“5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic” With Ben Voiles of The Internal Work
Go inside of yourself and embrace what you feel. Whatever you feel, anger, rage, sadness, fear, horror, disgust, hate, whatever it is — it is ok to feel. Just feeling it won’t mean you actually do something bad because of it. You have agency in this world. You can feel rage and not hurt anyone. Allow yourself to feel your emotions. When you become ok with what you feel, you will become ok with what others feel as well. And you will connect to people easily. Your loneliness will quiet down. I suppressed any and all my anger for decades. I believed anger was bad. And I trained myself to not let it out uncontrolled. I had this fear inside me that if I allowed myself to get angry, I might do something terrible. So, I was bottling up my anger. Not only was this well of anger tormenting me, but I would negatively judge anyone who was angry. I was bad for my anger. And others were bad for their anger. This belief wasn’t serving me. And through acceptance of my anger, I have been able to feel my anger fully. And I did not do anything bad. I just felt it. And that anger released. Expressing anger is not unhealthy, holding it in is unhealthy.
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Ben Voiles. Ben is a cofounder at The Internal Work, an organization created to provide people with tools and knowledge to help them understand their emotions, embrace their emotions, and take action based on their emotions. Ben utilizes a deep understanding of how our emotions are tied to our beliefs, which are mostly rooted in our childhood experiences. The Internal Work has spent years unpacking and dissecting the framework of our subconscious to better help people use their emotions as a guide on what is blocking them from living the life they want.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Ben! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
Two things really sparked my pursuit of a path to help people with their emotions. Firstly, I was a hypochondriac. I got mysteriously sick when I was 29. I really thought I had a chronic illness that would drastically shorten my lifespan. As a result, I became fully engrossed in optimizing my health, spending enormous amounts of time, energy, and money. It became an obsession. And while I had some physical improvements, I still didn’t feel generally well.
Secondly, after more than a decade as a successful mechanical engineer developing really cool products in San Francisco, I realized I was miserable at work. I was constantly frustrated. I wanted things to be different all the time.
I then met two people who changed my life. I would later create The Internal Work with them. They helped me see the thing that was right in front of me the whole time, but I was unwilling to look at: my emotions. The problem I was having was that I was trying my best to suppress or distract myself from feelings I didn’t want to feel. I had been doing this my whole life. I always saw myself as emotionally level and grounded. But that was not true. Through some intense inner work and some breakthrough ceremonies, I started feeling and embracing my emotions. The shift was monumental. My life was black and white before all of this. Now my life is the full spectrum of colors. I feel so much more than I even considered possible. After I had that shift, I knew what I truly wanted to do was help others make a similar transition. So, my co founders and I quit our regular jobs and started The Internal Work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In May, we left San Francisco and spent the summer getting The Internal Work started in Taos, NM. We held a 3-day in-person workshop. This workshop involved getting the participants deep into their emotions and beliefs. But I too had an intense emotional experience during a group breathing meditation session. For this session, we were focused on shame. I went to some memories I have from childhood where I knew I felt shame. But I always had a hard time actually feeling the depth of it. The memories had all the markings of shame. But the emotion was always lacking. But this time was different. I think I was finally ready to feel the shame fully. We at The Internal Work believe that no emotion is bad. Emotions are just signals helping you navigate your internal world just like vision or hearing help you navigate your external world. So, I finally felt the shame fully. And with that came real lessons and understandings of my relationship with my mother. I have been subtly angry with my mother for decades. When I see her, I quickly find myself frustrated. And now I finally understood why.
This was profound for me. It really explained, both cognitively, and emotionally, a big part of why I am so driven by validation. I knew I sought validation in nearly everything I do. And I knew it was because I had a deep-rooted belief that I am not good enough. But it was through this experience that I really grasped the origins of that belief.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
Last September I proposed to my partner (also a cofounder at The Internal Work), Christine. We planned our wedding for mid May of 2019. Then in January of 2019, our landlord said they would raise the rent when our lease ran out at the end of April. As we debated on whether to accept the rent increase or move, it hit us that this was the moment to take this side-project of The Internal Work and really commit to it full time. Within about 1 minute we decided to quit our jobs at the end of April, head to Utah to get married, then continue to New Mexico to start The Internal Work. We would spend the summer developing content to spread our message and teachings on emotions. This was a lot to do all at once: Quit my career of 14 years of mechanical engineering, start a new business in a very different field, get married, and leave San Francisco. Add to this that our work is with emotions. When we create content, we get emotional. This made for a turbulent summer of intense emotions. We all confronted so many fears and insecurities. It was insane. I can’t call this a mistake at all. It was exactly what needed to happen. Our insecurities were constantly whispering, and sometimes yelling, “I can’t do this.” But we are doing it. And we are stronger for all of it. When we would get into the muck, emotionally, we would sometimes just laugh and say, “we chose this.”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes. We are currently developing an online course on confidence. We have spent years understanding every emotion and how we experience and utilize them. With a deep set of emotional knowledge, we looked at where we should start. What emotion is the best to teach people about first? Going into emotions is very challenging. We all have things we do not want to feel. And this desire to not feel certain things dictates a large portion of our choices. We realized that what people need before they will be able to get into the scary emotions like shame, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust is confidence. They need to feel that they can do this. They need to feel safe and assured that they can step into the emotions they have been avoiding for years and be ok.
Over the past few months of looking at confidence from every angle and transmitting the ideas in person, I now see the effects of confidence and insecurity everywhere. Our insecurities shape our world in so many ways. When you can get in touch with your confidence and lessen your insecurities, your life will change dramatically, in ways you can’t imagine because you are so used to those insecurities boxing you in. More confidence literally sets you free to do so much more than you can now.
This coursework has deep, meaningful concepts for users to understand. But it also has some very practical tools to help them feel more confidence. While ideas are great, if you can’t get people to actually feel these things, it isn’t truly useful.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
What we do at The Internal Work is dive deep into emotions. We have dissected most emotions at a very deep level. Loneliness, or disconnection, is one we have explored extensively. We ask the questions: Why and when does someone feel alone? What is loneliness trying to signal to us? How and why do we get trapped in loneliness? Once you understand how an individual experiences loneliness, you can then look at our societal interactions and how they fuel and reinforce loneliness.
We have worked with many people in person. We have done group workshops, led breathing meditation sessions, and held small group discussions on emotions. We have shifted people and helped them step past their roadblocks and further down their path of happiness. For those who are trapped in loneliness, I am able to feel their loneliness. I can fully relate to it. And by embracing loneliness and understanding it deeply, I can help guide people through their loneliness.
One of the first steps to realize is that loneliness and sadness are the same thing: loss of connection. And the signal is simple: connect. This is so straightforward. But it is hard to see for most because they see the signal, the loneliness, as the problem to solve. But it is merely a signal.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
Firstly, health is a broad term. There is physical health and mental health. And each could be broken down into more pieces. In terms of physical health, our body is the primary way our emotions are expressed. Everything we feel emotionally is expressed physically. When nervous, you will shake or feel nauseous. When angry, you will get hot and tense. When you are in fear, you will tighten up and breath fast. When you are joyful, your muscles will relax, and you will feel light. It is clear that our physical body responds to our emotional state. When we move through emotions fluidly and release them in a reasonable time frame, our body can return to a neutral state. But when we are trapped in an emotion, our body is similarly trapped in a physical state. Since some of these states contain things like high blood pressure, increased alertness, and tensed muscles, our body remains with those symptoms for days, months, or years. This is not a balanced physical state. And so, our bodies become unbalanced. This leads to many illnesses and diseases. If you don’t resonate with this yourself, the research is thorough in showing how stress, a blanket term for really any intense emotion considered negative, influences every illness we know about.
Secondly, when you feel something you don’t want to feel, you might look for ways to resolve it. If you are hungry, you can go eat. If you are sleepy, you might take a nap. If your ankle hurts, you might ice it and keep your weight off it so it can heal. But what happens when you don’t know how to resolve what you feel? If your low-gas light comes on in your car, you know you need to get to a gas station. If the low-oil light comes on, you know you need to add more oil. Well what if a light shaped like a star lit up on your car’s dashboard? Well, you would look in the manual. What if it wasn’t listed anywhere? You would likely ask people what to do. Let’s say you try all the things they say, and it stays lit. What do you do? I bet you just ignore it, hoping it doesn’t cause a real problem. And what if that light got brighter and brighter and then started beeping at you? What would you do then? I bet you would turn the music up, and wear sunglasses. You might get a piece of tape and cover up the signal. You might even get wire cutters and try to disable the beeper. This is what we are all doing with our emotions. We don’t know how to resolve them. So, we try to distract ourselves from them or try to eliminate them. We do this with watching Netflix, surfing social media, playing video games, exercising, working, drinking alcohol, going to yoga, meditating, or any number of other activities with the intention of changing what we feel. This doesn’t make these activities bad by any means. But we often use these activities to distract ourselves from what we feel. People who feel lonely use any number of activities to cover up the loneliness. While these activities aren’t always unhealthy, they are when done to excess. And since they are used to cover up a persistent emotion, they will be done to excess. This is not a healthy life. This behavior eventually leads to burnout or a breakdown of some kind.
Thirdly, the term mental health is misleading. The problem is actually emotional health. The mind is not really the problem. It is the emotions that we feel trapped by that are causing our unease. We feel things we don’t want to feel. And feeling is emotion. But emotions are fundamental to our humanity. All our experiences in life, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, were experienced through emotions. To be fully human and fully alive is to have full access to your emotions. If you cut off your emotions, you aren’t living fully. So, while we might want an emotion, like loneliness, to go away, that is a pursuit to shut off a part of our life. And that is not health.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
When we are lonely, disconnected, we are less compassionate. We feel compassion when we can empathize with others, when we feel what they are feeling. But since we are lonely and disconnected, we don’t feel what others feel. And so, we lose our compassion for our fellow humans. This leads to conflict. You can see this across our world now: people are lashing out at anyone they deem as “other.” The reality is that you can’t hate someone if you empathize with them. You will feel their humanity. But we don’t feel the humanity of others because we are disconnected from them. As long as the disconnection remains or grows, the hate and vilification of others will also grow.
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
I really only have 2 main reasons:
Firstly, we can all sit in a room full of people and feel lonely. True connection is not email or Facebook or Twitter or small talk. True connection is feeling another. It is feeling what they are feeling. When you feel someone else’s feelings, you are connected to them. All these electronic methods of connecting do more to give the illusion of connection while actually separating us from what we, and others, are feeling. So, the true connections are lessening as we put more and more focus on the false connections. When it is your birthday, you might have 100+ people post “Happy Birthday,” on your Facebook wall. Are they truly feeling you and wishing you a happy day? Do you feel their heart and their good feelings through the text on the screen? Compare it to your friends who take you out to dinner and toast you on your birthday. Where do you feel connected? It isn’t the Facebook posts that make you feel connected.
People are not using these electronic forms of communication; they are primarily using it for validation. They are seeking approval from the outside world. They want to know that they are good enough. While inside they feel that they aren’t. As such, what do they share? They share the good parts of their life. They share what they think is palatable and enviable about their life. This is not connection. This is faking it.
As I have already mentioned, people are avoiding what they feel. Most of us have feelings we do not want to feel. We don’t want to feel angry. We don’t want to feel fear. We don’t want to feel sad. We don’t want to feel shame. We don’t want to feel disgust or hate. And so, we avoid these emotions. When we feel them, we try to suppress them or distract ourselves with myriad activities to change what we feel. And how do we resolve loneliness? We connect to others. The problem is that truly connecting, in a way that will resolve the loneliness, requires connecting emotionally. You must feel what the other person is feeling. But what happens if the other person feels angry, or sad, or afraid, or shame, or disgust? These are feelings you don’t want to feel. And you have trained yourself for decades to suppress or ignore such feelings. So, when you feel them in someone else, you disconnect. You do not want to connect to them because their anger will resonate with the anger inside of you. Or their loneliness will resonate with the loneliness inside of you. For this reason, we all project a “positive” version of ourselves that is safe for others to connect with. But this isn’t the true us. While others may want to interact with that version of us, they aren’t actually connecting with the true us. So, we remain lonely. We remain disconnected. This is the most important reason for the loneliness epidemic. Until we become comfortable with the “negative” feelings, we won’t be open to connecting to others if they have any hint of those feelings. And we pursue shallow connections as a result. Once you become comfortable with the feelings of anger, you can connect to someone who is angry. And you will be ok with it. You will understand them and appreciate what they are going through without judging them. But if you suppress your anger and avoid it, then you will avoid anyone who feels any amount of anger. Just as you judge that part of you as bad, you will judge them as bad as well.
Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
I think solving the Loneliness Epidemic starts with resolving our own loneliness and supporting those around us. While big society-wide changes are possible through various policies, I think that when real, meaningful change happens within each of us, it spreads.
1. Love yourself. Go inside of yourself and embrace what you feel. Whatever you feel, anger, rage, sadness, fear, horror, disgust, hate, whatever it is — it is ok to feel. Just feeling it won’t mean you actually do something bad because of it. You have agency in this world. You can feel rage and not hurt anyone. Allow yourself to feel your emotions. When you become ok with what you feel, you will become ok with what others feel as well. And you will connect to people easily. Your loneliness will quiet down.
I suppressed any and all my anger for decades. I believed anger was bad. And I trained myself to not let it out uncontrolled. I had this fear inside me that if I allowed myself to get angry, I might do something terrible. So, I was bottling up my anger. Not only was this well of anger tormenting me, but I would negatively judge anyone who was angry. I was bad for my anger. And others were bad for their anger. This belief wasn’t serving me. And through acceptance of my anger, I have been able to feel my anger fully. And I did not do anything bad. I just felt it. And that anger released. Expressing anger is not unhealthy, holding it in is unhealthy.
2. Seek connection on a deep level by stepping outside of your comfort zone. Share the things about you that you don’t want to share. Reveal who you are so people can finally choose to love you, to connect with you. This will benefit you and them. If you step forward and show what you feel shame about, others might be inspired to share their shame as well. And you will both feel more connected.
When meeting one of my wife’s childhood friends, I shared some of my experiences embracing my emotions and the total shift in my life that resulted. This was a five-minute conversation. Six months later, we saw her friend again. He told us how much he has been thinking about that conversation. He went on to share some of his emotions and struggles. He hadn’t allowed himself to cry in decades. With our encouragement, and our example, he allowed himself to feel, and to cry. It was small. But showing my emotions was just what he needed to feel comfortable feeling his emotions.
3. Realize that connection is a choice. You can choose to connect to anyone. You can connect to your partner, your friend, your neighbor, a celebrity, a stranger, even a criminal who has done horrific things. No matter who we are or what we have done, we are all human and we all feel the same emotions. You can connect to others by feeling what they feel. It is up to you whether you connect to them or not. You don’t need them to connect to you. When you watch a movie, you can get very connected to the characters on the screen. You can feel their pain, their love, their happiness. They are not connected to you at all. Connection is one-directional. This is very important. This means that you have the power to connect all on your own. You need nothing from anyone else to connect, and to resolve your loneliness.
4. Compassion is the strategy to connect. Compassion literally means to feel the pain or suffering of others. When you see your fellow humans as collaborators and not competition, you will open yourself up to compassion. You will feel their pain and you will want them to resolve their pain just as you want your pain resolved. Once you relate to others, you will know what action to take to help them on their path towards connection. But you cannot resolve someone else’s pain. You cannot feel their pain for them. All you can do is support them and help them feel safe, so they are less likely to disconnect and isolate themselves.
5. Make it ok for others to feel whatever they are feeling. If you interact with someone and they make you feel uncomfortable, look inside of yourself. There is nothing wrong with them, just as there is nothing wrong with you. They are not the cause for your uncomfortable feelings. So, don’t blame or judge them for what you feel. If you feel something, take note and investigate why you feel it. If you provide space for them to feel, they will express themselves and it will be easier for them to connect to you. It is their choice to connect to you. And they don’t require anything from you to make that choice. But when you make it safe for them to feel their emotions, they are more likely to make the choice to connect.
This was was a massive relationship lesson for me. For years I didn’t make my girlfriends feel emotionally safe. I didn’t do anything overtly bad to them. But I judged them for what they felt. I would literally tell them what they were feeling was wrong. And I had a litany of logical reasons why they shouldn’t have felt how they felt. It is no surprise those relationships didn’t last. They had to hide or suppress their emotions. So, true connection was impossible. Now I know that all emotions are perfectly ok. And you cannot love someone without accepting their emotions.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As I have mentioned, ad nauseum, inspiring people to embrace whatever they feel would be an incredible step to allowing people to lower their walls to others, allowing them to truly connect, and resolving their chronic loneliness. We are emotional by nature. And it is through emotions that we connect. We cannot have connection without emotion. You are not alive if you aren’t feeling.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to sit down and chat with Stephen Colbert. I have been a fan for ages. And he has a large reach for possibly getting our message out. But even more than that, despite his onscreen persona, I can see him struggle with some emotional issues. I think we truly could help him embrace some of his emotions and move into a better emotional space.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
www.theinternalwork.com or @theinternalwork on Instagram, or find The Internal Work on Facebook
Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!
“5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic” With Ben Voiles was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.