My Discovery: Alone ≠ Lonely
Updated: Aug 9, 2018
Marisa Guerin, Ph.D. – August 8, 2018 (revised)
A few months back, it dawned on me that after a year of retirement from my consulting work, I was no longer lonely in a way I used to think was normal. Hmm?!? It was a surprise to me. If anything, I would have expected the opposite.
Here’s what I make of this. It’s a personal view; I’m not sure it would be true of anyone else, but maybe.
I think that in the past, I experienced occasional loneliness in my workaday life as a consultant because I would spend considerable time thinking about, planning for, and implementing work on behalf of my clients -- but without being able to bring them into my inner world for that work. They are leaders I admire, and some of them are valued friends, too -- but the “boundary” necessary in professional work means that when you are engaged to support your clients, you don’t make them take care of you, and you don’t make them do your work.
It’s an interesting kind of *lonely* ---- it’s the lonely of the solo practitioner (as compared to a person who works in a consulting company with teams of peers). I think it’s also the lonely of a senior leader, which is the role I held before I started my business practice. No matter if you have access to collegial support from peers who will listen and give ideas -- what we consultants call “shadow consulting” – it all remains essentially your own work. The jitters before a challenging event or the pleasure after a successful engagement can be expressed and shared to some extent, but the ultimately solo nature of this type of role was unavoidable.
Only now do I realize that, as a work dynamic, this was rather invisible to me; at those moments when I would feel loneliness, I would attribute it to a lack of sufficient social connections with family and friends. I’d worry that I was not spending enough time with people I care about….which didn’t make a lot of sense, because in fact, I usually do.
One day not too long ago, I had the sudden awareness that I didn’t feel lonely, and that I hadn’t felt lonely for some time. It took me up short. How could that be? I actually spend more time by myself now than I did when I was working, so it's not that I'm less alone. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that without the role burdens of consulting or of leading that I was used to shouldering on behalf of others, I am not feeling the “missing” of companionship in fulfilling that work. Instead, as I go about my day, I enjoy the time when I’m alone: doing errands or cooking or reading or chores; and I enjoy the time when I’m with people: meeting friends for lunch or having dinner with Mike or collaborating on a volunteer project or getting together with neighbors or my sibs.
I do pay attention to this balance, since I am by nature an introvert. (In my first regular appointment after I retired, my doctor said something I wasn't expecting. Her words? “By the way, my 'prescription' for your retirement is to talk to someone, in addition to Mike, every day.” Good advice!)
I realize now that I’m only actively lonely at those times when I want or need to be sharing some experience, but for whatever reason, have no one to share it with.
It seems that in general, there is enough – enough companionship and connection for me to feel secure in my relationship world, even though I truly do miss the wonderful clients I used to spend time with. Luckily for me, there are occasions now and then for connecting with them simply as friends that I care about, which is satisfying in a different way than the intensive consulting work ever could be.
In retrospect, I see that my leadership life and my solo consulting practice entailed a chronic, low-level condition of loneliness that I didn't think unusual at the time, although it was wearing and probably had some influence on my eventual decision to retire.
(* See comments below - a colleague offers wise insight into one source of this loneliness for leaders and consultants.)
Reflecting on that experience now gives me more compassion for the perhaps un-noticed emotional price that leaders and solo practitioners pay, a greater appreciation for the importance of the colleague networks and professional associations that we belong to, and a sense of personal relief that I apparently wasn’t failing to maintain my social world. That's quite reassuring, actually.
I am grateful both for productive solitude and for nurturing relationships. Next time I feel lonely, I’ll know to pay attention to what in my life needs sharing, and with whom.