Jen DaSilva, president of creative agency Berlin Cameron, understands this issue firsthand. As an only child who has sought connection and community her entire life, it wasn’t until she became a new mom and joined a breastfeeding support group that it led to her finally finding a sense of belonging.
“We were feeding our babies, half of them were crying, none of us knew what we were doing,” says DaSilva. “It allowed me to take off the shield that I’ve built up throughout my life and being more vulnerable and authentic has allowed me to be less lonely. We were all in this together.”
It was this vulnerability that fostered connection in a way DaSilva had never experienced.
Now, DaSilva is on a mission to explore this issue and find new ways to connect people. In 2019, she set a goal to connect four women every day. Thus was born Connect4Women, with thousands of connections since its creation.
DaSilva and I were introduced because we are members of TheLi.st, a networking group that brings together underrepresented leaders and high-impact women. Berlin Cameron and The Li.st recently partnered with strategic research firm Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a study on the pervasive issue of loneliness, particularly among those trying to achieve success in the workplace.
One of the most surprising things about the survey for DaSilva was how the majority of successful women interviewed were extremely hesitant to use the word “lonely”. They saw it as a bad word, something DaSilva attributes to the fact that women are seen as empathetic relationship builders, which can keep them from admitting loneliness.
Her research showed that 92% of senior-level women who felt isolated and unsupported engaged in negative coping behaviors such as drinking, drug use, overspending, and more.
When these women adopted more positive coping behaviors, that behavior became incredibly lonely. “Far down the list of things they would do is go out and be with other people,” she says. “All the things they would do to make themselves feel better are very lonely.”
Over the past decade, a cottage industry around self-care has been signaling to women that they should prioritize physical and mental well-being, engaging in solitary activities like baths, meditation and journaling. With so much focus on the “me”, the importance of connection has been de-prioritised, further immersing these successful women in a culture of isolation.
So how do we recalibrate?
Leadership coach Leah Wiseman Fink points out that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. “Socialization can serve as self-care for people who are social creatures,” she says. “Find activities that are both like work dates, exercise classes or pedicures together. Even the act of raising children together, like feeding the kids dinner in the same house, makes people feel less alone.”
“I always tell people to come into the room, from business networking groups to fitness classes, churches or synagogues,” says Wiseman Fink. “The content doesn’t matter as much as the people you can find, and you don’t need a lot of people to fill the gap. Quality over quantity, always.”
doctor Pooja Lakshmin MD, psychiatrist and author of Real Self-Care, cautions that the answer is not simply to socialize more often, since all social interactions are not created equal.
“The word socializing doesn’t do justice to what we’re really after, which is authentic interpersonal connection,” she says. “Going to a dinner party and feeling like you have to behave a certain way would not be self-care.”
Lakshmin suggests focusing on deeper relationships or reconnecting with old friends.
“Taking time to spend an hour on the phone with a friend from college that you love dearly and have lost touch with can be self-care,” she says. “You want to ask yourself – do I feel like I can appear as myself in this space? When I leave a social space, do I feel closer to myself or further away from myself? Asking yourself these questions will help you better understand if your social spaces are serving you or if you need to make a change.”
Lakshmin is the founder and CEO of the women’s mental health community Gemma, where she has seen an increase in feelings of loneliness, especially for women in their 30s and 50s.
“These women often spend many hours caring for others,” she says. “The curious thing is that women often feel ashamed of feeling alone, as if that means you are not nice – when in reality, many are feeling this way.”
If the key to feeling more connected – the antidote to the loneliness epidemic – is a willingness to be vulnerable, as DaSilva learned in her new mothers group, women leaders are reluctant to show their vulnerability for fear of being seen as incompetent or disqualified to lead. No wonder we are trapped in this vicious cycle that perpetuates loneliness and isolation.
What will it take to break this cycle?
“This is a national loneliness crisis, but it is not just a mental health crisis. It’s a crisis in the workplace,” says Ann Shoket, CEO of The Li.st. “The chilling effect this has on the next generation of leaders who see how stressful and isolating it can be at the top is why 65% of women have turned down a promotion, quit or stopped working because of fear of negative impact. . in your personal life”.
Aliza Freud, founder and CEO of SheSpeaks, conducted a study called “Voices of Women,” which also highlighted the disconnect experienced by professional women, particularly in remote work environments.
“Women tend to use the word ‘disconnected’ when referring to remote versus face-to-face work,” says Freud. “While many women still prefer the flexibility of remote working (74% prefer the flexibility to work remotely over being in the office), they say it made them feel more disconnected (62%).”
Freud believes the solution lies in organizations that create more opportunities for women to connect and share challenges in an honest and vulnerable way.
Shoket responds that external non-workplace communities are what foster a strong sense of belonging, allowing leaders to let their guard down and share the level of vulnerability that drives the authentic connection so many desire.
“There’s something really important about creating communities that are outside the corporate structure because you can’t eliminate the inherent competition that people feel when they’re inside a company,” she says. “It’s really hard to get to that level of trust and vulnerability when you know you’re competing for the same promotion.”
While “loneliness” is often seen as an individual or organizational problem, many argue that the broader systems that exacerbate loneliness are to blame.
“Capitalism keeps people isolated because of its unyielding support for personal gain,” says Chana Ginelle Ewing, serial entrepreneur and adviser to The Li.st. “Ambition becomes a zero-sum game. People are not organized or incentivized to support you when the prevailing story is that there can only be one winner.”
The American dream, as writer Ted Anthony points out in last week’s AP story, convinces people that loneliness is normal. He depicts the image of John Wayne walking toward the Texas skyline at the end of The Searchers in a display of rugged individualism, a cultural marker of strength, manifesting itself in the Elon Musk style of modern leadership.
While Lakshmin and Wiseman Fink suggest forging more connections by strengthening close personal relationships, Ewing draws attention to the importance of “weak ties,” defined as infrequent and distant relationships. According to research from MIT, Stanford, Harvard and LinkedIn, weak ties can be more beneficial for job opportunities, promotions and salaries than strong ties.
That’s what prompted Ewing to get a group of four friends together for a weekly Zoom session at the start of the pandemic. Ewing strategically brought this particular group together because he realized they could connect through their shared values and help each other grow their businesses.
“I realized that we all had different spiritual and therapeutic practices, from astrology, meditation, Qigong to somatic healing, that supported our personal and professional endeavors,” she says. friends, family or co-workers. Shared interest groups can alleviate loneliness. Intentional circles have the information, resources and insights you need and they don’t always get it from your deepest connections.”
Ewing pointed out that this was a very different space than his group texts with best friends, which made it so valuable.
Surgeon General Murthy proposed a framework for building more connected communities. Some of the recommendations include minimizing distractions during conversations, seeking out opportunities to serve and support others, and joining community groups such as fitness, religious, community service, and others to foster a sense of belonging and purpose.
Perhaps society, or at least the wellness industry, can benefit from shifting focus from “me” to prioritizing connection. For organizations, it can even affect the bottom line.
“Social disconnection is associated with reduced productivity in the workplace, poorer performance in school, and decreased civic engagement,” says Murthy. “When we invest less in each other, we are more susceptible to polarization and less able to come together to tackle challenges we cannot solve alone.”
To buck the trend of loneliness and embrace community, we need to find a healthy balance between self-care and socialization. Whether that means prioritizing deeper connections, nurturing weaker ties, putting down our phones during meals, or opting for social interactions like calling a friend over journaling, it will require a collective effort from workplaces, government initiatives, and individuals to change behavior. In doing so, we can work to promote a sense of togetherness, improve our mental and physical health, and strengthen our communities.