Feeling lonely has little to do with how many friends you have. It’s the way you feel inside. Some people who feel lonely may rarely interact with people and others are surrounded by people, but don’t feel connected.
In general, those who feel lonely actually spend no more time alone than do those who feel more connected.
Three Factors Of Loneliness
According to Cicioppo and Patrick (2008) how lonely people feel seems to be a combination of three factors. The first is Level of Vulnerability to Social Disconnection.
Each individual has a general genetically set need for social inclusion and your level of need will be different from someone else’s. If your need for connections is high, it may be difficult to meet.
The second factor in feeling lonely is the ability to self-regulate the emotions associated with feeling isolated. This means not just outwardly but deep inside. Each person will feel distress when their need for companionship is not fulfilled. If loneliness continues over time it can become a source of chronic upset.
Chronic upset makes you less able to evaluate other people’s intentions accurately. You may perceive them as rejecting when they aren’t. Being able to accept and cope effectively with the feelings of loneliness, manage the feelings without becoming judgmental of yourself or others, and find ways to problem-solve will help mitigate the damage loneliness can do.
The third factor is mental representations and expectations of as well as reasoning about others. Feeling lonely does not mean you have deficient social skills, but apparently feeling lonely makes people less likely or able to use the skills they have. People who feel lonely are likely to perceive themselves as doing all they can to make friends and to feel like they belong and believe that no one is responding.
What a frustrating experience that would be and after a time that frustration may affect their mood when they are around others. They may make negative statements and start to blame others if someone criticizes them. Their loneliness may be expressed in anger or resentment, which often results in others pulling away.
Sometimes lonely people have difficulty because they view themselves as inadequate or unworthy. Shame about who you are will block making connections with others.
People who have been lonely for a long time may also be afraid, for many different reasons. Fear of attack by others leads to a tendency to withdraw and not share their authentic selves, though at the same time if no one knows who they really are they will stay lonely. Their body language may reflect the lack of confidence and misery they feel and their facial expressions may be uninviting to others, though they may be unaware of their body language. At the very time they need connections, their manner may unintentionally communicate “stay away” to others.
When people become disregulated emotionally, then they lose a feeling of security. They may see dangers everywhere. They are less likely to be able to acknowledge someone else’s perspective.
A Few Effects of Loneliness
People can be depressed and not lonely and lonely but not depressed. Loneliness, like other stresses on the brain, results in impaired concentration and performance.When people are lonely they react more intensely to the negatives experienced in life and experience less of an uplift from the positives. Chronic loneliness can lead to depression, premature aging, and health problems.
Loneliness is a serious, difficult experience.
Relief from loneliness requires the cooperation of at least one other person and the longer someone is lonely the less able they are to get that cooperation. Thus the frustration may lead to diminished personal control and a desire to escape the emotional pain with food, drink, unwise sexual encounters, avoidance, or accepting relationships that aren’t healthy.
Possibilities to Consider
If you are struggling with loneliness, there are many ideas to consider, including the suggestions below.
Identify the problem or issue if you can. Needing more people in your life is different from being able to connect with the people who are in your life. Being able to connect is different from being able to feel the connection and accept it. Sometimes the loneliness may be about needing a spiritual connection and relationships with others don’t fulfill that emptiness.
Consider physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral suggestions to help you reach out to others.
Physically, work on decreasing your levels of tension. If the body is less tense you’ll feel less anxious and be better able to use your social skills and better able to appreciate the connections you have. Be aware of your body language and work on having an open, willing posture and a friendly facial expression.
Cognitively, be aware of the difference between solitude and loneliness. Being alone is different from feeling alone. Maybe learning to be comfortable with a certain amount of solitude would be helpful. Consider the assumptions you make about what being lonely means. Everyone goes through times of loneliness. Being lonely says nothing about your character or your worth as a person. Consider writing down the beliefs you have about being lonely. You may be surprised at the judgements you are making that have no basis in fact.
If you tend to be self-conscious and judge yourself negatively when interacting with people, try focusing as completely as you can on the other person. Make it all about them and take the focus off yourself and your discomfort. Set your goal to act warmly toward others when they are around you, not to make friends. This goal is in your control.
Maybe loneliness is a signal to do something differently. Perhaps it can serve as motivation to create a new activity or to travel or do find what you are passionate about or what has meaning to you.
Problem solve in new ways. What would you do if you weren’t lonely? What would add meaning to your life that is in your control? Sometimes part of the loneliness is not going to see movies or the new art exhibit because you don’t have a friend to share it. Think about not limiting yourself and doing the activities you want to do even though you do them by yourself.
Consider whether you need to improve your social skills, reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression, or allow yourself to be vulnerable to experience connections. If you need help in these areas you may want to consult a counselor or therapist.
Work on acceptance of others. When you feel lonely, it can seem like people are cold and uncaring. You may feel angry about your situation and the way you’ve been treated. If you can accept that people are what they are and choose the people you trust slowly and carefully, you may be more open and inviting to others. At the same time, being in relationships means you will be hurt at times.Acceptance includes not judging. Not judging yourself or others will help you be more willing to reach out and be vulnerable. Many people in all walks of life, with all levels of education and with all types of backgrounds are lonely and everyone is lonely at times.
Not being lonely means feeling connected, not just having people around you. Connecting means being open. Protecting yourself too much keeps the door closed. Stay mindful and in the moment. Being mindful means focusing on the here and now and participating fully.
Are there relationships in your past that you have let go or neglected? Consider rekindling those old relationships. If there have been arguments that don’t seem important now, maybe you could reestablish friendships lost due to anger or hurt.
Behaviorally, opposite to emotion action may be a good choice (Linehan, 1993). With opposite to emotion action you do the opposite behavior of what your emotion urges you to do. So instead of withdrawing or keeping to yourself, initiate conversations with others. Practice small acts of kindness that show your compassion for others. A card or a handwritten note when someone is celebrating or going through a difficult time is a way to connect.
Watch your body language so that it reflects your willingness to talk and connect. Open hands, eye contact, and smiles are part of communicating friendliness. Be willing to participate in small talk. If you are an introvert or focused on accomplishing tasks, chit chat may be difficult, but it is a way of engaging in most social situations. If you are invited to sit with others or invited to join a conversation (directly or indirectly) accept the invitation. People will likely extend offers about three times before they stop.
Finally, consider offering connections to people who may be in particular need, such as the elderly who have no family members who visit them. Working with pets can help decrease feelings of loneliness.
If you have struggled with loneliness, what steps did you find helpful? I’d appreciate hearing your suggestions.
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Cacioppo, John T. and Patrick, William (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature adn The Need for Social Connection. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Linehan, Marsha (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.