This year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 is loneliness. A theme and human emotion that, unfortunately, all of us will experience at some point. As a Portsmouth graduate, you’re part of a 250,000 strong community. A community here to support you, and one another through sharing of expertise and knowledge.
As such, we reached out to fellow graduate, Lili Boyanova, a certified Continuous Improvement and Theory U coach, for her advice on approaching this intense emotion and how she took, what is often considered, a negative feeling and turned it into a positive.
Lili’s 13 years in corporate project management for global IT and finance gave her deep insight into mental health issues many faces in their working life, and a strong vision as to how our lives could be positively impacted by a fresh focal point. It sparked a change in her career with a new role where she has built up a wealth of experience helping others to manage their emotions. As a member of the leadership team at The Human Workplace, she supports individuals to fall back in love with themselves, and their work, to be empowered in the pursuit of more love and less fear.
She advocates a redefining of mindset for loneliness, shifting from reactive to creative and developing an intentional practice for reflection and learning:
It’s likely that we all have moved through some form or shape of loneliness in the last two years. But what if we look at the emotion 'lonely’ as information about those parts of us that need nourishment? Then it can be a valuable resource. Instead of being afraid of our loneliness, we can get curious about it. Over time, we might even fall in love with it because of what it allows us to learn.
As we move through Mental Health Awareness Week, I want to celebrate us getting here as a community. Getting to a place where we can more easily talk about our full human experiences – bright and full of love, or dark and full of fear. Getting to that place takes courage and a level of compassion with one another. It’s a fundamental part of finding our place in the world and returning to our most authentic and loving selves.
Loneliness is part of our human experience. It is defined as a gap between the connections that we need, and those that we have. It’s a subjective term meaning that one can have many people around them and feel lonely, and no one around and not feel lonely – it’s about the quality of our relationships with ourselves and with others.
I was afraid of my lonely for an exceptionally long time. I remember my version of armour against it throughout the years. Seeking connection and belonging driven by fear looks more like seeking validation.
Lili Boyanova, BA (Hons) International Business Studies, 2013
Me and my lonely
At the age of 33, I’ve had my journey through loneliness. It started with early childhood experiences that led me to believe that I am less than others. At the age of 12, I wrote a poem with the name ‘Lonely’. Reading it today, I see an important insight about how loneliness feeds itself. Feeling my ‘lonely’ led me to think that I am not likeable. The more I felt, the harder it was to create meaningful relationships.
I was afraid of my lonely for an exceptionally long time. I remember my version of armour against it throughout the years. Seeking connection and belonging driven by fear looks more like seeking validation. Whilst the pleasing and performing attitude is a fix, it isn’t sustainable. Brene Brown’s research on worthiness suggests that when we don’t allow ourselves to be truly seen, we invite even more disconnection and loneliness.
My lonely data
One day, I got curious about my lonely. I wanted to learn from it. I knew that the fear of being lonely was reinforcing a belief about my separated-ness and disconnection from others. I knew that I was often moving far beyond my identity to meet another person in theirs. Perhaps there was something I could do. When I was stuck in the analysis of my lonely experience, I was not with my experience; rather than running away from the feeling – I could sit with it.
Here I was. With Lonely. And there was nothing more human than what I felt. I saw Lonely as a friend. It was a feeling, and inside it was a deep need for a genuine human connection. I started to look at Lonely not through the eyes of what others would think of me if they’d find out. Not through fear that I’d be judged, wrong, bad, unlikeable. And it wasn’t scary, it was an empathetic and compassionate moment. This capacity to feel things is what makes life beautiful. Real. Why create numbness by running away and getting busy because I evaluate whatever is present as “wrong”?
From that place, I decided to meet new people more frequently and observe my inner state with interactions. I wanted to learn from experience – what was it that made it possible for me to connect more deeply with another human being? Why was it that I showed up differently depending on who was opposite me? How did the feeling of lonely change with connection? In December 2019, a few months before the start of the pandemic, I decided to run an experiment – what if I meet 100 new people in one year?
I know that tapping into my lonely allowed me to understand myself better. Lonely comes and goes. The difference is that I am no longer afraid of it. More than that, I learnt to love my lonely – it’s a valuable resource.
Lili Boyanova, Chief Innovation Officer of A Human Workplace
What I learnt from this experiment about my lonely
When I pretended that I didn’t feel lonely, I invited connection out of fear. I was much more likely to hide my true self. When I met someone new, I revealed parts of my story in an unauthentic way. I exaggerated the least important parts or understated the most important ones. That’s unauthentic and made me feel smaller. Disconnected.
When I recognised and named what I felt, it was like a crack popped in my armour. I let light through to shine on the parts of me that made me feel unlikeable. This was a brave and vulnerable inner process.
It was that vulnerability that made it possible for me to share more deeply my story from my heart each time I met someone new. This created safety. Safety leads to more vulnerability. I noticed that as I modelled that, others followed. As I shared my fears and my failures, others did too. I saw an array of human experiences – similar or different to mine. As I was getting to know 100 new people, I became closer to myself. I started to accept those parts of my story that weren’t on my résumé. That was creating a sense of interconnectedness and belonging.
As I felt more acceptance within myself, I was able to find and cultivate belonging with others. Conversations transformed towards dialogue. Relationships began to unfold. Collaborations developed and started to flourish. My life improved greatly.
I know that tapping into my lonely allowed me to understand myself better. Lonely comes and goes. The difference is that I am no longer afraid of it. More than that, I learnt to love my lonely – it’s a valuable resource. It helps me to make choices in a new way. ‘I feel lonely’ is my indicator that I haven’t nourished all the parts of me that I need to. That understanding helps me to build an intentional space for reflection. It helps me to know when it’s time to engage, and when it’s time to sit in silence.
The experiences of the pandemic have provided us all with profound opportunities for developing deeper insights about the quality of our relationships. As people, we are more attuned to our needs for connection. As a society, we are more aware of the collective loneliness we have created because of the transactional nature of our workplaces and our communities.
My invitation to you:
If you are feeling lonely – that’s ok. And know that you are not alone in that. We all have been there, and all will go there at some point, it’s part of our human experience. Don’t be afraid. Love your lonely, take it as a resource and as important data. We cannot wait to get to a place of belonging and worthiness within before we connect with others. It might be a long time until we truly accept ourselves. Starting with loving our lonely might be just that first step.
Explore well-being with Lili and her team of human-centred therapists, social workers, teachers, coaches and behaviour scientists. Book your space for A Human Workplace’s Global Well-being Gatherings here.