It’s lonely being "the only"


How we define ourselves is shaped by our beliefs and values and ultimately drives what we think, say and do.  These internal narratives that stream through our minds are influenced by our experiences throughout our lifetime; the way we relate to the world around us. From the relationships we have, the choices we make as well as how others interact and engage, these powerful stories remain with us, every day.

For a simple, yet impactful example of how these memories were created and how these memories have shaped who you are, think about the first time you felt different. What story popped into your head Maybe you were five or six years old or maybe going off to a different secondary school, or maybe moving to another place in the world to live.

Now think about how that made you feel.  What emotions would you attach to that experience? Perhaps sadness, frustration, or shame? How many times have you shared this memory shaped by your experience?

Over the past 3 years, we have collected more than 300 responses after asking that same simple question, think about the first time you felt different.  Whether from the USA, Europe, Australia, or Canada, unequivocally, regardless of gender, race, location, or any other dimension of difference, people described the feeling of being different as lonely, alone, and/or isolated. They also felt sad, frustrated, angry, fearful and tired.

In their stories, people described being the “only” as it relates to their dimension of difference. Such as the only person of the Jewish faith (religion), the only Asian (race), the only woman (gender), the only queer (LGBTQ+), the only person under 25 (youthful age), the only person over 60 (mature age), in being poor (socio-economic), in being hearing impaired (mental/physical abilities), and in being the only divorcee (familial situation). Regardless of their aspect of diversity, the feelings of loneliness persist. Let’s face it, it's lonely being the only.

To be clear, we are making the distinction that when individuals feel different, also comes with the feeling of loneliness. And, yes, about one in 150 described the feeling of being different as motivating, challenging, and driven; but that is after an admittedly long period of time, taking an exhausting amount of energy to get comfortable with themselves.

"If you are not seen, heard, understood, or respected, you feel different."

This is what is most interesting.  It is not just the first time you feel different; it is every time you feel different. If you are not seen, heard, understood, or respected, you feel different. When walking into a room. A meeting. A party. As a team member. As a colleague. It is a universal feeling of loneliness when the only.

So next time you are with other people, perhaps leading a meeting, interacting on Zoom, at a family dinner, or conducting a coaching session, remember, that someone may feel like the only. And, it is lonely. Ensuring they have an opportunity to interact, proactively asking for their opinion, acknowledging their presence, really listening as they speak, and appreciating their perspective may unlock their loneliness and give them a sense of belonging.

More results and insights from our research are forthcoming.

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