Are you a professional who feels lonely and isolated?
Physicians, dentists, veterinarians, physical therapists, accountants, engineers, architects, lawyers, and many types of small business owners are educated, specialized, and often isolated.
Our work is done on a small island in the sea of other professional businesses surrounded by the vast ocean of humanity. But we stand alone on our tiny islands.
We take detailed care of our patients or clients. We lead our teams. We provide for our families. We take responsibility for all the details.
Many, many professionals will tell you they feel lonely. Either occasionally or often.
Personally, I think professional loneliness is a weird kind of loneliness.
First, most of us (at least in healthcare) are with people all day. We are constantly caring for, advising, and leading the people around us. When I was preparing to give a six-hour course recently, I told my team that I’m not a talker and I didn’t think I could be upfront teaching for that many hours. They looked at me incredulously like, “Seriously?” You talk all day in the clinic. And they are right. However, being with people all day can drain our social energy.
Second, we can’t just vent or unload our burdens on just anyone. Both because of privacy and confidentiality reasons and because most people wouldn’t have the slightest bit of understanding as to what stresses we bear. We have highly tuned skill sets and when we do hard, stressful work, we tend to make it look easy from an outsider’s point of view.
Third, it can be comforting to talk with one of our professional colleagues. As a dentist, I find it helpful to brainstorm or problem-solve a difficult case with a dental colleague. But sometimes, I just don’t want to be around more dentistry talk.
Fourth, if you are an introvert like me, you don’t want to socialize just for the sake of being out talking to people. Introverts need very specific social environments to avoid further drain from their batteries. This can often be hard to find so we just go home and crash without facing our feelings.
Do any of these thoughts of loneliness resonate with you?
Let’s unpack our feelings of professional loneliness a bit more.
Just join a study club
The most common solution I hear for professional loneliness is to go to continuing education or join a study club. I think these are both positive sources of professional support and growth. But let’s talk about a few of the reasons these might still leave you feeling lonely.
If we meet with our local professional society, these are also our competitors. We may feel uncomfortable sharing our challenges and being vulnerable with our feelings. It might even feel like an invasion of our own privacy.
When we go to continuing education conferences, we might feel tempted to compare ourselves to the speaker or other attendees, thinking that they have it all together when we do not. This may actually serve to deepen our sense of isolation.
We might also just want a break from talking about our professional work. Why would I want to spend my evening or day off talking about dentistry for example? I want a breather, something refreshing and invigorating.
You must love your job, you are so good at it.
Let’s talk about another misplaced assumption. If you are excellent and successful, then it means you love it and you never get tired of it. This is WRONG!
Most of us invested a lot of time and money in our education. We are generally hard-working, stubborn perfectionists, who don’t give up. So of course, we have become highly accomplished at what we do and are beloved by our clients. That does not mean that we love our work.
We might still wake up dreading another day at the office. We might continue to worry about procedures we’ve done hundreds of times. We all have challenges keeping our team working together and functioning efficiently.
And because of this assumption that excellence equals love, we tend to fall into this trap ourselves. That is, assuming all our colleagues love their work and we are the only ones that are struggling. I know when I fall into believing this, it makes me feel lonely.
Maybe it’s time to start being more honest about the difficult intricacies of our daily work so that we all can be more understanding and sympathetic toward each other.
Talk + internal monologue = tired
Here’s the big one: as quiet driven professionals, we spend most of our days talking more than we want to as we care for our clients and businesses. We enjoy people but it is draining. Add to this the continual internal monologue going on in our heads and we are exhausted.
We don’t want to head to a winery opening, take an art class, or go to the neighborhood picnic simply because we are feeling isolated. This would neither combat these lonely feelings nor recharge our batteries.
We need very specific types of social interactions to uplift and energize us. And the types of people and activities that we actually enjoy are unique to each one of us and can take some time to discover.
One of the best things that came out of the pandemic for me was Friday night dinner with two friends. We became each other’s bubble during the pandemic and realized how much we loved take-out dinner on the patio with our dogs. All of our joys and frustrations from the week are out on the table. We laugh, commiserate, advise, generate ideas, hold each other accountable, and lift one another up. It truly shuns the feelings of loneliness. And the key is that it’s only the three of us and it’s always take-out dinner.
Nature and travel are your friends
Here’s another tip to offset feelings of loneliness. Make friends with nature. Be present in the moment and spend some time immersing yourself in the beauty and details of nature wherever you are.
I’ve curated my small back garden to be one of my happy places. Coming home and caring for my flowers and vegetables is soothing. In the morning I spend a few minutes with my bird friends, the sparrows who nest in my larch tree, the hummingbirds who feed on my flowers, and the goldfinches who frequent my feeder. I find solace in the sound of the owls, the rustle of the leaves, and the small windchimes twirling from the light post. The nature around me has become a friend and it comforts my inner turmoil.
You can culture this friendship with nature from a small window, daily walks with your pet, or a weekly hour reading in the park. You might make a small garden like I did. Or you might try more energetic adventures such as biking, hiking, or getting out on a lake or river.
Tuning into your senses can also help break up the never-ending internal monologue which in turn helps you feel less isolated. (You can use my texture guide to help)
Not only do we work and live on our professional island, but we build a box around ourselves too. We need to break out of this box and hop off our island for a bit. When you start feeling like you are stuck, start planning a trip or take a quick weekend away to help break down the professional box. You can go alone for some quiet time to do exactly what you want. Or you can go with family or meet up with friends if you want some quality camaraderie. Changing your surroundings will revitalize your emotions and stimulate new ideas.
Your experience is personal but you are not alone.
If you are struggling with your feelings of loneliness. Know that you aren’t the only one with these feelings. I’ve had short but meaningful conversations with my physical therapist as well as with my dogs’ veterinarian. We are often having similar feelings or challenges. Sometimes we exchange quick text messages to check in on each other or even share a win. Sharing with other professionals outside our specific practice can be encouraging and help us not to feel so isolated.
The human experience is full of many emotions. Each person’s experience of loneliness is personal. It’s ok to acknowledge our feelings of loneliness. Chances are another professional near you might be feeling something similar. Reach out and be curious. Experiment a little and see if you can find some moments of joy that help you feel a little less isolated.