mid-life crisis?

What WOULD happen to the economy if we all decided to simplify???

So, you see, loneliness, isolation, alienation, confusion. It’s built right in to the mix. If you are feeling this yourself, please know you are not alone. FAR from it. It’s all around you.

So, what do you do?

Stop being afraid to talk about it. That’s a start. Find a safe place to talk.
Find the right place for you.

I’m entirely serious about this. I hear the pain every day (and the joy that comes with living more authentically in accordance with one’s values). This is a hard path. I’ve been on it for a long time. Every day I am heartened to see more and more people daring to challenge the status quo of their lives.

If you’ve been feeling it, just know you aren’t the only one going through this.

Laura Young/Wellspring Coaching
Laura’s blog

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  • Nancy

    Gotta say, it’s a gift to be able to enjoy my drive to & from work every day, getting entertainment just from noticing the jewelweed is finally out, the butterflies are at the buddleias out in that field, the buzzards have another kid grown enough to join them in circling, & looking at how the ivy has grown on that old log cabin. Most people just whip on by.