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Dancing Our Way Out of the Loneliness Epidemic Through the Lost Art of Reciprocity

My Reciprocally Loving Kittens

I feel lonely. Not all the time, but sometimes and to differing degrees. Sometimes it’s like a subtle wind quietly rustling my hair, other times it hits me like a rock to the head and it’s dark and it hurts. This isn’t something I tend to share as it can shroud my heart in shame, but my head knows I’m far from alone in my loneliness and that it reflects little on me.

Loneliness is recognised as having reached epidemic proportions globally and seems to be ever-increasing. Despite our contemporary capacities for virtual connections, we live increasingly isolated lives in the real world, having greatly suffered from the largescale deconstruction of life in community. With the continued social fall-outs of covid-19 compounding this further, we could experience exponential growth in loneliness in the coming months. The implications of this are huge, for our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing, as indicated by research highlighting the significant impact of loneliness on both mental and physical health.

Loneliness is a whole being experience. We can experience it in our hearts, our minds and our bodies. In our vulnerability, we often contract away from life in times of loneliness, shying away from dealing with it directly.

Loneliness not only impacts our entire system inwardly but reverberates outwards in relationship to everything we are a part of. Its significance can’t be underestimated and it’s time we bravely looked loneliness in the face for the sake of our own lives, our communities and our world. We need to explore a variety of ways to help us move beyond loneliness and towards connection. In this article, I focus on the role of reciprocity (the act of giving and receiving) and how we can begin to address loneliness by explicitly working with this dynamic process.

A lot of my work as a psychologist focuses on the importance of balance, within ourselves, with others and with the world. Balance is not a static destination but involved dynamic movement back and forth and is a basic relational need. Bert Hellinger, the founder of Systemic Family Constellations, emphasised the importance of exchange in any relationship for it to survive. This means that the energy of giving and receiving needs to flow back and forth. This may sound pretty straight forward and obvious but in this very polarised way of life that we’ve found ourselves in, I’ve noticed how we often lean towards one of two poles, that of the giver or the taker.

There is no benefit in applying a value judgment about which pole we tend towards, and we may find we lean towards different poles in different situations or relationships. This is influenced by our early life experiences and usually happens quite unconsciously. So we are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and we can all occupy either pole. Ultimately, wherever we stand, if we step out of the dynamic dance of reciprocity in relationships, we can all end up more isolated and lonely. We all crave connection so why do we stop dancing together reciprocally?

As someone who historically tended towards being a classic ‘over-giver’, I recognise that this came from a shadowy place in me, a distortion of my innate sweetness into people-pleasing. This is a common distortion of the feminine that particularly happens in the lives of women, leaving them depleted and disconnected even from themselves. In my attempts to belong, I learnt to be chameleonic, to focus on and fit in with ‘the other’. I’ve always been very socially skilled and had many people in my life, but I found that relationships born and sustained through my over-giving left me wanting, and left those relationships lacking true connection.

Similarly, there is a dark shadow in the position of the ‘over-taker’ that we can all occupy as an inevitable pre-requisite of our individualistic way of living. If raised within western capitalist culture, we are driven by underlying mythologies of separateness and growth. We are taught to fight our way through life, taking what we can to be bigger and better, ultimately as a way of survival. Despite this, we repeatedly hear the tale of the person who ‘has it all’ but is lonely and miserable. This warning story never quenches our thirst though, because the dominant myths we live by are not only powerful but also pervasive. They are woven throughout every fabric of our consumerist societies in both visible and invisible ways.

So we’re taught to take in relationship with everything but not properly educated about what we are here to offer. This is especially evident in our dominating and destructive relationship with the earth, with whom we’ve lost our rightful place. Just as the earth is dying as a result of our imbalanced relationship with her, our connections to her, to each other and to ourselves are dying too. When we pause, truly pause and reflect on our way of life, we are invited to recognise and grieve for the many devastating losses associated with our over-taking. We may then find ourselves finally ready to take responsible steps towards real sustainable change in our way of relationship. Relearning the art of reciprocity offers itself as a way for dancing ourselves back into our rightful place and back into connection with the earth, with each other and with ourselves.

There are endless ways to approach the art of reciprocity in our everyday lives and we can have fun playing with and evolving new ways to engage in this dynamic dance. For example, we can explore a cyclical relationship with the earth as a consumer, through making more ethical choices that address our carbon footprint. In relationships with other people, we can be the one to make that call or offer that invitation if we usually rely on the other to do so. In relationship with ourselves, simple everyday acts of self-care can have a profound effect on the inner balance of a depleted over-giver. A lack of community can be central to our experience of loneliness and so seeking out and engaging in community actions that align with our values can enable us to both contribute and gain from being part of something greater. By engaging consciously in the balance of both giving and taking in relationships, you create the potential for something else more connected to begin to emerge.

I’m still learning the steps to the relationally balanced dance of ‘give and receive’, it’s as old as life itself yet it can still feel new to me. Some steps feel easy and some painfully hard to master. It can’t be a solo effort and it takes a brave hearts, but there’s magic in the music and surprises to uncover.

If you feel lonely, taking those first steps onto the dance floor of connection can seem daunting but you can begin by asking yourself a simple question in each area of your life: “To which pole do I lean, am I over-taking or am I over-giving?” May this question offer you an expansive invitation towards new and more balanced possibilities.


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