The Purpose of Loneliness

In this episode of The Everything Life Coaching podcast, John and Noelle discuss the purpose of loneliness and ways to understand its role in our lives.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

The Purpose of Loneliness

In this episode, Lumia co-founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux discuss loneliness: the point of it, understanding it better, and dissecting it. It's a feeling, it's an evolutionary trigger, but what IS it? This episode also covers getting your needs met and the concept of social contagion. Let's go!

Episode Transcript

John: Hey guys, welcome to the Catalyst Life Coaching Podcast. This is Episode 5, 6, or 7? Noelle and I do not know what episode it is because we are blazing through them so fast.

Noelle: This is true. I think it’s 5.

John: What are we talking about today Noelle?

Noelle: Today, we’re talking about loneliness.

John: Yeah.

Noelle: As an experience, as a phenomenon, and what we can do about it.

John: Yeah. I think maybe we should redefine it because I think that loneliness — it has a bad rep. So let’s talk about this — I think it’s really important. I know that it’s been a theme in my life for probably the last year and a half. There’s different types of loneliness and not all loneliness is bad. So where do you want to start?

Noelle: Well, let’s tell the people who we are.

John: My name is John Kim.

Noelle: I’m Noelle Cordeaux, and together we form the leadership of both SHFT (now Lumia Coaching), the company, and the Catalyst Life Coaching Intensive. John and I are both life coaches and we created this podcast to discuss things that will resonate with people. If they want some coaching by listening to us or if you’re a coach and you need some new techniques and cues to help your people. We are here for you.

John: Yeah or if you just want a better life.

Noelle: Totally. So back to our topic of loneliness, I think that loneliness has a little bit of a stigma attached to it. When you say, “I’ve been lonely for the past year and a half”, how do people respond to you when you say something like that?

John: I don’t tell anyone. Instead I broadcast it through a podcast. But more importantly, there is definitely stigma but also, we buy into the stigma. So when I announced myself that I’m lonely, then there’s this “Okay, what’s wrong with me?” Then there’s this — right behind that door there is all this stuff that you internalized to think that you’re lonely because you have less worth, or because you are unattractive, or all that kind of stuff.

Noelle: I completely agree. I think that’s where the stigma comes in. We talk a lot about the difference between how life is projected through the media, through Facebook, through others, and how life is actually experienced. And I think that this is another one of those setups where you look around and all you see are people everywhere and if you’re experiencing loneliness, there’s this “What’s wrong with me?” concept.

John: Yeah, and I think that’s the dangerous part. I think most of the world they point their — I mean, loneliness is so common, I think most of the world points that gun toward themselves.

Noelle: Oh, totally. I think that that’s just a symptom of our individualistic culture in just our lifetimes. I mean from when you and I were little, like 10 years ago, I think that we’ve seen this drastic shift in society away from living in communities where everybody knows each other. You know your friend’s moms, they know you, they keep an eye on you to — we’re just kinda swinging from the rafters out there by ourselves on our phones.

John: Yeah. And I think that if you live in a big city like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, sometimes you’re more lonely in very populated cities — Tokyo — than you would be in a small town with less population.

Noelle: 100%. I was thinking about that when I was living in L.A. and I would come home at the end of the day and it was so frustrating ‘cause I’m such a social person but nobody wanted to go out after work cause of traffic. And I was talking to a friend about it and he said, “This is how people die alone in their apartments and no one ever knows.” and I was like, “Oh God!”

John: Traffic equals loneliness. It’s hilarious because when your sitting in traffic, you’re in your little capsule and there’s just hundred thousands of people sitting there in their little capsules all isolated.

Noelle: Indeed.

John: It’s a metaphor.

Noelle: It is a metaphor. So let’s break it down, right. Something that I say all the time to my friends, to my family, to my clients is that feelings aren’t facts. Loneliness is actually a feeling. It’s an emotion. It’s a physiological phenomenon that sprung up via our evolutionary history as tribal creatures that humans are not designed to live life alone. We know this — this is the whole concept we built our entire company around. When you start to feel loneliness, it’s actually a trigger to you — it’s a social cue. And it comes from the fact that we are historically tribal creatures and it’s this little like, “Ding ding ding ding ding! Hey man, you should connect with others.”

John: Right. It’s a warning sign.

Noelle: It is a warning sign.

John: You know what, when people feel loneliness, a lot of times they’ll see the warning sign and what they’ll do is they’ll drown themselves in more loneliness by numbing themselves with television, video games, food.

Noelle: Yeah. Interestingly, that makes a lot of sense. Because loneliness, as a social trigger, pose the same alarm bells in your nervous system as hunger, thirst, or physical pain. So your instinct is to try to quell that by whatever means immediately necessary. If you’re starving and you’re trying to eat healthy but there’s a pizza in front of you, guess what?

John: Right.

Noelle: That pizza doesn’t stand a chance. So of course, we’re gonna turn on the television, you see people. It makes complete sense. I think the really interesting thing about loneliness is that it’s a feeling. We know that it’s an evolutionary trigger but what it really is — it’s a perceived discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships.

John: So the blueprint’s not matching.

Noelle: The blueprint’s not matching — exactly. And instead of taking a look at it — as we did maybe when we were running around as cavemen and saying, “Oh s**t, I better get back into that tribe.” — we internalize it now and say, “There’s something wrong with me that I’ve been cast out of a tribe.” But in modern life, tribes don’t exist in the same way.

John: Right.

Noelle: So what happens is your brain goes into self-preservation mode. And when that happens, your fight or flight mechanism kicks in and your nervous system goes up and it’s kind of crazy — your empathy levels go down for other humans because you’re in this like survivalistic mode. And it seems to be the complete opposite of what we actually need in that scenario. How do you contend with loneliness? What are your go-tos?

John: The Internet.

Noelle: Okay.

John: So when I get lonely, I try to get out of my house and connect with real people. I have a tribe that we ride motorcycles, we do fitness, we eat. That’s kind of my go-to when I get lonely. Sometimes I’ll distract by going to see a movie by myself. I don’t know if that is good or bad but I’ll do stuff like that — listen to music, etc. And the other thing is, even if you are in a relationship, you could also be lonely.

Noelle: Oh, 100%. This can be a really fascinating aspect of our conversation ‘cause it goes back to that blueprint, right? There’s a disconnect between what you think you should be experiencing and between what you’re actually experiencing. And I think especially in relationships, instead of saying that to a partner, or a friend, or a family member of “Hey, this is what I think should be happening and instead this is what I’m experiencing.” People stuff it down, deep down inside and just get angry and say, “This isn’t working for me, or you’re not working for me, or this relationship isn’t the right relationship.” versus actually asking for what you need.

John: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So like, on a Friday night, I should be in bed maybe possibly naked with a beautiful woman but instead I’m on the couch eating Cheetos, watching tv. And so because those don’t match, I stamp myself as lonely.

Noelle: Or that you experience the feeling of loneliness because your evolutionary instinct is telling you that you need to go interact with your tribe where you might find that woman.

John: Did you pick the topic of loneliness as a way to give me an intervention today?

Noelle: No, but this might be the right thing at the right time.

John: Sure.

Noelle: [inaudible] your love life out, don’t worry.

John: You know I’m transparent, I don’t care. Yeah, I think this is really interesting. And here is the other part of loneliness — I think that sometimes, people are lonely because it has nothing to do with other people but it has to do with their relationship with themselves. So a lot of people are lonely because they can’t be alone. Does that make sense?

Noelle: Yeah, absolutely. Because they can’t be alone or because there’s a mismatch with his blueprint. So I’ll give you an example from my own life. I am a hyper communicative person. I’m extremely verbal. I’m a very fast writer. I’m a prolific talker.

John: Which is why you’re amazing on podcast.

Noelle: Awwwwe, thank you John.

John: Yeah, I really mean that. Yeah, you’re great. Anyway, go on.

Noelle: But when that shows up in my home life — my husband is an entrepreneur, he runs his own business. He is incredibly busy, day in and day out. And we first got together, I would call him in the middle of the day just to talk — say hi, have my check in, get my dopamine hit that I needed from that connection and he would be like, “Holy s**t, this girl keeps calling me. She’s gonna tank my business. What the hell am I gonna do, I can’t talk to her this much.” And so we finally had to have a conversation about the fact that my need to communicate as much as I do is a mismatch not only for him personality wise, but for what his day looks like, day in and day out.

John: Yeah. Interesting.

Noelle: Yeah. We’ve had to work that out as a couple about — I need to find my needs for communication. I need get them met elsewhere.

John: So how do you do that?

Noelle: I rely on other deep and varied relationships. I rely on friendships. I rely on other very close people in my life. I’ll call my mom, I’ll call my dad, I’ll call my little sister. I do stuff like this — podcasts. I’ve built my professional life around coaching, literally talking to people. So I’ve adapted to get my needs met.

John: That’s great. So people who are listening to this, and I know a lot of people are struggling with loneliness. What would you recommend as far as steps? I think the first thing is to know that you are experiencing loneliness, you are not lonely. So like this disconnection between internalizing the lonely as something that you are because then you’re gonna feel defective or less than. And know that like Noelle said, it’s a feeling, it’s something that you are experiencing like hunger, or sleepiness, being tired, or being horny, or whatever — it’s a feeling.

Noelle: Yeah. It’s a feeling, not a fact. So if you’re hungry, you’re experiencing hunger. You’re not a bad person because you’re experiencing hunger. If you’re lonely, you’re experiencing loneliness cause you have a need that needs to be filled, not because you suck for some reason. It’s like every other biological drive out there. We need to start thinking about it like that.  I think really flipping the script around — from a framework of “What’s wrong with me that I don’t have something?” to “How do I get my needs met?” Because making sure that you get your needs met is your job, big time.

John: Yeah. It’s where a lot people drop the ball. You know, now we’re talking about self care and getting your needs or what you need.

Noelle: Yeah. And understanding — I think that step one of that piece of the puzzle is actually taking the time to be reflective about what your needs are. Are you an introvert or are you an extrovert? What are the quality of your top five relationships? So from a social contagion perspective — social contagion is the phenomenon in which we adopt the behaviours and qualities of the five people that we’re around the most. It’s really interesting. So if you’re looking at your top five, what are the quality of those relationships? Are your needs for being seen, heard, and understood met in that context?

John: Can you get different needs from different tribes?

Noelle: Oh yeah, totally.

John: Okay.

Noelle: And you should. That’s why it’s important to be both critical and analytical about this stuff. If you’re a coach out there who’s listening, this is a great way to explore things with your clients. It’s okay to go to different groups, to different people, to get different needs met.

John: Yeah, I was just thinking. You know this idea of people compartmentalizing their friends and that usually has a bad rep or negative tone but it’s actually kind of okay. So I have my fitness buddies that I see daily and when I’m with them, they’re mostly younger than me, so I could be total immature and silly and I could be [inaudible]. Give myself that part of John Kim that can be lonely. But then I also have some other friends that are older than me that we could sit down, we have coffee and we talk about big things in life, in love, and all that. And so I get those needs met by them. So I think there’s different types of needs that you can get met when you feel lonely by different types of people and it’s okay.

Noelle: Absolutely. And I think that there’s this misnomer that you have to get all of your needs met from your core crew or your partner. And it’s a one stop shop and if it’s not happening there, there’s something wrong.

John: Yeah. That’s a really good point. And that’s impossible because you’re gonna have different types of tribes.

Noelle: Oh, yeah. You’re gonna have different types of tribes. You’re gonna change and grow over your lifespan too. What used to work for you as far as getting your needs met, isn’t gonna work for you anymore. For my own life, in my younger years, going to see music several times a week was a big part of my life and a big part of who I was. I had a lot of great friends that I did that with. These days, running a company, I am too f*****g tired. I’m in bed by 9:30 pm and I’m up in the morning — and I need to do that to have that energy. Do I miss it? Do I feel lonely sometimes because of it? Sure, definitely. But I needed to put that aspect of myself to rest so I could do something bigger than myself.

John: What about all the people who are in relationships and they’re feeling lonely, which is a little more complicated. What would you say to those people?

Noelle: I think from that perspective, it comes down to analyzing the patterns that are causing the loneliness because it can come from different sources. So we talked about communication as an example from my own life — that’s a big one. I say this word “mismatched” not as a negative but just as a fact. If you’re in a paired couple relationship where you’re a heavy communicator and your partner is not, that can cause feelings of loneliness. You can ease it by recognizing the patterns, talking to your partner about how to get your needs met, and then agreeing on different ways and different relationship styles that can help the partner who has a high level of communication get those needs met. Same thing goes with touch. People have — it’s called skin hunger. There’s actually a scale about the degree to which people like to be physically touched. Some people can go through their entire day and be totally fine without a hug and some people are like, “Oh my god, I’m gonna die.”

John: Right.

Noelle: So if you’re mismatched on that level in your relationship, it can cause loneliness.

John: It’s interesting. I mean, some people are very tactile, some people are not.

Noelle: Yup.

John: So you gotta know that about yourself. And then also that’s half of the coin, then you have to give yourself what you need.

Noelle: Yes. You have to give yourself what you need. I think too, when we’re really talking about it — what gets in the way, right? So from a coaching conversation — where are you now, where do you want to be, and what’s getting in the way? I think a lot of the things that keep people from going out there and getting what they need is number one — it’s kind of a foreign concept to a lot of people, of like doing this for me, they feel like life should happen to them, but you actually have to happen to life. And number two, it’s this concepts of self-esteem or shame. Those are really big ones to contend with. That when you’re feeling lonely, you feel shame about it, or you — as we talked about internalizing it. So talking each one of those pieces and working with them separately to say, “This is a feeling. It’s not a fact. It’s a construction. And I don’t have to be subject to it.”

John: Yeah, and let’s remind people who are listening the difference between shame and guilt. Shame is basically “I am bad.” and guilt is “I did something bad.” — so shame is internalizing. Guilt is okay ‘cause it’s outside of you, it’s a behavior. But a lot of times, with loneliness, people line it with shame. Like they’re defective because of it. And so they’re gonna be embarrassed about it, so they’re not going to give themselves what they need or reach out.

Noelle: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really worthwhile to get a handle on this concept of loneliness as an evolutionary warning mechanism versus an indicator of worth, because loneliness has long-term health ramifications. The point of loneliness — it’s just like your fight or flight mechanism that you sense danger and it’s suppose to get you to run, that doesn’t really work so well in modern times so we contend with this high alert as a society. And the same thing with loneliness — the point of loneliness is to trip this bonding mechanism in your head that says, “Oh, I have to get back with the rest of my group, they’re heading away without me.” But in modern society, we just feel like, “S**t! Now what?.” So if you let loneliness spiral out of control — number one, it starts to mess with your sleep, your ability to rest. Because when you’re feeling lonely, your brain remains on high alert for threats. Think about if you’re a caveman. If you’re with your tribe, your sleeping soundly. But if you’re out by yourself, you’re like, “S**t, there might be a mountain lion.” So it f***s with your sleep, it f***s with your heart, it can cause depression. And I’m not saying this to scare people but I’m saying this that it should be taken seriously as something to work with.

John: Yeah. I think it’s definitely one of the gateways to being depressed really fast.

Noelle: Yeah, it is. But there are definitely ways to break the cycle. From a coaching perspective and from an individual perspective, one of the best things that you can possibly do is to engage in a group activity.

John: Yeah, for sure. And you know, there’s been an explosion of this in the last five years. Everything is done in communities now — so like, fitness. People are learning that communities — they’re the way that you rebuild each other, but also feel like you’re part of something bigger than you.

Noelle: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I want to be really specific about engaging in group activity in real life. Because what we know about social media and online dating and meet ups and all that great stuff is that it’s really beneficial — it’s a great way to get people connected to each other. But it only combats loneliness if you get out from behind the computer and actually go meet up in person. If you used social media as your destination to see and engage with other people, it actually contributes to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

John: So this is actually a huge problem for the millennials — for people who are born in this Internet Age where that’s the standard, that’s all they know. So for me, it’s different cause I’m older and I was around before the Internet, so I could see the difference. When I was growing up, you go outside, you ride bikes with your friends, and you go in tipi houses. Now it’s like everything is done behind the screen or through your phone. Even with dating and stuff, they’re images — they’re real people but the connection is not there.

Noelle: And think about how much time we put in to curating these images.

John: Yeah, filters. The false advertising. I mean it creates distance — is what it does.

Noelle: Absolutely. It creates distance and I think it’s one of the main contributors to this feeling of, “I feel lonely because I’m not good enough.” or there’s a huge hesitation of like, “Oh god, I worked so long to get into the right lighting to take that picture that makes me look a certain way. And if I come out from behind the computer, everyone will know that that’s not what I really look like.”

John: You know, I’m gonna do today is I’m gonna take a non-filtered, super close-up photo of my face — a selfie, and then write about this and post it on Instagram. I think it’s so important that I think we’re going so — living in such a filtered candy-coated world and if that’s where our efforts and intention, then we’re just distancing ourselves.

Noelle: I think about that a lot.

John: It’s a capsule. What I talked about earlier as a joke in traffic, it’s us jumping into our little capsules.

Noelle: Yeah. Just coming from a body perspective — So I’ll share with everybody, I’ve shared with you before John, I come from a really serious background of eating disorders — anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia. There was a time in my early 20s, teens, when I would not participate in social activity because I was so convinced or concerned that there was something wrong with my body. And I remember what it felt like to be trapped in this cage of like, “I’m not good enough. I’m physically not good enough.” And now so many years later — happy, healthy, strong. Belly that’s filled with beer and good food and good memories. Going out to shows with my friends and dancing like a lunatic. It’s like I can’t believe I ever missed it. I can’t believe I ever just missed this physical experience and instead was just concerned. Because if you think about it, other people don’t care what I look like, they care what they look like.

John: Right. And so you know what’s interesting is, this is another piece of loneliness. If you don’t have a good, healthy relationship with your body, you could experience loneliness.

Noelle: Oh totally. It’s huge and it’s so tied to social media and our relationships and how we perceive ourselves and our sexuality and our lives, and it’s just this big vicious cycle. I think we just all need to run around outside more and drink and dance and screw.

John: I love it. And you know what, let’s end at that because I think that is the point of this. That is the punctuation. That is the exclamation mark — we need to dance and screw and what?

Noelle: Well, just run around outside.

John: Run around outside. Yes. Guys, get away from your phones and computers. I know you have to do it for work sometimes, ‘cause I do. but go outside, run around, dance, and screw.

Noelle: Yeah.

John: Noelle, thank you for my intervention this morning. I really appreciate it and man, what a great topic guys. Listen, if you enjoy this dialogue, if you enjoy this banter, if you enjoy the conversations that Noelle and I have once a week, then please subscribe to this podcast. We’re going to keep pushing this forward cause it’s so much fun and I think it’s important to have these conversations.

Noelle: Absolutely and if you like us, we do a lot of stuff from live retreats, to coach training programs, to random events, and we do have a really good time so come play in the sandbox.

John: Yes and Noelle, if they have questions specifically they want answered in this podcast, who should they email?

Noelle: You can email me or you. So shft.us is the website where you can access our organization and you can find links. We also have about a hundred really awesome life coaches who are all trained by John and I and a hundred percent equipped to have these conversations. Our coaches offer free sessions to anyone who is in need. So you can get in touch with us, set up a free session, and we’ll make sure that you’re all set.

John: Alright guys, come ride with us. Noelle, thank you so much and I gotta work on my loneliness.

Noelle: Awesome. Yeah, just text me next time you’re chilling on the couch with your cheetos.

John: If you will.

Noelle: Alright dude.

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