Navigating the white space of Loneliness

How we can transform our fear of the void into real connection

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If you’re feeling lonely right now, would you know it? It all depends how comfortable you are with The White Space.

“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”

 ― Jean-Paul Sartre

“When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”

 ― Elizabeth Gilbert

I had a conversation this past month with an old friend about the fact that during lockdown I’d been pretty content being by myself, as a creative introvert, but after 3 weeks I started to get edgy and didn’t understand at first that what I was feeling was lack of human connection – the real kind. I shared with her about the irony of finally understanding this feeling of loneliness and yet utterly failing to reach out to anyone. She understood completely.

I think we often feel that loneliness is something we have more control over, and a more immediate understanding of. We might even dismiss it as something only sad people feel, and that it’s not possible to be lonely if we’re around people all day. And yet my experience and perspective has been this is rarely the complete picture.

  • We can be lonely in a crowd – even a crowd of loved ones.
  • We can be lonely on social media – even amidst thousands of likes and comments.
  • We can be lonely within our family units – even the most supportive ones.

Loneliness creeps up on us, manifesting gradually as overeating, overexercising, drinking, smoking, and all manner of addiction issues, of which technology is now top of the list. It also shows up as irritability – even anger – and other emotional ‘stickiness’ like lethargy, restlessness, depression and a general feeling of lack.

Somehow, we don’t attribute any of these symptoms to loneliness. Instead we might say we’re stressed or tired (which are also just symptoms of a deeper cause), or we’ll blame someone else for the way we’re feeling. Yep, we’ve all done it.

What this comes down to is that we consider “loneliness” a mild nuisance at best – much like a headache – and at worst an intolerable weakness. So we deny it, suppress it, and hope it goes away of its own volition.

Is loneliness inevitable when we find ourselves alone, particularly during a global pandemic? Certainly, human connection is hardwired into our survival mechanisms: millennia ago, our tribal culture dictated that being left out of the tribe put us in extreme and immediate danger. Alone-time still has the ability to trigger this survival response in some of us. And yet I believe our modern psyche has evolved enough to cope with this (except, perhaps, if we are already overloaded with a chronic fear response). Being alone in this era of our evolution is triggering something altogether more insidious: a fear of The White Space.

The white space:

  • The empty room whilst you’re waiting for folk to turn up
  • The blankness of a new document on screen
  • The glaring expanse of virgin canvas or paper. 
  • The space between activities and distractions

There is something peculiar about our society that abhors the white space. We hold it in a kind of horror, and avoid it at all costs. We hurry to fill our white spaces with constant noise. We’ve forgotten how to sit with them – to sit inside of them – and simply listen, to be ourselves.

The white space mocks us. It mirrors back to us the emptiness we feel inside. It begs us to consume something – anything – to fill the void. Social media, Netflix, online gaming, constant app-switching – and all whilst we’re just waiting in line for coffee or between activities. I have noticed myself pick up my phone as soon as I finish watching an episode of Bake Off or The Queen’s Gambit. My brain is addicted to the noise and distraction. This horrifies me.

Who are we without the noise? This is what the white space demands. Who are we in the gaps, between programs or texts or our interminable To-Do lists?

So terrified are we of the potential answer to this question, we refuse to face it at all costs. And yet it whispers perpetually into the void of our being: “You are not enough”.

If we can’t begin to acknowledge and honour the need for these white spaces in our lives, we’re headed straight towards a chronic stress epidemic with no exit. Knowing how to be alone – with our bodies and spirit as well as our minds – is not just a fundamental keystone of our wellbeing, it is a doorway to our own personal evolution.

Genuine knowledge and visceral understanding of our emotions equal great power. Being alone (even enforced solitude during a pandemic) does not need to equal loneliness. And loneliness is neither shameful nor inevitable. 

All you have to remember – and implement – are the 3 Steps to Transforming Loneliness:

  • The first step is the hardest: acknowledgement. “I’m lonely!”
  • The second step requires profound self-compassion and the ability to surrender and breathe through the big feelings and critical self-judgments that you’ve now stopped suppressing. “I’m feeling unloved/ unwanted/ unseen/ unheard, and that’s ok!”
  • The third step is to sit inside of the white space and learn to be present with your innermost workings on a regular (at least daily) basis. “I am here. I am here, in this gut and heart and soul. I am radiant. I am enough. I am valuable.”

Reaching out to supportive peers is also on the list, but we must remember that the other’s job is not to plug a hole within us. If we can reach out instead from a place of value (rather than lack), then we are creating real connection. We are bringing food to the pot-luck instead of turning up empty-handed and hungry. 

None of this is easy, I know. Decades of practice, and I still avoid the white space habitually. But now, 9 times out of 10 I can spot the habit and switch it instantly. Most importantly, I do this without feeling shame, guilt or self-criticism. I’ve learned to love being with myself – whether that’s on my own in a forest or in a busy coffee shop. I’ve discovered an expansive, almost orgasmic feeling, of being 100% lovingly – and patiently – present with myself. 

And the best bit? I can bring that to my relationships too, for a deeper, juicier and more mutually fulfilling connection all round.

If you think you might be lonely right now, I’m here for you. Reach out and let’s chat. Don’t let the pandemic take you down: we’re all in this together, and I’m here for you. No judgement, no shame. Let’s transform that energy of lack into one of pure value. Message or email me today! <3

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