Everyone has felt lonely at some point. It’s the painful feeling of being separate, different, or not belonging.
Of course, loneliness isn’t the same as being alone. Many people enjoy being alone and find it refreshing — not lonely. And it’s also not uncommon to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people. Loneliness is about disconnection; wanting to connect, but not being able to.
We can feel lonely for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s situational – such as you’ve moved to a new city or started a new job and don’t know anyone yet.
Loneliness can be the result of loss – the death of a loved one or pet, a divorce, or a falling out with a friend.
Or you may feel lonely because you’re lacking close friendships or a romantic partner.
Or, perhaps, you feel like you don’t have anything in common with the people you’re with. You feel different.
And, of course, some people are lonely because they’re socially isolated, such as a home-bound elderly person.
“Loneliness does not come from having no people around, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”
– Carl Jung
Why is loneliness so painful?
Loneliness is a painful experience because we all want to connect with others. We want to be known and accepted – to be a part of a community.
Connection is a basic human need. It’s necessary for good physical and mental health. This is why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments that can be inflicted on prisoners.
Loneliness is also painful because we tend to interpret it as a sign that we’re defective and at fault for our loneliness. You might think: “I’m 40 years old and still single. There must be something wrong with me” or “I don’t have any close friends that I can be completely open and honest with. What a loser!”
Loneliness feels shameful. We see it as evidence that we’re not as good as everyone else — we’re uncool, lack social skills, aren’t smart enough or good looking enough, don’t have anything interesting to say, and so on. This shame-based thinking then makes it harder for us to connect with others because we’re certain that we’re not worthy of connection and no one will want us.
How to overcome loneliness
Solving loneliness isn’t always as simple as making more friends or getting involved in your community. Many of us still feel lonely when we’re in the presence of friends or family. The solution to loneliness isn’t just to be around people, it’s to deeply connect with yourself and others.
- Identify what kind of connection you’re seeking. Understanding the reason for your loneliness can help you pinpoint the type of connection that will fulfill your needs and make a plan to work towards it. For example, if you know that you’re lonely for a romantic partner the steps you’ll take to connect will be different than if you’re lonely because you’re experiencing an empty nest.
- Take risks. Connecting with others often feels risky. And, although we want to connect with others we don’t make the effort to initiate a connection or we pass up opportunities and invitations from others. It’s normal to try to protect ourselves from more pain after feeling rejected, hurt, or abandoned. However, we need to step out of our comfort zone and be emotionally vulnerable in order to deepen our connections with others. Taking a risk can be joining a new group or club, inviting an acquaintance to lunch, or sharing something more personal with a friend.
- Be open to connecting with others. Sometimes, when we’re lonely and shame-filled we retreat into ourselves. So, even when we’re around people, our words (or lack thereof) and body language send the message that we’re not interested in connecting. In addition to putting ourselves out there and showing up in social situations, we have to be receptive and open our hearts to connection if we are to overcome loneliness. Often, setting small, specific goals (such as emailing a friend you haven’t seen in months to try to reconnect or smiling at people in your yoga class) is helpful.
- Are you depressed? Depression (or other mental or physical health problems) can also make it difficult to connect with others. If you experience a persistent depressed mood (sad, down), fatigue or low energy, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, suicidal thoughts, trouble sleeping and/or difficulty concentrating please contact a mental health professional. Relieving symptoms of depression will probably make it easier to connect with others.
- Consider less time on social media. Social media can be a good way to connect with others, but more often interactions on social media are surface level and don’t provide the deeper connections that we’re looking for. Scrolling through updates from friends and distant relatives leaves many people feeling more lonely, separate, and different. So, be mindful of how you feel while using social media and consider how you might use it to deepen friendships and other relationships.
- Connect with yourself. Since loneliness isn’t simply a problem of being alone, some loneliness can be relieved by deepening your connection with yourself and learning to enjoy your own company. Being a friend to yourself doesn’t replace the need for human connection and the joy you get from having friends. However, being kind to yourself, understanding yourself, and enjoying time alone are important aspects of good mental health and can reduce shame. And learning to know and love yourself can ultimately help you connect authentically with others.
Loneliness is an indication that you want a greater feeling of belonging and to connect with others; it’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong with you. And while loneliness is both painful and prevalent, we can lessen it when we step out of our comfort zone and gradually build close relationships with those who truly know and accept us.