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Talk & Listen Sessions

Monday 25 December 2023

An Imaginary Friend at Christmas!

Loneliness is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone, whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.

~ Hannah Arendt

It's the afternoon of Christmas day! As I sit and occasionally look out of the window I am struck by the stillness of the world outside. I don't see anyone walking along the street nor do I see any cars. It feels like a place and time in a post-apocalyptic and dystopian future world. The view is foggy. The silence is deafening. The absence of any signs of life is ominous. Yet this moribund state is not a true reflection of the day. Whilst there will be many who are alone there are many more who are spending time with friends and family. I can only imagine the lovely food, the paper hats and crappy cracker jokes (does someone actually get paid to come up with those!?).

It's not even clear to me how I feel today. I knew Christmas was coming and that I would be spending a few days on my own. I made an effort on Saturday to go to some events to try and maximise the hours of human contact on that day. I saw this as a way of filling up with as much human connection fuel as my emotional tank could accommodate. My theory was that, the more human contact I could immerse myself in, the longer I would be able to keep going over the Christmas void. It would take longer for the effects of being on my own to start to have a negative impact. Normally, after an overdose of socialising, I almost always need time to recharge anyway, so even if it wasn't Christmas, I wouldn't yet be looking for any further dose of social activity. I think I've still got enough fuel in the tank to last me for Boxing day. After that, I know I will start to feel some desperation to connect again, even if at least on a superficial level.  

Hannah Arendt, an American-Jewish philosopher, wrote about loneliness, isolation and solitude. I think it's useful to note some distinctions in the meanings of these words. She said that "Solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about when I am alone without being able to split up into the two-in-one, without being able to keep myself company". Arendt distinguished isolation from loneliness, saying that it was "Destructive of power and the capacity for action". Loneliness is a feeling. It represents an emotion arising from an unmet need to be connected with others but not being able to do so. Feeling lonely is a craving to connect with others on a meaningful level but being disconnected and alone. It is not important whether one is physically on their own or surrounded by many others; I find I am often surrounded by people but still feel completely disconnected and lonely.

Photograph of Hannah Arendt
 Hannah Arendt


Isolation is different to loneliness as it represents a circumstance and not a feeling. It is a physical disconnection rather than an emotional one. During the Covid-19 lockdowns we were told we had to isolate, to keep ourselves to ourselves and to not spend time with others. Not being with others meant we were physically isolated. Our need for human connection was impacted. As social animals this caused us problems as it made us miserable and dysfunctional. The social cohesion that is the essence of our existence was impaired. Of course, we still had our mobiles, Instas and Facebooks, and along came Zoom, and whilst these provided a way to reduce the feelings arising from isolation, they were not a panacea for the quality and depth of human connection that can only be experienced in real life. Looking at someone's image on a screen or giving them a virtual hug can never replace a real gaze into their eyes or the tactile sensation of their warm embrace.

Solitude is a positive conscious choice. It maintains balance on the social interaction scale. I may go to a bunch of meetups, feel emotionally and physically fatigued as a result, and then choose to spend a couple of days on my own to rebuild my resources. I may equally choose to stay in on my own rather than go out as, on some occasions, I might just prefer my own company, have some thinking to do, want to watch something on TV, go on the internet or read something. Loneliness, on the other hand, is not a choice, and neither is isolation. It is entirely possible to be lonely but not isolated, and it is equally possible to be isolated but not feel lonely. I was at a social event surrounded by people a few nights ago but couldn't strike up conversation or establish any rapport with anyone at all and felt very lonely. I've just been writing this post for my blog over the past couple of hours and, despite there not being even a hint of human life visibly or audibly anywhere around me, have somehow not felt as lonely as I did earlier. I feel as if I am actually talking to you, the reader! I am experiencing the state of solitude rather than loneliness at this point in time.  

The subject of feeling alone and discombobulated (I've been dying to use that word in my blog since I started writing it!) at social events, and in life in general, came up at some psychotherapy sessions a few years ago. The therapist at the time suggested I try a technique which she described as having a conversation with an imaginary friend. She explained I should create a mental image of this illusory friend and actually talk to them out loud as if they were physically present. A question arises: isn't this the same as talking to oneself? To an observer, yes, it would appear no different. But if, in my mind, I am talking to someone else then I cannot be talking to myself. The fact that they don't exist doesn't change the fact that I am talking to them! Ok, it's a bit of a grey area! Maybe we can dissect it over a cup of tea. Who am I talking to now?

Spending Christmas on my own means doing so in isolation and for me it is a fundamentally lonely experience. However, the fuel tank is still half full (notice the optimism!) and so has some mileage to see me through a bit longer. Whatsmore, there is a smidgeon of respite from a bit of the loneliness which has been replaced by solitude: on the receiving end of this blog post I feel as if I have an imaginary reader who I am "talking" to. Perhaps my therapist wasn't cranky after all!

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