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Loneliness and Art


After recently re-reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences of loneliness, and wondering about how I’ve used creativity, writing, music or art, to get through these times.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that artists/writers are thought of as emotional people: we turn to art, writing and music as a way of expressing our emotional languages, to process our deepest experiences.  During times of loneliness, expressive art may turn out to be our only way of connecting with those parts of ourselves, of trying to make sense of the experience we are going through, which may feel too raw for words.

Loneliness is strongly associated with isolation, of being alone, detached, disconnected.  Yet, we can experience loneliness when surrounded by people, when sat with friends, or lost in a crowd, walking around a busy city, in our closest relationships, or even when we are supposedly ‘happy’.  Sometimes, loneliness is about the relationship we have with ourselves, or even a lack of connection with parts of ourselves or others. It can come along to wash over our lives after experiencing significant loss; after heartache; during times of change; or when we remember past memories.  Sometimes, it arises when we feel silenced, or without being able to voice the depth of what we may have been through.  Other times, loneliness is what engulfs us as we live with a critical or negative inner voice that alienates us from what it is we really should be saying to ourselves; when we are neglected from experiencing care, acceptance, kindness, understanding, forgiveness, appreciation, reassurance, encouragement, support, a sense of belonging, friendship, joy, or: love.  Often, those critical voices are what we hear from others.  It is a very human, private experience, and more often than not, we bottle it all up and keep quiet.  There’s a social stigma around feeling lonely, and therefore because we don’t talk about it, we don’t realise that the person sat next to us may very well be going through something similar underneath the surface.

It is a wonderful thing to feel an authentic connection with another person.  As a counsellor, it’s clear that authentic connection is at the core of any healing in therapy, regardless of the approach.  If you have that spark, that connection, to feel understood: that’s when the healing magic happens – positive change, growth, self-belief, hope, empowerment, confidence, trust, love: it all stems from the power of true connection.  It’s human.  A counselling session is a safe place where people bring their truest selves, their authentic feelings and thoughts without the social masks.  The ideal goal would be to strive to find this true connection in our relationships, but first and foremost with ourselves.

It’s a lonely life trying to live up to the ideals of others’ expectations, of a life of polite small-talk, and professional or social masks.  We all do it, to function, be it at work or even at home.  We hide our deepest truest selves more often than not, especially when we are sad or stressed, worried, trying to ‘protect’ our loved ones, or fearful of being judged.  The more authentic we become, surely then we will feel less lonely?  We are being true to ourselves, to others, so of course we should feel complete?  Not necessarily: Authenticity comes at a cost, I realise. And this is what led me to reflect again on a newfound yet familiar sense of unclear loneliness.  Because, it seems that there aren’t that many people out there in the real world, outside of the therapy room, who are able to be authentic, particularly around the difficult emotions, and even less people that are aiming to be, let alone able to witness it.  It’s impossible to be truly authentic 100% of the time – this I realise, even with the best intentions in the world of aiming to live authentically.  And that feels lonely.

I often feel I can be emotionally authentic in my creativity, through music/songwriting, abstract paintings, sewing, journalling and writing.  In order to be able to do my counselling work, which is emotional in its nature, I need a creative outlet for myself to rebalance this emotional energy, to recharge.  Then, I got to wondering whether even through our art, can we be truly authentic?  I usually love drawing still life objects, pencil drawings of daily things just as they are, but during periods of loneliness I’ve turned to multicoloured, stripy abstract painting.

My journey with loneliness began a few years ago, when I was in my mid-thirties, living alone in a tatty tenement flat in the middle of Glasgow, recently graduated, newly single, skint, and unexpectedly lost.  I felt out of place, disconnected from my past self and no idea what my future looked like, or who would be in it.  I felt deeply lonely.  In retrospect, I was at a crossroads, and what I went through was a period of self-growth that changed my life.  I reframed this loneliness – instead of challenging it or trying to force myself to feel sociable or connected or happy, I realised that I had no option but to explore it further, and tried to connect with the vague emptiness that seemed to be absorbing me.  I had taken on so much pain and judgement and expectations of others that had somehow oppressed my ability to even speak about what I felt to those closest to me.  I cared deeply but was surrounded by apathy.  I wanted change, yearned to feel loved, to love, to live: but all around me it was as though the world was passing by in technicolour whilst I sat in a grey foggy stillness; an alien: stuck.

I spent time with myself, and listened.  I found I couldn’t find the words for what I felt, which was so unlike me.  I sat at the kitchen table and began to paint.  I tried to paint the colours of what I felt, ended up with abstract line paintings, mixing colours to each feeling rather than words.  Over time, as the days passed, something began to shift.  I read The Lonely City, walked around the art galleries in Glasgow and felt moved by some of the paintings; lay in the grass beneath the old university architecture, made myself go for walks along the river and through the botanical rose gardens, and slowly began to dream again.  I picked up my guitar and music resurfaced.  Song lyrics followed.  Then, I began writing properly again and knew I wasn’t stuck anymore.  I realised what I needed to do, packed up, moved, went onwards and haven’t looked back.

This simple summary of that year in my life makes it sound easy to feel lonely, but it was the hardest feeling I’ve ever sat with and worked through.  Until I faced it head on, and thankfully I was able to do that, I spent many sleepless long nights ruminating and zapped. My loneliness was intermingled with all sorts of other pain, but fundamentally it was the loss of love that had hurt the most.  But had circumstances been different, I may have been stuck in that for much longer, if I’d survived.  What I’m sure of, is that art rescued me.  Reframing the loneliness was essential.  Finding my voice again was critical.  Instead of living in the ‘I don’t have..’, I realised what I was trying to say was: ‘I want’.  And I wanted to have authentic, loving relationships, including with myself.  This renewed hope, and shift in focus onto the future rather than the past, drove me onwards.

Sometimes, loneliness comes from allowing ourselves to stay connected to people or feelings that we are not ready to let go of: ghosts of the past; people who hurt us; nostalgic memories; lost loved ones, sometimes resulting in ending up living in an inauthentic fantasy, which in itself bristles with sharp loneliness.  Allowing ourselves to accept change whilst giving ourselves the space to find out what we truly need, recognising we deserve to find happiness, can be difficult to do when feeling stuck.  Sitting with loneliness can be so uncomfortably unbearable, it forces us to re-evaluate our lives and to start those difficult changes we may have been resisting; loneliness can serve a purpose, we should listen to it when it comes along, and try to express it, because out of it can come a real readiness to connect; life; an authentic voice; and it is a feeling telling you that you are ready to courageously find whatever it is you need.

So, the common theme with loneliness is that it seems to be around having meaningful connectedness with another, or with ourselves; of feeling silenced, of not having a ‘voice’, not feeling truly heard, seen or understood.  Maybe some of us are more predisposed to feeling lonely, if we experienced it when young, or if we’ve been exposed to abusive relationships, or loss.  It could be loss of a person, of hope, of core values or beliefs, of a way of life or of our self-identity.  Or, it can be an inability to connect with others in any meaningful, shared way.  This is where art, music, literature, etc, serves as not just an expression of experiences, but as a way of bonding between others, even from afar.  We all gaze upon paintings in galleries, or read books, watch films, discuss them, sing along to songs, making them part of our lives – others’ voices in whatever format presented, resonating between one another.  Never more so has art and creative expression been as relevant as during the pandemic, it has been a balm during our isolation, where the isolation produced art and art prevented loneliness.  Sometimes, we have to allow ourselves space to express this creative side of ourselves, rather than becoming swept up in the practicalities of daily life.  Making room to sit with our feelings and express them creatively: exploring experiences such as loneliness without letting that familiar fear scare us from allowing ourselves to acknowledge the truth of what we are really going through and of saying that as authentically as we can to each other.  Because sometimes there’s nothing quite like a cure for loneliness as hearing another person admit that they have been lonely too, whether that’s voiced out loud or painted on a canvas.