There seems to be a strong stigma about loneliness. Many people will admit to being depressed before they’ll talk about being lonely. Fearing being judged as unlikeable, a loser, or weird, they don’t discuss their sense of aloneness, alienation, or exclusion. That horrible experience of being the last one chosen for teams in school seems to continue into adulthood, though the reasons are different. If you don’t have friends, then there must be something wrong with you. Headlines that describe the Unabomber, John Hinckley, the mass murderer at Virginia Tech and other criminals as loners add to the fear of being judged if you are alone.
I’m no talking about solitude. Loneliness is a different experience than solitude. Solitude is being alone by choice and wanting that aloneness or being comfortable with it. Loneliness means there is a discomfort– you want to be more connected to others.
Not feeling free to talk about loneliness adds to the problem and to the judgements of the experience. If you judge yourself for feeling lonely, it makes it even more difficult to take steps to change the situation.
Loneliness Can Be Different for Different People
Many people are lonely even though they have acquaintances and activities. Having hundreds or thousands of “friends” on social networking websites isn’t the same as having someone to share a movie or to get a cup of coffee. In fact, one of the loneliest experiences may occur when you are in a crowd of people you do not feel connected with or when you are with a life partner/friend and feel no connection.
Lonely may mean not having a romantic partner or not having someone to be with on the holidays. It may be about losses you have experienced or a spiritual emptiness.
Being lonely seems to be about not feeling connected in a meaningful way to others, to the world, to life.
Most People Feel Lonely At Times
Many lonely people believe they are unique in their situation and that it’s not normal to feel as lonely as they do. Yet most everyone feels lonely at times. Perhaps after a move or other transition such as graduating from school. Transient loneliness is part of life, as humans are social beings. Overwhelmingly, people rate love, intimacy, and social connections as contributing to their happiness above wealth or social fame.
Only 22% never feel lonely and one in ten report feeling lonely often. The hit songs that talk about loneliness and the number of book titles about overcoming loneliness reflect that loneliness is not uncommon. When you are lonely, though, you may only focus on those people who have what you want rather than those who are in a similar situation.
Everyone can feel lonely. And loneliness seems to bring about other issues. Compared to a group who reported strong social connections, a group of students who were in the top 20% in terms of loneliness reported characteristics of shyness, anxiety, hostility, pessimism, fear of negative evaluation and depressed affect among other characteristics. In a follow-up study, loneliness was induced. Subjects were hypnotized to believe they were well connected socially or that they were lonely. The participants who were hypnotized to believe they were lonely then showed the same characteristics as the students who were assessed to be the loneliest.
The Purpose of Loneliness
Just as physical pain protects people from physical dangers, loneliness may serve as a social pain to protect people from the dangers of being isolated. It may serve as a prompt to change behavior, to pay more attention to relationships which are needed for survival.
The idea of loneliness as a social pain has been demonstrated by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The emotional region of the brain that is activated when you experience rejection is the same that registers emotional responses to physical pain. Loneliness is a deep, disruptive hurt that can become chronic and you can’t just meet people and get over it.
Giving Up Self-Judgment
Letting go of judging yourself for your loneliness is a good first step. Blaming yourself, calling yourself names, berating yourself because you are lonely is not effective and not accurate. Feeling lonely in the absence of meaningful connections is normal.
There can be many reasons for loneliness. Today’s mobile and busy society may have increased the challenges of establishing and maintaining relationships. Acceptance that loneliness is a part of the human condiition can help you put your energy into creating solutions.
Loneliness is not necessarily about poor social skills. When you are lonely, it may be overwhelming to think about venturing out to be with people even though you may have good social skills. Loneliness can lead to depression and a wish to isolate.
For emotionally sensitive people, loneliness is likely to be a more intense experience than for those who are not emotionally sensitive and thus even more difficult to overcome. Accepting that finding ways to decrease your loneliness will be challenging will help you persevere.
Cacioppo, John T. and Patrick, William (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and The Need for Social Connection. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Page, J. (2012). Freedom from Loneliness: 52 Ways to Stop Feeling Lonely. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Photo credit: ccLeah Makin via Compfight
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Best of Our Blogs: January 8, 2013 | World of Psychology (January 8, 2013)
Last reviewed: 6 Jan 2013