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How to Eat Alone Podcast

Episode 6 - Understanding Loneliness with Dr Sophie Mort (Psychologist, Author of 'A Manual for Being Human)

What is loneliness, really? Why do we feel it, where does it come from? This episode is about understanding loneliness, what we can do to combat it and the joys of getting dressed up to eat by yourself with author of bestseller, 'A Manual for Being Human,' Dr Sophie Mort.  

by Julia Georgallis

A year ago

Here's the recipe for a very impressive poké bowl for one to sit alongside this episode. 

Find out more about Dr Soph.

Buy Dr Soph's book here.

A podcast I enjoyed (I dunno if it's normal practice for podders to be promoting other people's podcasts, but I don't care, I like listening to them and it's nice to share) - Emotions and Anxiety Deeply Curious

Find out what your attachment style is by doing this quiz - it also gives you quite a detailed explanation of your result. 


Transcript - interview with Dr. Sophie Mort by Julia Georgallis

Hello! Welcome to the How to Eat Alone podcast with me, Julia Georgallis. I’m a baker, food writer and I run edible food museum, The Edible Archive. This podcast discusses issues surrounding loneliness, solitude and solo dining.  In it, I talk to different people about various aspects of being alone.  Every episode comes with a recipe based on the the topic that we’ve discussed, and each of these recipes are designed to be cooked by one person and one person only, because I find that most recipes are written for two or more people, so you can cook along whilst you listen. 

This episode is about understanding what loneliness actually is from a psychological perspective, from a scientific perspective. Thankfully nowadays, therapy, where you see a psychotherapist or a psychologist or a councillor, or someone else who specialises in some kind of talking therapy, is something that’s becoming more normalised. It’s definitely still not there yet, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding it still, but it’s definitely on its way. I’ve had a lot of therapy in my life, I wish I could have it all the time, I find it very, very helpful. But at the moment it’s an expense that I don’t really need right now. Thing is, we’ve just had this enormous shared global trauma of the pandemic and I think we ALL need therapy, even though most of us aren’t as flush as we used to be pre pandemic, so for a lot of people, unfortunately, therapy is a luxury that isn’t affordable  

But my guest for this episode is psychologist Dr Sophie Mort, also known as Dr Soph.  She is the author of the brilliant book, I’ve just finished reading it, it’s called ‘A Manual For Being Human.’ And it’s a book about unpacking yourself, it kind of feels like going to therapy - it’s a book about going on a therapy journey without actually going to see a therapist or going into a therapy room. So it’s like therapy without the price tag, really. 

I’ve taken my time reading this book, I treated it like going to therapy and so I made lots of notes, I answered the questions that Sophie asks throughout her book and the book really feels like Dr Soph who is this lovely, sparkly human with lots of different hairstyles and excellent dress sense and it’s kind of like she’s standing on your shoulder doing a little, like, cheerleading routine, she’s just so encouraging. There is a chapter in A Manual for Being Human about loneliness, in fact there’s lots of mention about solitude and loneliness and why we feel lonely and what we can do about it - the book really is a manual. It gives you practical solutions to emotional issues that you might have faced throughout your life. I really enjoyed it, I think everyone should read it and I actually think that it should be a book taught in schools. 

I asked Dr Soph why she wrote the book but I also I wanted to speakto her because I thought it was really important for this podcast and to understand the kind of bones of loneliness and solitude, like, what is it? What is it and how can get to grips with it a bit better. 

SM - So, I wrote ‘A Manual for being human’ for a number of reasons - I suppose the main one is, many of us… most of us… I’m gonna say all of us really aren’t raised to understand ourselves. We go to school and we learn about sin, cos and tan, we learn about geography, and English literature, which is fantastic, but when we come out of school we aren’t equipped, for example, to understand our emotions, we don’t understand the fight or flight response, which is the foundation of stress. We don’t know how to form and really nurture important relationships in our life and we don’t know how to understand ourselves or cope when we struggle. And if you think about the fact that there’s pretty much a manual for everything.  You know, if you want to fix your car, if you want to learn how to sew, there’s literally a book for everything. But what we don’t have a manual for is understanding the very things that make us us. Yes, the self help industry has blossomed, but each of the books linked to self help are focused on one specific area, such as the inner critic, such as dating. But no one had written a book that took you from your first breath to your present day, giving you the foundation of everything that explains who you are, why you struggle, what makes you tick and how to move forward. 

JG - Your book is very well rounded, I think. It does pull everything together quite well, I mean this podcast really is about kind of loneliness and solitude and aloneness and I think the whole of The Manual for Being Human does talk about this journey that you go on on your own. But maybe we could focus a little on loneliness and solitude because you write about it very well. What is loneliness, what do you think loneliness is?

SM  - Well I suppose maybe the best way to frame it is, what’s the difference between solitude and loneliness? Because I think oftentimes people assume loneliness means being alone and that’s absolutely not true. Solitude is when you feel comfortable in your aloneness. Loneliness is when you feel like you have not chosen that disconnection, it is when you don’t feel like you have control over reaching out and connecting to the people you need around you. It’s when you often don't know how that disconnection is going to end. So when you’re experiencing solitude, you may be, I dunno, totally alone, you might be in a hut thousands of miles from other people or you might simply be in the bathtub in your own home. But. You know that at any time you could pick up the phone or walk out of that door and rekindle that web of relationships that you have around you. When you are feeling lonely you could be in a room full of people, or, again you could be totally alone, but you don’t know how to bridge the gap between you and someone else in order to feel seen, heard, accepted and loved and, actually, often the loneliest experiences are when you are surrounded by others that you feel disconnected from. 

JG - Yeah, for sure. So, it’s a choice, it’s having that power to choose.

SM - The idea that we have control, I can choose to connect to other people when I need to, when I want to the minute and this feeling can be ended the moment I reach out to someone else.

JG - And how do you think that this manifests in our society, how does loneliness feature in our society?

SM - Well, what’s really interesting is pre-pandemic and I can’t remember the exact numbers but people spend an average of 80 per cent of their awake hours in the company of others. During Covid obviously that number dropped so significantly. And so because of the pandemic, loneliness is rife because people literally were unable to connect with, see and engage with the people that normally made them feel good, made them feel loved, made them know that they were seen. If you think about the fact that we even lost those small talk incidences. You know when you’re waiting at the bus stop and maybe you just start chatting to the person next to you, even that level of interaction was gone. One of the reasons, pre-pandemic, people were feeling lonely was also because we’ve got a lot of this ‘fast food’ interaction going on between people. So, I don’t know if you’ve seen this in cafes or in your own life, you’ll notice that two people are sitting near each other, and they could be talking but instead they’re looking at their phones. So what we’re noticing is that a lot of loneliness is arising in life either contextually, because people can’t be near each other or because they’re choosing social media, a digital relationship over these real time, face to face interactions and it’s really interesting because loneliness has a physical response inside us that is quite intense that can masquerade or look like other things. And so a lot of people are experiencing loneliness or disconnection and not realising that what they’re feeling is due to that experience. 

JG - How does it masquerade, what does it masquerade as?

SM - So loneliness can feel like… or can lead to, for example, insomnia - the fact that our ancestors survived by being in groups. If our ancestors had been kicked out of the tribe, if they’d had to sleep alone at night it might have spelt instant death. Right? They had no one to fight with, no resources to survive from. So, when our ancestors would have been kicked out of the group a stress response will have mounted in their body which would have alerted them to return to the group. Now you and I have this each day - I dunno if you’ve ever seen a picture for example on instagram of your friends having fun without you and that experience of FOMO is a very strong physical reaction. 

JG - Yeah.

SM - Right, that physical response is meant to signify ‘DANGER DANGER, we might get kicked out of the group, get back to the group as quickly as you can.’ So in modern life, if you or I are feeling lonely or disconnected we might have a physical stress response and then at night we might keep waking up because, again, think of our ancestors, they would have kind of slept with one eye open, wouldn’t they, to keep an eye out for danger. 

JG - I’ve never thought about that before but yeah. 

SM  - So sometimes people don’t realise that their sleeplessness is because they’re feeling disconnected from others. They don’t realise that the stress response, anxiety, or sudden feeling of demotivation because they’re feeling tired and anxious is actually due to the fact that they’re feeling disconnected, not another reason. 

JG - So, it’s kind of like loneliness is protecting us really. 

SM - Yeah, it’s meant to say ‘get back to the group, stay safe.’ And one of the really interesting things, or two really interesting pieces of research is that we know that people, when they’re feeling disconnected, so lonely not in solitude, we know that they touch things more, they physically pick things up and touch the edges and feel objects in their environment more than someone who’s feeling connected and we think that’s because they’re looking for this tactile feedback, this sensory feedback that you would normally get when around others, so that’s the first thing. And secondly, we know that people are more likely to shop. They are more likely to buy new items - or old, or vintage items - but there is a direct connection with how much people start spending money and buying items and how they feel in their relationships. And you can understand why, right? If you’re feeling disconnected, that thrill, that hit of buying something that you can hold, you can touch, that is yours starts to alleviate some of that disconnected feeling that we experience during loneliness. We talk about things like ‘skin hunger’ - the idea that when we’re not around people we crave this physical connection (laughs) - I love the term skin hunger because it’s so descriptive. Our skin literally craves the contact of other humans. 

JG - But so, what can we do about loneliness, Sophie? What can we, how can we go about alleviating those sorts of feelings

SM  - Well I think, firstly, identify if it is that you’re feeling lonely. Because I think what we’re talking about is a lot of people just don’t realise that some of the strange experiences they have are loneliness. So firstly, identify, ‘do you feel disconnected from others?’ and also, a lot of us feel shame admitting that we might feel lonely. We feel like other people won’t understand it, we feel like they’ll think ‘oh wow, there must be something wrong with your ability to socialise if you feel alone…’ Absolutely not. We’re in what we call a loneliness pandemic, we’re appointing a Minister for Loneliness. If you feel lonely, I guarantee that most people you see day to day or sit next to on the bus or that you speak to in your local shop have that experience too. Identify it and don’t feel shame for it - that’s easier said than done, I realise - recognise if you feel shame about it and offer yourself a kind word. The next thing is, and this is really important, most people don’t realise that there are different kinds of loneliness - did you know that? 

JG - No I didn’t know that

SM - Ok. So, for example, there’s situational loneliness - this is the idea that it is your environment is the sole reason for that loneliness - so, the pandemic, right, people were experiencing situational loneliness, as in, if the lockdown went, the loneliness would too because they would immediately rekindle those old connections. Or moving to a new city - I remember when I moved to New York a few years ago, I suddenly didn’t have any connections and my experience of loneliness was directly situational. If this is you, what you do is you recognise, ok, this feeling I have is because I’m not in the right environment yet to connect to others. So you ask yourself ‘what steps can I take today to meet new people?’ or to connect with old friends who maybe aren’t nearby over email or phone. 

Then you might want to identify, is my loneliness social? This is when you have a few close friends but you don’t feel like you belong to a wider group. Or you have a partner but outside of that person you feel like you don’t have connections to other friends. This is one of those situations where you’re going to need to focus on is hobbies. Friendships are mainly made by having shared interests and experiences. So if your loneliness is social, as in, you’re looking for wider social connections, the reason I go straight to hobbies is because things like has these thousands of groups that you can access on the day when you realise that’s what you need, so think about your passions, think about your talents and think about what group you can sign up for today, maybe a walking group or a bookclub, for example. 

And I have two more types of loneliness. Is your loneliness emotional? So this means that you have something that you wish to share with others but you can’t. So you know when you’re surrounded by others but you want to talk about your deepest, darkest secret and feel like no one will understand? Have you ever had that?

JG - Yeah, for sure.

SM  - Yes, I’ve definitely experienced that.  So if this is you it might be that you’re looking for deeper, more intimate friendships or people who you trust to share your secrets with. It may be that you just need to be bold enough to message a friend saying ‘hey, I’m struggling, can we talk about it?’ Or if you recognise that you don’t have a friend who you trust then maybe this is the time to engage a therapist, because their job is basically professional secret keeper. 

And the final one is, is your loneliness chronic? Because, this is a real issue, is that loneliness often leads to a cycle which makes loneliness worse. So if you think back to when I said that loneliness can affect your sleep and makes you feel anxious and low in mood, often what then happens is that it removes the energy that you would usually use to overcome loneliness right?  To bother to message your friends, to get out there and meet new people. So. If your loneliness is chronic and you recognise it’s become your way of life, it’s going to be about sitting down and planning the steps you are going to take to slowly reconnect with others that would be helpful for you. 

JG - And that last one is so hard to get out of. I think a lot of people will probably agree, if you do feel that you are already in the depths of that isolation it’s just really difficult to pull yourself out of it, isn’t it?

SM - And to believe that you deserve to be pulled out of it. You know what really happens when we’re feeling anxious or low and when we’re feeling extremely lonely is our inner critic tends to get very loud, you know, saying ‘other people don’t have this problem, it must be because of you, something wrong with you.’

JG - Well yeah, because we’re just spending time with our inner critic, our inner critic becomes our only pal, you know, so it’s loud because it’s the only thing that we’ve got, I think. 

SM  - Yes, exactly and that’s why, you know, I said about a Minister for Loneliness, this is why there are so many schemes being set up at the moment, like ‘chatty benches’ and ‘chatty tables’ in cafes where you’re going to be able to go and there’ll be a little sign on the table that says ‘anyone sitting here is looking for a conversation.’ Slow queues in supermarkets where the whole point is if you’re willing you’re going to strike up a conversation with the people behind you, online groups where people have meet ups from different locations where they just sit and chat with each other and have a cup of tea. 

JG - Is it going to work? Because the thing is, is that we’re British, right? So, is that that’s just something that’s just inherently British.   We don’t really talk to each other…

SM - Well I just think that everything takes time. I talk to everyone because I’m very very aware that you could be the only person who speaks to that person in a day. I will always say hi if I’m sitting at a bus stop - not in like a weird HI, in your face, but if there’s a weird lull I’ll be like ‘oh hey, how are you’ or I’ll say something like ‘oh, it’s a nice day,’ you know, proper British small talk. And actually, to be honest, I have a very different experience which is that most people do, even if it’s awkward just mumble something back and I think the amazing thing about humans is how we adapt. I mean, we thought the pandemic, well, first we thought the pandemic was never gonna happen, then I remember when we first got locked down people saying ‘oh my word, can you imagine if we’re not back in work until September?’ And now it’s the following September and most people aren’t still back in work and humans have made it work. We think we can’t adapt, we think we can’t be ok with things but we always, if we’re given enough time, come round to it. So let’s say, for example, these chatty benches, these slow queues, whatever other schemes are put in place for loneliness, yes, at first people maybe won’t take them up, but if we persist with them, and if there are some brave souls who are willing to sit at that table when no one else is, who are willing to start up conversations persist over time people will take it up. And if you think about the amount of groups that are already available online that we just don’t see in everyday spaces, that have so many people using them - how many people have befrienders calling them each day from, for example, some of the older charities, charities such as Help the Aged - we know that they’re a lifeline for a lot of people, we‘re just not talking about them in everyday conversations. You and I just don’t see them because they’re not in the cafes that we’re normally in. That’s why your podcast is such a brilliant topic and so important. 

JG - Yeah and it’s funny how when I started talking about it, I’ve had so much response. I hope you don’t mind me asking this but what’s your relationship with solitude and loneliness. How has it infiltrated your life?

SM - So I need a lot of time alone. I think what’s really complicated here, and actually is the reason I wrote such a long book, is that there are many reasons why people seek alone time and many reasons why many people find being alone solitude and a moment to recharge and why other people find it actually quite intrusive and overwhelming. And one of those things is, for example, I have what is called an avoidant attachment style and this means that I’m kind of like a cat. I love being social, I love connecting to others. But I kind of need to do it on my own terms. Then, next thing is I’m a social introvert - so extroversion and introversion links to where you gain your energy from. When I’m around people I absolutely love it but I burn like a sparkler. Meaning I have a very short burning time and when I’ve given all of my energy away, I need to be on my own to regroup. So for me being alone for at least an hour a day is an utter joy, but I have experienced, as well, that loneliness when I’ve been so desperate to connect with others - particularly actually, when I had panic attacks at the age of 18, where I simply had no idea of who I could confide in and who wouldn’t judge me and who could help me. So, I love being alone but I’ve absolutely experienced that really painful, painful time of deep loneliness. 

JG - I can relate to that and I think probably a lot of people can also relate to that - being alone for 20 minutes, an hour a day, is kind of one of the most important parts of my day as well really. I think extrovertedness and introvertedness, it’s kind of not really something that’s understood. Because you can have people who are really sociable but who just need that time to themselves and it sounds like you’re that kind of person.

SM - Yeah because people assume that introversion and extroversion are to do with how sociable you are, but it’s not at all. 

JG - It’s not a black and white thing, is it.

I loved the section of your book at the beginning where you are talking about attachment styles - I think it’s really important that everyone learns their attachment styles because it really helped!  What do you do when you’re alone? 

SM - Oh, I love that question because I’m thinking what do I do? 

JG - No one knows - I suppose you’ve used this analogy of a cat right? I always want to know what cats are doing when they’re not with you. I would like to put a little camera on my cat’s head to see what she’s up to. It’s like when I’m on my own, I don’t know what I do, I should probably film myself and see what I do… 

SM - It’s such a good point, I honestly don’t know. I imagine I move from making coffee… to going to sit down, then I remember I have to do something in the house then I’ll go and potter, do that… I have no idea, but I know that at the end of the day, I have this deep sense of whether I’ve had enough alone time or not, but I have no idea what I’m doing. 

JG - And what do you eat when you’re on your own? Do you cook a lot or what’s your kind of eating pattern?

SM - So it’s really interesting because, one of my favourite things to do is take myself out for dinner. So if I’m eating alone in the house I’m actually incredibly lazy as in, I’ll just see what’s in the fridge and make something that pleases me but doesn’t take too many steps but if I can ever - since for example lockdown lifted and we’ve been allowed to go to restaurants - oh my word, taking myself to, either taking myself to a brunch spot and having eggs and really good coffee is my favourite thing to do - or going out for dinner somewhere quite bougie, putting on a ridiculous outfit and then feeling really smug that, you know when they ask you at the door ‘oh how many people at the table’ and you say ‘oh just me’ they look at you incredulously as if to say ‘really?’ and I’m like, yes, I’m taking myself out for food. 


JG - You’re so rare! 

SM - I just love it! And I usually always order a glass of champagne and then maybe a big bowl of pasta, or it depends where I’ve gone, but yeah, I’m a big fan of champagne and fancy food alone. 

JG - That is very rare, I didn’t expect you to say that. But also I like the idea of taking the mick out of the waiters, just being like, yeah, I’m alone, AND WHAT? 

SM - Well it’s so funny to see how they respond, isn’t it - I had one person, not kidding, say to me ‘what, just you, you’re not waiting for anyone?’ and I was like, no, and she was like ‘Oh, shall I put you in the back so that no one sees?’ 


SM - No, I want that window seat, exactly as you say - I think I really love being an adult. I really love having reached a point in my life where I get to make a decision about ‘what am I going to eat right now?’ ‘where do I want to go?’ And I really feel proud that I can afford to feed myself so I think whenever I take myself for a meal alone I don’t feel like ‘oh, I’m doing this because there’s no one to go with…’ no! I feel like YES I’M AN ADULT, I’M FEEDING MYSELF AND LOOK AT ME GO. 

(Both laugh)

JG - Like, LOOK AT ME 

SM - I’m putting food on the table and putting it in my mouth! That’s so amazing. 

JG - Great, I hope other people can take something away from that. Because people really don’t… I think dinner, especially, people really don’t like to eat dinner on their own. What’s your favourite thing to eat? Like what’s your favourite food, alone or not alone. 

SM - Ok, so I think my favourite food is probably… I’m going to say this word wrong… POKE? 

JG - That is such a good dish to make by yourself! I’ve done it so many times for myself because it’s really, really quick… 

SM - Yes.And it’s so good and so fresh and so delicious. I mean British summer time this year has been really quite rubbish, but still I think having that meal makes me feel like I live somewhere hot and sunny… and like life is good. 

JG - Yeah it’s like sunshine food. I have to say… that is my breakup food.

SM - Oh, is it, say more!

JG - Yeah! Like fish, really… like raw fish. I don’t know why. Whenever someone breaks up with me and I’m going to say whenever someone breaks up with me because I don’t think I’ve ever broken up with anyone, I’ve always been dumped, I always eat that…that’s what I make for myself. It's a weird thing. 

SM - I love that! So I am totally, totally hooked on oysters, which again, is probably the most pretentious thing I’ve ever said, but it’s something I don’t ever eat alone or at home but it feels like a treat. When you’re cooking for yourself it can be really hard to remember to treat yourself and make yourself delicious food, maybe you disagree with that, but you know when someone comes over, I’m much more inclined if someone else is coming for dinner to spend time thinking about the ingredients, to really make something I think they’ll enjoy and I don’t give myself that same treatment - and I think when I go out to a restaurant and they have oysters on the menu, I’m like YES PLEASE! This feels like luxury, I’ve been told by society that it’s fancy and I am going to treat myself to that fancy meal. 

JG - Yeah we don’t really treat ourselves, that’s kind of how this podcast started in the first place because I was just eating rubbish and I wasn’t eating good food, then was like, well I don’t know how long this pandemic’s going to go on for, I need to start upping my game, I need to up my game a little bit - so what you're saying is the way everyone should be feeling… not… ok, let’s just say we shouldn’t be like eating I dunno, steak and oysters every single day of our lives… sometimes it’s fine just to eat plain food. 

SM - Baked beans are the best!

JG - Exactly! 

SM - It’s the fact that we need to remember that, on occasion, we deserve to be treated the same way we like to be treat other people 

JG - Yeah… treat someone who we love because we should love ourselves. We should try and impress ourselves

SM - Yes! Exactly and oh my word, I impress myself every time I order oysters and champagne.  

JG  - It’s always a bit alarming to me, actually, when I realise how much we all do cook just for show, how much we cook to impress and take care of others - we cook for validation from other people, but really, if we find ourselves alone, we have to start changing this and be the ones to validate ourselves and not overlook our own needs - eating is a pretty major need, isn’t it? Sophie understands that she needs her own space and she revels in it and it’s something that I’ve only really learnt to do recently and it’s a skill that lots of us have to learn, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to a lot of us because, as Sophie says, society dictates that we have to stick within this group, we have to belong to a tribe, which is absolutely fine, it’s great being with other people - and it’s a part of our social history. But modern life’s changed and we need to start understanding that being alone is ok now. Like, nothing’s gonna eat us and we have access to resources, even if we are alone. I want to say a big thankyou to her for talking to me and just explaining all these different nuances of loneliness and why we might feel lonely. I think it was really enlightening. I just want to go back to the fact that I mentioned, it’s a weird thing to admit, that when someone breaks up with me I eat raw fish. I said it. It’s true! I decided to invest in a sushi kit once when some guy broke up with me. And I remember inviting one of my best girlfriends around after a particularly hurtful break up and I made her lots and lots of ceviche and I love making poke for myself, it’s one thing that I make kind of often actually. Maybe sushi is not so simple, but ceviche and poke are a doddle, they’re really easy - as long as you can get hold of good fish. Don’t be scared to prepare raw fish, it’s fine as long as you treat it properly and I’ve given you some steps on the recipe blog. So I’ve put the recipe for a lovely, impressive poke bowl for one person up on the How to eat alone blog on, just scroll through to the How To Eat Alone section of the website. 

I’ve also added some links to Sophie’s books, a little bit more about how to keep in touch with everything that she’s got going on, another podcast she was on that I really enjoyed and also an attachment style quiz.  We spoke about attachment styles during this episode, it’s a really good way of understanding how you relate to relationships with other people so I would really recommend doing it, I found it super useful. You can find out more about the edible archive project on instagram and facebook, the instagram handle is the.edible.archive. AND, I’ve also just launched a new instagram feed, howtoeatalonepodcast and a new facebook group, also called How To Eat Alone podcast, so hopefully these will be somewhere that you guys as listeners can share thoughts and views and tips and tricks about being alone. As always, if you like this podcast, please share it with someone who you think might like it too. 

Thank you so much for listening to me and supporting this podcast. I really hope you enjoyed being alone with me and I’ll see you for the next episode of How to eat alone… 


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