A thousand apologies, but this isn’t going to be an uplifting dispatch about remote work. Rather, this is an exposition on loneliness. It’s an emotion that’s cited as one of the drawbacks of working remotely (along with first cousins “isolation” and “depression”) so I think it’s appropriate to share here. First, I ask that you head on over to the Telegraph, where Jo Carnegie has done a fantastic job of writing about loneliness in the workplace. A lot of the themes she brought up resonated with me, and I’ll tell you why as soon as you’re back. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
So, what’d you think? Can you relate to much of what she’s written? They did with me. I’ve worked remotely for 20 years now, and have had periods where I’ve definitely felt lonely, even depressed. Jo’s article cites the changing workplace as a major impetus for this emotion but I think it runs deeper. I think societal changes have created a breeding ground where loneliness can thrive.
Wait, what societal changes? I can think of three:
- The death of the proverbial front porch.
In my community, and I suspect many others, the literal front porch has shrunk in size or been fully eliminated from homes. The front porch as a metaphor is not lost on me. Nobody sits “out front” anymore, exposed to whoever happens by. Interactions are superficial. Rarely are you invited to someone’s backyard where secrets are bestowed, emotions shared, insecurities laid bare.
- Loose connections and social media’s rise in popularity.
How many followers do you have? What was your engagement this week? Did the people you wanted to like your post even see your post? We’re all about the metrics, constantly scrolling and refreshing to see what’s new. Beyond the like and retweets, the deeper level of engagement is a comment or reply, and rarely does that get beyond what you’d say to someone in passing. Conversations in real life, even when superficial, are far more engaging.
This word has so many negative connotations, and I don’t mean them all in this context. When given a choice, and probably due to a combination of the above two phenomena, we focus on serving ourselves rather than serving the general community. When we’re all promoters of ourselves, the sounds of the social media echo chambers can be deafening. There needs to be more of helping your neighbor; supporting a cause you believe in; doing something because it’s the right thing to do, not because of how your status will be elevated because of it.
Okay, enough of that. Let’s get back to the loneliness and depression!
I’m an introvert. I struggle to create and cultivate relationships. It’s not a new thing for me, either. I remember feeling this way in grade school and college. I suffer from confidence issues and serious imposter syndrome. These are not diagnosed but I know they’re not uncommon in my vocation and hobby circles. It’s just that nobody talks about it. I do a pretty good job keeping these insecurities shelved deep inside of me in locked rooms where the keys are mostly hidden. However, sometimes those doors fling wide open, and reveal the shelves that had so deftly held those insecurities out of view.
I live in a small town in upstate New York and work remotely. I’ve done so for twenty years. As a result, many of the connections I have are not work-related, but rather drawn from social or extracurricular circles. Add to that the prevalence of loose connections (thanks, social media) instead of close connections — and the fact that as a couple we have had a hard time finding other couples with whom we “click” — it’s easy for my wife (who’s also introverted) and I to get down on ourselves. When we talk about it, we realize that all we truly have is each other. Trust me, that’s enough most of the time. Sometimes we aspire to expand our social circle, as most of us would reasonably strive for.
It wasn’t always this way. Years ago, we met another family in church. They had two kids roughly the same ages as ours, and the Dad also worked remotely. We had our home offices and parenting in common. We were socially close as families for several years until they moved away. Oddly, the distance was all it took for us to lose that closeness, too. Since then, we’ve not found a similar connection with anyone else. We’ve tried, too! However, it was frustrating for us as a couple to always be taking the initiative to get together most of the time. We’d invite people over for dinners, but they seldom reciprocated. The same went for the one-on-one friendships we tried to cultivate, too. I came away from most interactions feeling like I was the one who needed the friendship more, which in turn fed my insecurities. With the family that moved away, it was far more of a two-way street.
Acupuncture as a (Partial) Remedy
During one of my recent troughs of emotional turmoil (and there are peaks and troughs, for sure), I paraphrased how I was feeling for my acupuncturist. I told her that one day I was fine and another was massively emotional again. I hopefully asked, “Is there something you can do to help reset, or re-center, me?”
She told me about the “7 Emotions” in traditional Chinese medical theory. She explained that an excess of any of these most common emotions (joy, anger, anxiety, overthinking, grief, fear and fright) could cause dis-ease in the body. That spelling is intentional: dis-ease representing a lack of feeling of ease or well-being, as well as potential illness. Rather than holding strong emotions in and allowing them to create tension and illness, my acupuncturist talked about methods for releasing them in traditional Chinese medicine:
- physical expression
(exercise, acupuncture, tai chi)
- mental/emotional expression
(writing, talking about feelings, therapy)
In addition, she noted more traditional methods for calming the body and mind, including acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, meditation and breathing techniques. We talked about how I already physically express things through exercise and acting, and emote using writing (see: this piece), therapy and a fledgling meditation practice. She continued, saying that the treatment she’d give me would include acupuncture points traditionally understood to promote the smooth movement of energy in my body and calm and settle the mind. Normally I walk out of a treatment feeling relaxed, almost foggy in the aftermath of the acupuncture. This time, I walked out with a sense of clarity and purpose I’d not felt in a long time. My acupuncturist smiled at me and said, “Nice, isn’t it?” I think I’ll ask for that treatment again!
Techniques for Overcoming Loneliness as a Remote Worker
I don’t pretend to have all the answers (any, really). If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this post. I do think that sharing how you feel, first with yourself, is an essential first step.
I know I’m not alone, either. When I shared a poll on this web site’s twitter account, followed mostly by remote workers, 53% of the respondents said they were often or sometimes lonely, with another 13% saying they wouldn’t share if they were. True, I think there’s a perceived stigma to speaking up.
As a remote worker, do you feel lonely or depressed …
— Working Remotely (@workingrem) July 16, 2018
From the article above, Jo has a helpful sidebar on some ideas for beating loneliness. I’ll summarize them below, and provide my own thoughts on how each applies to my own situation.
IDEA: When you meet up with close friends, talk about your feelings not just your jobs or families. Being honest about your life helps people feel closer to you.
This one is tough for me, since I don’t feel like I have many close friends. It’s almost like a chicken and egg problem, where being honest about your life with someone might help you achieve that closeness, and further make it okay to be honest. I’ve focused, then, on being honest wherever I can. Sometimes it may push someone away, and other times it may bring them closer. I don’t know until I try, though.
IDEA: Plan holidays or birthdays well in advance so that you are never lonely at times when it really matters.
I’m lucky to have family around me all the time, so this idea is easy to check off. My wife’s parents and my parents are both in the same town with us, too. My wife is super supportive and we’re each other’s best friend. We don’t place a lot of emphasis on birthdays or holidays, but we do get together with extended family for the major holidays.
IDEA: Invite out a new person – someone you’ve met in the last month. Take them to a play, film, or out for supper.
This is hard for me to do over and over. I’ve reached out to someone new maybe twice in the last year? It implies that I’ve met enough “new” people to ask them to do something. So, just like a conversion funnel, perhaps I need to find opportunities to meet more people in order to be able to ask some of them to have coffee.
IDEA: If you have feelings of loneliness at work, fill your lunch hour with an enjoyable activity: listen to a play on your iPad or start learning a language.
I’m nailing this one. When my wife is home during the day with me, we make a point to go for a walk after lunch. I take breaks during the day for fitness, to work on Duolingo (Spanish and French) and to play guitar.
IDEA: Give yourself permission to say no to events where you can’t take a plus one – I finally realised this after an agonising wedding party last summer.
I haven’t encountered this, but totally agree that it would be a dealbreaker. If I can’t go somewhere with my wife with me, I’m not going to enjoy myself as much as I could otherwise. Back when I was single I did go to a wedding where I didn’t have a plus one. It was really depressing!
IDEA: Don’t wait for someone to call or email – contact them. If they’re busy it doesn’t mean they are rejecting you. Try again.
The last idea is also a tough one, because as humans we’re wired to think that someone is rejecting us when they say they can’t get together. When you string enough “I’m sorry, but I’m busy” responses together, how can you not think that it’s just not worth the effort? It is easier to just forget it and move on, but I agree, you’re making an assumption there that may be false. One thing I’ve tried with varying success is to have reminders to get in touch with specific people every few weeks or months. Without that reminder, sometimes we get so busy that time silently slips by. It’s nice to have the reminder to check in, even if it’s just a quick phone call or a cup of coffee.