It’s lonely at the top!

It is an often quoted and familiar phrase in leadership circles.  Is it true?  I would say ‘yes’ and ‘no’

Some would say that the real problem facing people who are at the top echelons of their field is not so much of loneliness but rather isolation.  But these are just semantics.

The two words i.e., loneliness and isolation point towards issues which people at the top have to deal with and address.  There could be common grounds and differences as well.


Social Isolation

Despite the acceptance of the phrase, and despite findings that people at the top report feelings of loneliness, that as a subject in behavioral science has a precise meaning.  Leading researchers have described it as “perception that one is socially on the edge”.  It is a sense of feeling left out.

Celebrities who are in the glare of public and media scrutiny all the time and grapple with the dilemma of remaining connected yet distant, face this issue regularly and are acutely afflicted by it.  It is a workplace hazard which is masked beautifully by the razzle-dazzle of their immediate environment.

The bigger challenge celebrities face is that they work in an industry which is highly unpredictable and does not provide them with a sense of ‘control’ – which is so essential in dealing with such isolation.

People who feel lonely not only feel disconnected from those around them, but also from the industry they work for.

What might be the reason for this isolation?

Lack of trust may be one of the reasons for isolating oneself from people around us.  You can also call this insulating oneself.  When people do not find someone whom they can talk to without being judged, someone who could just listen to them without being advisory or plainly just be a sounding board, they tend to close communication.  When they also are in an environment both social and professional where most interactions are perceivably with agendas, they get threatened and suspicious of others.  This leads people to insulate themselves so much that they end up in a anxious and depressive state.

It is true that people dealing with depression and isolation can reach out for help since there are charities and helplines. But more importantly, it is up to the loved ones to take the initiative.  Someone who they can trust.

Social conditioning is another big contributor for people to isolate themselves.  We have been conditioned to put up a brave front and mask our problems, so much so that ‘not feeling good’ or ‘not ok’ is almost a taboo.  That’s probably the reason why we have a stock reply when someone asks us about our well being we immediately respond with “I am fine” and “I am great” although not feeling great.  How many people have you heard saying things like “Hey I am not feeling all that good”, “I need help”, “I think I have a problem”?  Even if you heard such responses it would be at a stage when all hope is lost or people have already reached a point of no return.  Why does this happen, I wonder?  I think here again, people have been conditioned to believe that those who state problems or seek help are ‘weak’ and are not able.  This somehow hurts their ego and therefore they shy away from seeking help.

Ego is a factor as well, especially for those who have achieved a lot in their life and career and reigning at the top.  They start to believe that they are invincible and cannot be defeated or experience failure at all.  They have achieved so much after all.  They tend to forget that without the social support it wouldn’t have been possible all alone.  They start to go about their business as if they can do all on their own.  They believe that any attempt at seeking help will undermine their position of power and control and therefore they avoid seeking help and interacting with people when they are in trouble.  They isolate themselves to fight the battle on their own.  This only proves to be counter productive as it takes them on a downward spiral of complete social isolation and depression.

One of the reasons probably why some well-known celebrities who have achieved so much in their profession have died alone from depression.  This is not just the movie stars but musicians, sportsmen, industry leaders and all those who have reached the top at a rapid pace.

Social acceptance  is to my mind one more possible cause.  Those who have reached the top in an industry or profession with their hard work and perseverance find it difficult at times to be accepted as part of the social group they are in.  They might not be getting due credit or always be feeling that they have to prove themselves every day to be accepted in the society.  This relentless pursuit to prove their worth can take a toll on their mental and physical health as well.  When this happens for prolonged periods, they may end up isolating themselves and get into depressive states.

Need for being in ‘Control’ all of the time is another contributor according to me which slowly gets people to isolate themselves.  We all know that we cannot control all of the things – all of the times, yet we want to and we strive to.  When we get into situations which gets out of our control, we give a fight initially and then when it still doesn’t help, choose the option of flight.  In this case it happens to be avoiding and isolating oneself from such situations in the future.  Over a period of time you will find yourself insulating yourself from more and more situations, eventually finding yourself not just being alone but afflicted by loneliness and depression.

Surrounding oneself with wrong people and they are those who are not willing to giving you timely and critical feedback when necessary.  If you have people who are constantly praising you and always telling you what a lovely person you are, then you must be wary of such people.  They have their own agendas in play and might abandon you when their needs are met.  When you eventually find out that you have been used for their selfish needs, you tend to throw the baby and the bath tub out.  When you have not been mindful of the type of people you are associating with and surround yourself with those who are ‘yes’ everything you do, you create what I call as an ‘echo chamber’ and develop blind spots.  You start mistrusting every one in your circle and start to avoid social contact.  People who have been taken advantage of and have been passive victims tend to choose self-isolation as an escape mechanism leading to increased anxiety and depression.

To avoid becoming insular, you have to go out of your way to solicit different points of view. Otherwise, you will find yourself living in a bubble, an echo chamber which will eventually take a toll on your mental health and life.

Loneliness is not just a problem with society at large but also at workplace. Business leaders may also be afflicted if they are not mindful of their mental or emotional health. If you have noticed any one of the six factors which I mentioned above which makes you isolate then its time to seek some help.

Loneliness, Isolation, Anxiety and Depression is Real! Do Not Ignore the tell-tale signs!

Disclaimer thecriticaldialogue only seeks to trigger some thoughts on topics which could impact our lives deeply.  The views expressed through #thecriticaldialogue blogpost are purely reflections of the author and in no way should be substituted for and taken as medical advice.  If you find yourselves depressed, anxious and feeling lost, it’s important to consult a qualified professional immediately.

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