Do You Experience Loneliness or "Onlyness"? » Mind Tools Blog

Do You Experience Loneliness or “Onlyness”?

May 21, 2019

Please Join Us!

What: #MTtalk
Where: Twitter
When: Friday, May 24 @ 1 p.m. EDT (6 p.m. BST; 10:30 p.m. IST)
Topic: Do You Experience Loneliness or “Onlyness”?
Host: @Mind_Tools

“It would be too easy to say that I feel invisible. Instead, I feel painfully visible, and entirely ignored.”

– David Levithan, U.S. author

About This Week’s Chat

Everybody at the table was laughing and joking. The louder the rest of the group talked and laughed, the quieter John and Betsy became. Despite their best efforts to join the conversation, they didn’t succeed.

Toward the end of the function, a marriage enrichment evening, it looked as if John and Betsy sat on an island – lonely and forgotten – although they were at a table with 10 others in a hall full of people.

Loneliness And Being “the Only”

John and Betsy had recently moved to a new town, which they hadn’t realized was quite a conservative community. All the other people at their table had known one another for a long time. They were the only “new” people at the table, and they were also the only couple who had both been married previously.

What Betsy felt wasn’t just loneliness. She had experienced what many people around the world experience daily: to be “the only” one in a situation.

Betsy was no stranger to being “the only.” She grew up in a home with many religious restrictions and she was often the only girl at a school picnic who wore a dress. She was the only one who wasn’t allowed to go to the school dance, wear make-up, or cut her hair.

Knowing loneliness intimately, her experience at the function served as a painful reminder of her childhood years.

“Only” people often experience a sense of isolation. They’re in a conversation, but not part of it. Fellow team members will ask for their opinion or input, but not really hear it.

When you’re an “only” person in a wider group, people expect you to speak on behalf of the collective. For example, asking the only Millennial in an older team what Millennials think about global warming. It’s an unfair situation, because not all Millennials think the same, and the person in question may feel under pressure to give the “right” answer.

Harnessing the Power of Onlyness

Other common examples include being the only gay person in an organization, the only black person in a white team, the only immigrant in a workplace, the only woman on a board, or the only childless person in a group. Or you may be the only person in a group upholding a rule or questioning an assumption or generalization.

But there’s another, positive side to Betsy’s experience. Her “onlyness” is something to be celebrated.

Leadership expert Nilofer Merchant, author of the 2017 book, “The Power of Onlyness,” describes it as, “The experience, talent, perspective, and purpose lying untapped in our own people.”

In other words, onlyness is the unique set of skills, experience, or perspectives that any individual can bring to their team or organization, irrespective of seniority and rank. It is something to be invited in and valued by organizations. Merchant says, “Talking about being ‘the only’ centers the room, while talking about onlyness centers the person.”

Our Tweet Chat

During our #MTtalk Twitter chat this week we’ll be discussing how it feels to be “the only,” and our experiences of onlyness in the positive sense.

In our Twitter poll we asked how you mostly experienced “only” situations. Many participants said it “felt OK,” but others said they felt lonely or unheard. You’ll find the poll and results here.

We’d love you to participate in the chat, and the following questions may spark some thoughts in preparation for it:

• Have you, or someone you know, ever been “the only” in a group? For example, the only man, woman, carer, technician, or person of faith?

• What are the differences between loneliness and onlyness?

• If you’re “the only” in the room, team or organization, do you feel proud, patronized or ignored?

• How helpful are identity-based networks or resource groups in supporting people experiencing onlyness?

• How aware are you of your co-workers’ and team members’ onlyness, and how could you find out more?

• What can you see from your unique place in the world that no one else can?


To help you prepare for the chat, we’ve compiled a list of resources for you to browse.

Managing Mutual Acceptance in Your Team

What Are Cultural Fit and Cultural Add?

Eight Ways to Cope When You’re a Team of One

Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work

Avoiding Discrimination

Religious Observance in the Workplace

Dealing With Bullying on Your Team

Making the Most of Employee Resource Groups

How to Join

Follow us on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss out on any of the action this Friday! We’ll be tweeting out 10 questions during our hour-long chat.

To participate in the chat, type #MTtalk in the Twitter search function. Then, click on “All Tweets” and you’ll be able to follow the live chat feed. You can join the chat by using the hashtag #MTtalk in your responses.

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