Loneliness, belonging and identity in a systemic, changing world

Anna Birney
Feb 4, 2018 · 5 min read

“Loneliness is the unwanted single malt taste of the very essentiality that makes conscious belonging possible. The doorway is closer than we think. I am alone; therefore I belong” David Whyte [1])

Taking an inquiring approach to life means that you follow different questions and explore what they mean in the process of living. Some themes you choose to follow and others emerge through you without you really noticing, until you stop and pay attention to the pattern. In 2017 the themes of loneliness, belonging and identity emerged as one of those patterns.

The last few years has been a process of transition for myself, as I reconfigure my work, my family life and therefore my sense of myself in this world. If we take a systemic view on life one might argue that we are always in transition, living the change. This is a truth of sorts, but change does not happen as a smooth path, some years have more depth, more shifts than others. I do not feel ready to share some or all of the story of the experiences that lie in this inquiry however I do want to share some of the reflections so they might reach into your life and like me help make sense of the journey we are on.

Loneliness in the process of transition

‘Loneliness… a longing for closeness, a desire for a joining up, for integration, for a sense of feeling whole. Loneliness… signals a willingness to bring the experience to a close…’ Olivia Laing

Loneliness is a feeling of not being at one with yourself, it is not so much about being alone, I am rarely alone but more a distance from where you might belong. It is therefore not unsurprising that when you are going through transitions that these feelings might become more acute, or indeed in my case they were also the motivators for some of the transitions, the realisation that where you are does not fit with where you belong.

‘Genuine beginnings depend upon inner realignment rather than external shifts, for it is when we are aligned with deep longing do we become powerfully motivated’ William Bridges

Transitions are deeply painful experiences, there are many emotions that seep out, for me loneliness was the most acute. As you try to find ways to move forward there is a deep desire to also feel stable again. In our quest to overcome this emptiness we need to ensure we do not return to old patterns, the patterns that usually drive us to change in the first place. This means we must sit in this in-between space, listening to the emotions and where we are in the mess.

What has it got to do with identity?

‘Without identity, there would be no means to differentiate one thing from another… it would be a never-ending mess of primordial soup devoid of form and possibility’ Margaret Wheatley

In living systems identity is the boundary between ourselves and our environment, self and organisation, family, community. It is the porous layer that defines what we might call our self, who we are and what we want to be in the world. It is the story we choose to tell about ourselves.

During times of transition we are testing this boundary, as either you change or the environment is changed around you, for example you move jobs, leave a partner or your country re-defines it boundary. It is inevitable that you might feel loneliness through this time as you have not yet reintegrated into your new reality and or reconfigured your environment.

As the current stories we live by feel broken or change, personally or as a society, ones about nuclear families, being British and or European, thinking we need to achieve and consume to be happy in the world; it is really hard to set new narratives and stories that create boundaries of belonging, it is hard to learn to love the unfolding stories.

Reclaiming belonging

‘True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world… true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are’ Brene Brown

Nothing in this world lives alone, we are all interconnected, even at times we feel we might not be. In order to overcome loneliness to overcome the pain we might seek to fit in to be part of a group or community, to be in a relationship, to have a person to call your own, to surround yourself with people, to fit in with the status quo. However if this compromises your identity, it can sometimes feel like a false sense of belonging and drives again to feeling alone in the crowd. Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself.

I have found it hard to fall in love with my own solitude, to rely on myself more, as it takes hard work and a leaning into the emotions and feeling that come up, deep routed in past hurts and vulnerabilities. I have tried hard this year to notice when I have felt belonging, a sense connection. Reading Braving the Wilderness (Brown), helped me see what I was already coming to realise that true belonging was when you presented this imperfect self to the world, when you could stand alone in your decisions, when you stop looking for confirmation you don’t belong and you are not good enough, when you stand strong with the story you choose for yourself– creating a boundary, an identity that has strong values and ethics, then the distance between loneliness and belonging closes. If I get to be me I belong.

So this coming year is a year of belonging to myself, so that I might belong more fully to the world. This both means creating spaces for myself, to replenish and breathe in and moments of joy to connect with others and have the energy to breathe out again.

Thanks to all the people, you know who you are, who are the mycelium network or the soft ground where I walk, that accept me as me, with all the shadows and imperfections.

Here are some of the books I have read that helped find words for this inquiry and that might help you too.

[1] extract from ‘LONELINESS’ From CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words — I would encourage you to read the whole prose as it captures this inquiry in its entirety

Living systems and change

At the core of my inquiry is what we can learn from living systems to understand the world, our perspectives/ paradigms and how this can inform our actions. This was the basis of my PhD. This is a space to share some of my past and present insights

Anna Birney

Written by

Cultivating #systemschange | Director @forum4thefuture | Launching School of System Change | Passion #inquiry #livingsystems #livingchange

Living systems and change

At the core of my inquiry is what we can learn from living systems to understand the world, our perspectives/ paradigms and how this can inform our actions. This was the basis of my PhD. This is a space to share some of my past and present insights

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