I could have sworn I was the only person in the entire universe who didn’t fit in. After 12 different schools as a child, I became an exceedingly good chameleon. I learned to skillfully ‘fit’ wherever I landed (i.e. mold myself, be really good at listening, be helpful, be excellent at putting myself last, make myself super useful, be superwoman – and repeat). Fitting in is survival. Belonging, however, is what we all yearn for in our deepest soul. As I grew older listened to others and found that ‘lack of belonging’ and loneliness has become a human epidemic.

In primal times it used to be simple. You were born into a village and you usually belonged. God help you though if you strayed, if you were different, if you threatened the cultural norm in some way, because you’d get thrown out for the lions. End of story. 

The deep human need to belong is etched into our unconscious mind. It’s essential for survival. We are designed by nature for connection. Loneliness is a signal from the brain to tell us that something isn’t right.

The thought of not belonging is so terrifying that most of us have configured our lives so that we know our place, even if we are not happy. It’s challenging. And that is where loneliness begins. As long as we are busy fitting our ’round-pegged selves’ into a square hole, we can’t ever truly be ourselves; and we can’t really communicate the things that are important to us. Nobody wants to be cast out of the tribe. We armour ourselves. We hide our true feelings. We compartmentalise, cutting off from our deepest longings to avoid being hurt. We stay silent for fear of being persecuted or shamed. We disconnect from the connection that our soul yearns for – frequently masked with distractions, addictions, compulsive screen time, alcohol, drugs, over-eating, toxic spirituality – anything, anything, anything which fills the vast empty void of loneliness. 

“Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.”
Carl Jung

The loneliest I’ve ever been

In 2017, I crawled up into a ball and wanted to die. I am not ashamed of admitting this because it was real and a lots of people want to die at some time or another. My world had crashed. Any faith I had in humanity was shattered. My marriage (to an ex commando officer, turned spiritual guru) had cracked apart. My husband at the time acted with spiritual elitism, confusion, panic, and cognitive dissonance. I was exiled from my village (the spiritual community that I led). You see, for years, I’d been known for balance, stability, inspiration and shining brightly – but there is nothing like a breakdown to burst a few bubbles and sort the wheat from the chaff.

I am glad it happened to be honest. It shattered an illusion and changed my life in infinitely better ways. I’d become so lonely and isolated within my marriage and had nowhere to turn. It showed me that in times of advesity there are also good people who rise up and show you the biggest hearts and reach their hand into your black abyss and pull you out!

I turned inwards and cracked wide-open.

It was a turning point. Everything changed. My world fell apart. Amazing ordinary extraordinary human beings who were open enough to feel the commonality of struggle that we all face at some time or another, as human beings appeared. ‘I see you’. To feel like I was a valid human being again – that was what I needed. To see the light of my soul reflected back to me in their eyes. For the first time in a long time, I was able to be myself. I will always see those people who reminded me who I was back then as angels – and human angels always show up somehow when we need them.

I’ve since learned that we all need validity in some way. We all want to belong, to know that we are enough.  It’s normal and it’s human. It’s simple!  And not only is it OK, but it’s essential, as I learned.

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.
Brene Brown

The internet – validation on steroids

With the explosion of internet, many of us have become increasingly disconnected from real-life connections. Social media is like validity on steroids! Carefully controlled to make you come back again and again and again for more approval, for more connection. A dangling carrot, with the promise of connection – often evading us, just enough to keep us hooked and hopeful for more.  The internet can be an amazing tool, but most of it lacks soul. Studies show that social media is responsible for more loneliness and suicides than we can imagine. It’s been engineered in the same way that slot machines in Las Vegas have (no kidding – it has been covertly engineered by the science of addiction).

The internet has its place. I’ve learned so much from Google, but I am also so tired of finding out how to do everything last thing online. I want my mam to show me how to sew a zip on the purse I just made, I want my neighbour to show me how to change the oil on my car, I want the 83-year-old guy I pass in the woods every day to tell me how to grow a garden. Because that is where I get the connection and realness that my soul needs. 

“I see you” – the art of authentic connection

I often work alone, so I naturally seek out situations where I have meaningful engagement with others. Recently, I moved to a new town (note: I originally wrote this article in 2019, and have since moved to another new town). Nobody knew me when I showed up in a quiet town in West Wales, yet I have felt more connection and community in a couple of short months than I did for over a decade living in my old town. Something shifted inside of me when I made authentic connection a priority. 

I was volunteering the other day on my local nature reserve. Not only can I learn traditional skills there, but I am learning fascinating things; like how to track wildlife (did you know how a mallard duck quacks differently when there is a threatening otter in the vicinity?). I adore the realness.

Doing voluntary work has a multitude of layers for me. I feel inspired by my local nature reserve with its sparkling streams, rugged gorges, lush wetlands, and lord-of-the-rings-like woodlands. I dearly want to protect this precious habitation. Volunteering has the incredible side-effect of connecting me with people who also care about nature (and who seem infinitely more knowledgable than me). I feel like a child, hungry to listen, learn and be a part of something I believe in. There is a feeling that I am accepted. I feel seen and I feel valid. 

On a daily basis, I can’t help but smile to everyone I pass. In return, people beam with delight. It is not uncommon that I will strike up conversation with strangers. ‘I see you’. Each person, each conversation feels like a spark of the divine… everyone has a story, everyone yearns to be seen, everyone wants to see the light of their soul reflected back to them with a kind smile. 

An experiment in observing my loneliness… 

I tried an experiment… Instead of feeling mindless despair, every time I felt lonely, I decided to simply watch and notice it. It was so freakin’ hard to start with. I desperately wanted to fill the void. But instead I, simply noticed. At first, I observed the deep primal pain of not belonging, of abandonment, rejection, of being invalidated, of not being enough. It was excruciating. But I looked on with curiosity and kept noticing. Allowing the pain, the intense primal feelings, without judgment, enabled them to surface – it allowed deep healing to happen.

I started going into the woods, going into nature and just being. Sadly I lost my home and our massive garden last year (note: that was 2018), got rid of most of my stuff, put the rest into storage. I planned on camping in the wilderness and melting back into the earth. Secretly, I wanted nature to enfold me back into her heart and for my heart to beat with the rhythm of nature forever. I lived on a shoe-string budget for a few months in the wilds of one the Canary Islands and spent most of my time in nature re-claiming myself.

It was helpful to keep observing loneliness, being careful to watch and allow, but not to fill the empty void. The more time I spent in nature, accepting ‘what is’, the more whole and complete I became. That time was incredibly reclusive, but divine. It showed me a deeper level of who I truly am and helped me realise that I need a healthy balance of solitude and connection. 

(Anastasia camping the wilderness alone,  Jan 2019)

Solitude is not the same as loneliness

I love being alone, but I really do not like being lonely. A paradox right? Well, they are two different things.

The paradox is that we are never truly alone when our heart is truly open. With openness, love, and self-honesty, we become connected to the light that flows through all things. I can be alone, either still, with my self, or alone in nature. I feel at peace, fulfilled and free. On the other hand, I can also feel lonely AF. These are moments when I have become disconnected from the light that flows through all things.

The answer to me became simple – when I feel lonely it is simply my souls’ way of reminding me to reconnect with the light that flows through all things (or the divine as I might call it).

How do I reconnect? It starts with a simple commitment to reconnect. For me, sometimes that means closing my eyes and feeling the light in my heart. Suddenly I am no longer alone because I am ‘connected’ to the divine.

When it is too difficult to reconnect with the light in my heart, I will return to nature. After a little while connecting with the trees, the meadow and the wilds of foliage and bird song, I re-set my self back to real-ness. If I am particularly challenged then it might take a few hours emersed in nature to feel my light again. For other people, it might be art, painting, dancing or singing. It’s whatever opens up our soul to the flow. When we touch that space we don’t feel lonely, because we feel connected EVEN if there are no other people around. 

We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.
Hermann Hesse

Connection with people – that is important, crucial in fact – yet true connection runs much deeper. First, it’s about the light in our heart and soul, it’s about what makes your heart sing, it’s about what stirs your soul. Then when we connect with people, we feel a proper connection.

True belonging is about finding a healthy balance between solitude, time in nature, touching our soul and connection with fellow human beings. 

The courage to be ourselves

It takes a lot of courage to be ourselves! Sometimes it’s like standing out in the cold windy rain, exposed and vulnerable. It’s like venturing into the deep dark forest, never knowing if you will reach the crystal clear waterfall in the heart of the trees. Being ourselves is the boldest thing we will ever do. People who dare to be themselves with profound self-honesty are also those who find that they belong. People who dare to be themselves are those who overcome loneliness with a deeper sense of connection and authenticity with those they meet – quality not quantity – realness not superficiality.

The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.
Brene Brown

The courage to be ourselves may leave us out in the thrashing rain for a while and test us to the core, yet it leads to a deeper sense of connection and fulfillment than we can imagine. It’s the reason that now, I am able to return to an empty home, with nobody to greet me, with joy and appreciation, with the richness of human spirit and the delight of solitude. It is because I am willing to feel into the deep dark well of my loneliness until I find the light beyond it all. Life is so much better because I am willing to show up and be real, no matter what.

It means when I show up for others I can be myself. It means that I can mix with people, from any walk of life, because I am not looking for similarities, I am looking to celebrate the diversity of human connection. We all have a human spirit and we are all in this together. 

When we find courage within ourselves, to be real, it sends a signal out, so that the people around us also unleash their own courage. I used to think it was rare; interestingly, now I see it everywhere!

At the innermost core of all loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for union with one’s lost self.
Brendan Behan

Ways to overcome loneliness and find soul

Appreciate the people around you:
We may have differences. Drop judgments because everyone has had a tough journey. Be willing to see the divine in everyone. If others don’t ‘meet you’ in that place of non-judgment and open-heartedness, then give it some time, show up anyway, because sometimes things shift. First, we must learn to appreciate what is right in front of us (note: obviously if what is in front of us is dangerous, then leave or get help).

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”

Recognise that there is light in all people: 
I’ve tested this to the moon and back, through abuse, through forgiveness, with really ‘nasty buggers’. To truly belong in this world, non-judgment is important and acknowledgment that we are all inextricably connected is a fundamental part of the human journey. This is not to say we should abandon discernment. Most of us have had a tough ride with toxic characters in our lives at some point or another, but there is always something deeper. We are in this together. When one of us rises, we all begin to rise.

Spend time alone without distractions: 
Take time to watch and notice what comes up for you. Observing loneliness is a powerful precursor to overcoming it and becoming comfortable in your own skin. It is probably not going to be easy, but the rewards are exponential. Notice the emptiness and realise that emptiness is an important part of creating space to ‘be’ you. 

Spend time in the woodlands with trees and plantlife: 
Feel the healing energy of trees and plants. There is a whole community of living sentient life. Plantlife offers a space where you can be completely yourself. The trees will not judge you or expect you to be any other way. The woodland or forest is a powerful place to reclaim yourself. There is a whole science behind why (but I will save that for another story). Nature is an excellent place to find peace and calm, to feel excepted and seen. Hug a tree and just watch, notice what happens to your energy field. 

Seek out social situations without expectation: 
You never know who you will cross paths with. It takes time to build deep meaningful connections, but we have to start somewhere. Volunteering for a cause you believe in or joining a group that interests you are often places where we can meet interesting people. People love working together for a common cause. Be brave, be bold, be honest with yourself. There may (or may not) be people with whom you resonate, but just allow yourself to be and keep exploring. I can guarantee you if you talk with people, there are always people who have fascinating stories to share and there is always something to learn that you didn’t know. Some of my deepest most meaningful conversations are with people who are completely opposite to me in many ways – yet there is always a spark of the divine between us. If you don’t feel comfortable, give it some time and don’t be afraid to keep looking elsewhere.

Thank you for reading. I hope that you’ve found a little spark of something in this. Feel free to re-share. Feel free to comment and share your own experience or enquire deeper.

Soul to Soul