The Loneliness Of The Independent Consultant

After the initial hype of starting your own consultancy, the weirdest thing can happen. It may creep up on you gradually or hit you all of a sudden: You feel disconnected from others ...

Even when in their company you doubt whether others really get you and you're starting to doubt yourself. As time goes on this feeling can be really disruptive, affecting your decision-making and leaving you feeling exhausted. Even if you're being successful you no longer get any enjoyment from what you're achieving. Chances are that the early success you've had is starting to slip as well.

"You're suffering from loneliness!"

Loneliness is defined as a distressing feeling that comes when you feel your social needs are not being met, especially the quality of your social relationships. As social animals, we need to feel connected to others to be able to rely on them ultimately for our safety. The feelings associated with loneliness are a warning for us, a fear response, to act to reaffirm those connections or make new ones.

Damon Brown quotes Dr. Vivek Murthy, who makes the interesting observation that we need three types of social relationships ... intimate, social and community ... and that we can suffer from loneliness in one area even though we are fulfilled in others.

I would add that disconnection in one area can leach into the others too. Like most areas of our psychological lives, the boundaries we use to analyse what is going on are not that clear-cut when we look at what is going on for us as individuals.

Now, my interest in this subject is how it affects you as stand-alone consultants. Let's tease out how these three levels of relationships can support you when they are of sufficient quality, but can have adverse effects if underdeveloped. By understanding this, you can take action to strengthen your relationships in that area.

Intimate Relationships

These are your closest relationships, usually, but not always, your spouse and closest family members. These are the people you confide in, who you allow to see you in the raw, you're on their wavelength even when you differ in your opinions. These are the people we most often say we love, who we trust to be there when we need them and that they will have our best interests at heart. Equally, we reciprocate and are there for them too.

You probably turned to these people for their support and opinion in your decision to set up your consultancy in the first place. They may have invested in your company both financial and with other resources. They may have offer time, skills, knowledge, advice. And also accommodation, child minding and introductions to potential clients or others that can help you. Part of your reason for setting up on your own might have been to be in control of your time and be able to spend more time with these people.

Loneliness often plays in when the going gets tough or equally when you become successful. You may consciously disconnect from these people by not sharing how tough you're finding it. You don't; want to let them down. Or you wish to shelter your spouse from the worry about money. They may not be the best people to help you with this. As your closest supporters, their advice may not be as valuable or dispassionate as you need. They either want to shelter you from, or blame you for, the results. They may not have the knowledge or skills to redirect your efforts.

Equally, when you're successful you may actually find you have less time for these supporters. Running your own business can take over your whole life. You find you're spending more time in the office rather than less even if the office is at home. Then when you are with family your conversation may become exclusively about the business and the disconnect sets in. I always remember meeting one client in the town centre who introduced me to his wife. This woman, who I had never met, clasped me with two hands and said, "Thank you, oh thank you for giving me back my husband!"

Social Relationships

This is your wider peer group, the people you spend time with. Your friends, work colleagues, your wider extended family, other members of your social club, football team, yoga club, old schoolmates, and regulars at your local pub. These people give you that wider sense of being supported, being one of the gang.

One may be a really close friend, your best mate or 'bestie#, and however you may identify them, they may blur the boundary to being an intimate connection. For most people, the bond is looser with people joining or leaving your group of friends depending on their personal circumstances whilst the coherence of the group remains. Having said that, many of these relationships endure the test of time and fierce loyalties can develop when a shared sense of identity emerges (think football team fandom).

When you set up on your own this is likely to be the level most affected if your reliance on social relationships was related to your work. Those most at risk are those who have a strong team and service ethic in their previous employed role. For instance, those coming out of public sector organisations such as the NHS or Police who tend to work and play with the same people.

This disconnection with a significant proportion of your support network also occurs if you move location. A common reason to make such a move at the same time as starting your own business is usually in response to a need to help someone in your intimate network. For example, to move nearer to an ageing parent either yours or that of your spouse. Other reasons can be career progression for your partner requires relocation. Or just a desire to move out of an urban environment or have better schools and lifestyle for your children. What starts out as a positive upgrade in your lifestyle can be disorienting if you don't plan how to replace this aspect of your life.

When asking members of a general networking group what they most want to get out of their membership they rarely put referrals first. Top of the list is always 'support' of having chums, colleagues and others engaged in a similar endeavour around and helping each other out. One of the first things I did when we were forced to go into lockdown was set up a support group for my closest network.

For the first year and half we met every fortnight for just an hour at lunch with an open agenda to just to support each other. I never expected the group to last for more than a few months. We have seen each other through hard times and good times and shed some tears as well as enjoy raucus laughter. True, we had one or two drop out because it wasn't for them, but the rest of us still meet once a month and plan to continue to do so.

Community Relationships

The last level of loneliness is best summed up by one of the members of the GBN Green Connectors. When assessing what she got from being a member of this exclusive group of suppliers of green alternatives and solutions she said, "It's such a relief to be at a networking event where everyone talks the same language and I don't need to first explain the environmental agenda." What she's talking about is being connected to people who share her sense of purpose in her business. She no longer felt like she was crying in the wilderness.

Now, for many people, their business is the route that they use to cover off this type of isolation. It can be a strong reason for joining and becoming active in industry-specific trade and professional associations. For others, they join voluntary groups, become councillors, support charities with fun runs, or walk across the Sahara. For others, it has a spiritual or religious basis about how we came to be here and what is our purpose.

The amount of effort put into most of these activities is greater than the money raised and serves that secondary purpose to meet the need to relate to similar-minded people and be part of something bigger than just your consultancy. Those who find the right way to express these beliefs and emotions with others have that inner sense of peace of belonging.

As you can see you don't need to go it alone. As a specialist running your own small consultancy business, take care of your support network. 6 questions to check you're not lonely

- Check in with your life partner and closest friends. When did you last give or receive an invitation to spend some time with them. Did it happen?
- Do you have a hobby, sport or social group other than your work colleagues?
- Do you belong to a business network of your peers?
- Do you undertake activities with others who share your sense of purpose?
- Do you have a coach/mentor who can give you dispassionate advice and help to strengthen your support network?

If you suffer from loneliness or isolation and you're based in the UK then call the SAMARITANS on Freephone 116 123. They will not judge or advise you, but will listen and give you the emotional support you need.

If you'd like to learn more about referral marketing then do give me a call on 07970 638857 and let's have a chat and see how I can help you.