Updated: Jul 26, 2022
Hi, my name's Phil and I'm the Lonely Diplomat.
This is my story of my descent into loneliness
and my way back.
It's time for me to write and talk about loneliness. We appear to be in the grip of what's being described as a 'loneliness epidemic', but so few of us exhibit outward signs that we've been infected. We carry on and project versions of ourselves that suggest that we've been inoculated; that we're immune.
Perhaps this is due to stigma.
Perhaps this is hope that the sense of loneliness you feel within some part of you is transient.
Perhaps it's due to you not knowing what loneliness feels like.
Perhaps you feel that this is just how your life is and must remain if you want to keep being a diplomat or whatever else you're doing in life.
You may feel alone in your loneliness. That no one understands. You're surrounded by people and you appear fine. Inside, however, you feel like you're inhabiting a thin, fragile shell. Your twin masks of of bonhomie and boundless, effortless competence are keeping the world from seeing how wretched you feel. Keeping those masks on requires more and more effort. You're exhausted.
Perhaps it's a mixture of everything. A little bit of this, a dusting of that. Whatever it is, let's get curious about loneliness and go exploring.
Better yet, let's get curious together. I'll start:
I'm Phil and I'm prone to feeling lonely at times.
There. I said it. I think that you suspected it anyway. My blog's name gave a clear hint.
The last thing I want is pity or a fuss, so please don't say, 'Oh, you poor thing...' Like you, and every other human on the planet, I need to feel connection: connection to others, to the world around me and most importantly as we'll learn, to myself.
What's the problem?
Studies show that loneliness is killing us. We've already seen the impact that loneliness has on our health in some of my previous blog posts.
But what is loneliness? There's a whole body of work on this, but for efficiency, check this definition. What really resonates with me is:
if you feel lonely, then you are lonely.
I've already written about the great irony of modern times. Never before have we been so connected with others through technology and social media and yet, here we are, feeling lonelier and more isolated from each other than ever before.
I know we're busy. We're exhausted. We just want to chill out and passively connect through social media at the end of a busy day rather than use social media for good and actually talk with someone.
Here's the thing about loneliness: studies show that it's everywhere and yet few people know about it, let alone readily admit to feeling it. I can understand that.
But what does loneliness feel like? I asked Dr Dougal Sutherland of the Victoria University of Wellington this question. He wrote:
"Loneliness may well feel different for different people and therefore trying to describe it in print may be a somewhat fruitless task. We do know that loneliness is a negative feeling and, like many [or most] negative feelings, our first instinct is to try and avoid it. Keeping busy is a great way of avoiding emotions. So in order to discover what you’re truly feeling you need to stop, pause, and check-in with yourself."
In December 2017, the Australian Red Cross released the findings of a survey it commissioned about the prevalence of loneliness in Australia. It found that 32 per cent of respondents reported feeling lonely 'sometimes'. Sixteen per cent were lonely 'often' and seven per cent felt lonely 'all the time'.
As for the leading reasons of loneliness:
- 34 per cent lost a loved one through death
- 31 per cent had moved away from friends and/or family
- 22 per cent felt isolated at work or school
- 21 per cent felt lonely because of a divorce
- 17 per cent had lost a job
What did respondents say they did to alleviate feeling lonely?
- 45 per cent watched TV
- 39 per cent went for a walk
- 36 per cent talked on the phone
- 31 per cent spent time with pets
- 30 per cent used social media
We'll revisit these numbers later. Let's continue.
After hearing about this report, I began to see and hear more and more about the 'loneliness epidemic'. I initially thought it hyperbole, but the more I read, the more concerned I became.
Take this report that aired on National Public Radio in the United States. It tells the story of Paul Kugelmann, and aspects of his story really resonated with me, especially his words:
"I think I viewed it [feeling lonely] as sort of a circumstance rather than a problem. It was kind of like gravity."
I could have said those words. I could see myself in his story.
Then there were many other articles, programs and reports about loneliness. Many of them could also have been written about me, with their description of daily life: wake, go to work, work like crazy, talk about work with other people, go home, spend time with family, scroll social media and watch TV, go to bed.
Regardless of gender and relationship status, our commitments can consume us and it feels like they are preventing us from keeping commitments to ourselves and those around us.
Could that feeling that things just aren't quite right within you be loneliness?
Keep this in mind as you read on.
For diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life
It's interesting to note the number of diplomats with whom I speak who say that they're never lonely. They just don't feel it. They're surrounded by people at work and at home. They have a busy social life and appear to have their lives sorted.
For their sake, I really hope that this is true. But keeping Dr Sutherland's words in mind, I do wonder if all that busyness and activity I see is all that it appears.
I want to go back to the Australian Red Cross survey. Scroll back upwards and have a look at the numbers of people who feel lonely sometimes, often or all the time.
Now, take another look at the main reasons people gave for feeling lonely sometimes, often or all the time. What do you notice? Which do you think apply to mid-career diplomats (in general)? Let's go through them:
- It's tragic that some of us mid-career diplomats have lost a loved one. To say that this is surely a horrendous experience is a severe understatement. My words could not do any grief or loss justice.
- What about moving away from friends and family? Yes, this one applies to every mid-career diplomat.
- What of feeling isolated at work? I'm sure that this applies to many mid-career diplomats too. We probably don't fit in with the fun younger diplomats on their first postings, we may have family commitments to juggle with our work and many of us are sufficiently senior to be an intimidating social presence when we try to connect with our colleagues and others. We are always our positions before we are seen as people, right? (More on this in an upcoming blog, I promise).
- Finally, what about divorce? As I've explored (and will revisit) in Love and Diplomacy, the diplomatic life demands much of our significant others. This may not end in a divorce or separation, but the stress this life can have on relationships can heighten feelings of isolation. Let's add that one to the list of factors that contribute to loneliness that affect mid-career diplomats.
Wow. That's a lot of contributing factors that apply to us.
I believe that we mid-career diplomats are very susceptible to loneliness, but we are scared to acknowledge it.
I had a sneaking suspicion that I was lonely throughout 2016.
I so desperately did not want to be lonely. Loneliness seems so sad. Lonely people seemed so clingy and needy. Type in 'lonely' in a text message and take note of what emojis are offered. I wasn't crying. I didn't have a sad face. I had so many people in my life. I had a wonderful family who I knew loved me. I had friends. But I had no one who I felt I could call and say, 'I need you to listen to me' without feeling like I was intruding or asking too much.
At this point, I had much in common with Paul Kugelmann. I simply thought that disconnection was my lot in life. I doubled down on my work and sought the praise and attention of others. I put my head down and continued on doing what I was doing. That surely was the way out of this feeling. I did exactly as Dr Sutherland described - I sought to avoid and numb my feelings.
I also felt that I couldn't speak up. I was already living and working my dream. I felt terrible that I no longer felt such enraptured gratitude for everything and for all I was being asked to do. This diplomatic life was coming at a price, and I was scared to consider that I wasn't willing to pay it anymore.
I still loved my job, but the job comes at an emotional cost. I couldn't ignore that anymore. Moreover, I thought I was alone, because we don't talk about the costs. If we do, the topic is changed quickly after someone says a variation of 'get over it' or 'this is just how things are'.
In the Australian context, one does not want to have a reputation for being a whinger.
But something within me refused to accept any of this. I knew that my life did not have to be like this. It did not have to be this way, but I needed help. I turned to Dr Google. If you've done this, you'd also know that the standard advice is to put yourself out there and do things that you love to do and do them with other people. Connection is important. This is sound advice, to a point. From where would this time to pursue my hobbies magically appear? I was so busy. What could possibly give?
I spoke to my wife. She was awesome and said that she supported me getting out on weekends to do something I enjoyed. I joined a swimming group. But this petered out after a few months and swimming isn't really a sport where one can chat with others too much. Besides, I felt so tired. The thought alone of getting out on a Sunday afternoon to meet people was exhausting.
My employing agency has a contracted counselling service provider, so I called it a few months later. I spoke to a lovely person who listened empathically and then told me to find what I loved to do and 'put myself out there'. When I reminded the counsellor that 'out there' was in a non-English speaking country and my Korean was terrible, they cheerily said, 'Oh. Well try anyway'. The right advice if I was in Canberra, but not helpful for Seoul. This was not the easy solution I'd hoped speaking with a counsellor for a few minutes would be.
But this is what I was beginning to appreciate about loneliness: any cure or treatment seemed too hard; an exhausting mountain to climb.
Weeks went by. My funk got deeper.
I realised that there were days when no one, no one, asked me how I was. Did I not matter?
On reflection, my masks of competence and good humour meant that I wasn't giving people much of a reason to ask. It simply appeared that things were great with me. I know now that this was Joe (the name I've bestowed my self-deprecating voice) back before I knew that Joe was in me. I also know that this is a common feeling for those who are lonely.
I feared that people had formed relationships with my masks, and not the real me. Any cure for loneliness would inevitably involve me taking off my masks and hoping that people in my life would still like me. This was terrifying and kept me from seeking out more help. Even when I was asked how I was, I'd keep the mask on out of fear.
To compound this fear, I felt shame for not being able to handle everything within myself with effortless ease. Resilience surely meant that I could handle everything on my own.
Then, one day in October 2016, I received an email from Mike Campbell. I'd read Mike's book in 2014 and I promptly followed his blog and followed him on social media. I'd even sent him an email to let him know how good I thought his book was.
I was surprised to get his email telling me about a program he was putting together and if we could talk. We spoke twice over the next few days. Each time we spoke I knew that he saw straight through me and my excuses and he encouraged me to join his program.
Reconnection - the ascent
It was just what I needed. I had the support of Mike and some other amazing men in the program. At the end of the five-month program in March 2017, and after a lot of hard work, I felt like I had stepped into myself for the first time. This is a powerful feeling.
Critically, I worked out what I found unsettling about the 'just put yourself out there and connect with people who share your interests' mantra. I'd been focusing on the out there and the interests. My problem had been with the yourself.
Owing to the work/family cycle, working hard for others' approval/postings/promotions and having listened to my Joe for far too long, I had lost me. I was scared of what other people thought of me. I was scared of what I thought of me.
The connection I needed was not only to other people, but to myself. I needed my own approval.
This was a revelation. I needed to know and accept myself before I could connect with others and the world around me.
Having started to reconnect with myself, I started to reach out to people in my life - both past and present - with whom I wanted to connect. This included those people physically around me, and others with whom I was still in contact over social media, but may not have seen them in person for years. I decided to use social media for good.
The major impediment to this connection was busyness. I lost count at the 'I'd love to, but I'm really busy' responses.
When the connections happened, they REALLY happened. I was having real, open, honest, courageous and vulnerable conversations with people. Shit got really real. This was me, really me, connecting. This was them, really them, connecting. It was beautiful.
I was having these real conversations within myself. I was having them at home. I was having these conversations at the office. I was having these conversations over the phone, by email, by text. And now I'm having these conversations with people through this blog.
But these attempts at connection did not always go well. With some people I noticed that we'd drifted apart. Our life experiences had meant that I no longer shared interests with some people from my past. This was sad, as these were friendships with people who I believed would always be there for me and I'd be there for them. I'd changed and some friends had changed. I needed to let other people evolve and change too.
Moreover, I have told some people that I was lonely and wanted to reconnect and have been met a few times with words or sentiments like 'you deserve it', 'this lifestyle is your choice' or 'you should have expected to feel lonely'.
This is hard to hear when I'm putting the real me out there. It hurts. Joe loves this outcome. He sees it as proof that I should not have connected with myself and simply continue to adapt to other people's expectations of me.
Happily, I'm faster at getting to the point where I know that those who say that I deserve my loneliness have kindly outed themselves to me as not being worthy of my attention. Besides, I can simply talk with someone who I know loves me for being me and I know that they can listen to me, and that I will listen to them.
Sometimes I can see that my candour and openness holds a mirror up for people. This can make them feel uncomfortable. I may speak to the voice within them that's telling them that things within themselves aren't as excellent as they want them to be. That's OK. It took me years to get to this point. I'm familiar with the discomfort.
Best of all, I can see that my message is resonating with people. I see it in the emails, texts and messages I receive. Some messages are lengthy. Some are furtive. All suggest that other mid-career diplomats are lonely. Worse, they're lonely and scared.
While you may feel lonely and scared, you're no longer alone. Let's be lonely and scared together.
Here I am. I'm Phil. I'm still prone to feeling lonely but I know a way out. Let's go together.
I have some simple questions for you:
1. Is there a part of you that feels lonely?
You love your job. You love the places you see and the opportunities you have. It's getting harder to ignore the negative aspects the longer you stay.
As a diplomat, you could be like me and trying to silence that voice in your head or numb the feelings that things could be better. You could be engaged in any number of numbing activities like drinking, work, sex, gambling, more work, prescription or illicit drug abuse, eating, shopping, yet more work, exercise, social media use and doing other people's work, amongst others.
Could this be you? Are you numbing feelings of loneliness in some part of your life? Are you able to stop, pause and take stock of what you're feeling, per Dr Sutherland's words?
2. Do you have at least three people in your life who you know you could speak about anything, right now, and know that they will respond with empathy and without judgment?
3. How connected are you to yourself? Do you accept yourself for who you are, not who you want to be or project yourself to be?
These are big questions. Be kind and honest with yourself as you ponder your responses.
Before you go...
I want to return to the Australian Red Cross survey. Let's revisit the statistics about what people do when they feel lonely:
- 45 per cent watched TV
- 39 per cent went for a walk
- 36 per cent talked on the phone
- 31 per cent spent time with pets
- 30 per cent used social media