Understanding Loneliness

Most of us feel lonely sometimes. But what happens if loneliness doesn’t go away? Read more to understand the loneliness trap.

When Ruth’s partner suddenly left her for a younger woman, she was devastated. As well as the pain of loss and rejection, the thing she remembers is the unbearable loneliness. It wasn’t just that she was living alone for the first time. It also wasn’t because all her friends were paired off. “I felt cut off from everyone and everything. I despaired of ever having another relationship again. I felt very afraid and indescribably lonely.”

Loneliness is subjective. One person’s fear of being alone is another’s release, a chance to be free from the demands of other people. It’s an unmet need for social connection that makes us lonely, rather than the fact of being alone.

Loneliness can make us feel disconnected from others. It can rob us of our personality, destroy our sense of social ease. It can also be very painful, overwhelming, and bleak.

Lonely in a crowd

You don’t have to be alone to feel lonely. Maybe you’ve felt lonely at a party, or among friends. No matter who it’s with, social contact has to be meaningful to give us that sense of connection.

“It’s strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.” — Albert Einstein

This is true however you choose to connect with people. These days, we increasingly connect online. But no matter how many friends you have on Facebook, you can still be lonely.

The loneliness epidemic

We live in an age when we can connect with more people than ever before. But we have never been lonelier. Research by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that one in ten of us confesses to feeling lonely. It also found that half of us believe we’re getting more lonely.

The report blames the decline of community for this problem. It also highlights changing work and social structures. More people are living alone, away from their families. Local shops and amenities are being replaced by out-of-town shopping centres. At the same time, we are experiencing an increasing focus on work. This comes at the expense of time with friends and family.

Forget the idea that you’re a social misfit

If you’re going through a lonely period, that doesn’t mean that you can’t ever get along with people. On average, people who are lonely spend no more time alone than others. They are also no more or less attractive, educated, or intelligent, and are just as socially adept as anyone else. The difference is that they may have a lower threshold for loneliness than others. Social neuroscientists call this a “higher sensitivity to loneliness.” This may prevent them from using the social skills they have.

So if you’re lonely, it doesn’t mean that you’re a social misfit. It just means that you need to find the confidence to be yourself again. Then you can start connecting with people and take back control of your life.

Freeing yourself from the loneliness trap isn’t easy, but a good starting point is to understand how loneliness affects you.

In search of solitude

Though we are social creatures, most of us benefit from some time alone. Solitude may feed our creativity, give us time for reflection, or provide some much-needed rest from the demands of others.

Being alone with our thoughts and our senses can give life a new intensity. It can make a sunset burn brighter, make the night air smell sweeter. As American philosopher Paul Tillich said, “Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

The trick is achieving the right balance that’s right for us. We need both time alone and quality time with other people.

What is loneliness?

Few of us can say we’ve never felt lonely. It’s part of being human. Like pain, loneliness is there for a reason. It’s a defense mechanism that prompts us to seek out the safety of social groups.

If our need for social connection is not met, our body alerts us that something is wrong, triggering the “fight-or-flight” response. This causes physiological changes, such as a faster heartbeat, heightened senses, and a turning-down of our thinking processes. It’s our body preparing for action — in this case, by prompting us to reach out to others.

Most of us experience feelings of loneliness sometimes. But usually, we cope until the next opportunity for connection comes our way. The problem arises when that feeling doesn’t go away, so that loneliness becomes chronic.

Chronic loneliness can be caused by a lack of opportunity to form meaningful connections. Extreme examples might include solitary confinement, being bedridden or confined to the house, or moving to a country where you don’t speak the language. Or there could be other less obvious reasons, such as being trapped in a controlling or abusive relationship, or living or working in a community where money and status are valued above anything else.

Acute and persistent loneliness can also result from the experience of loneliness itself. This is because it reduces our ability to connect with people in a meaningful way.

The loneliness trap

Research shows that chronic and persistent loneliness has a negative effect on our immune and cardiovascular systems. It is also linked to stress and depression. If we’re lonely, we are more likely to drink too much, eat badly, and exercise less. There is even some evidence that chronic loneliness can make us age faster.

Loneliness also affects how we feel about ourselves and how we interact with other people. Loneliness distorts our perspective on the world, setting off a loop of self-destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. The longer it goes on, the deeper it gets, and the harder it is to stop.

The truth is that when we’re lonely, the vibes we put out can make people less friendly towards us. It can also make us less well disposed to other people. Just what we don’t need when we are feeling lonely.

“The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Loneliness can diminish our feelings of self-worth, which can make us socially awkward. But it makes the world a more threatening place. As John Cacioppo and William Patrick write in their book, Loneliness, when we feel isolated, “Other people may appear more critical, competitive, denigrating, or otherwise unwelcoming.”

This fear of rejection puts us on the defensive. It also changes how we behave, which increases our vulnerability even more.

Judgment call

When we’re lonely, our normal judgment system takes a back seat. Loneliness makes us prone to misinterpreting other people’s intentions. For example, we may imagine that people are shunning us, or take what people say the wrong way. Worse still, when people are friendly, we may discount it or take little pleasure in it.

When she was lonely, Ruth found that she became super sensitive to friends’ comments. “Even though my friends were supportive, I felt easily criticized and let down. I sometimes felt they were siding with my partner or criticizing me for ever being with him in the first place. It nearly ended one close friendship — I had a feeling of betrayal that lasted a long time.”

Loneliness also causes us to behave in a way that invites more rejection. For example, it can cause a person to play the victim, blame or lash out at people, or act too desperate to please. And when we’re lonely, we are more likely to fall into self-destructive behaviour. In the long run, this can increase our sense of isolation. This can manifest as drinking too much, relying on drugs, binge eating, or mistaking casual sex for true intimacy.

The lonelier and needier we get, the more isolated we become.

What makes us prone to loneliness?

But why are some of us more prone to loneliness? We all know people who don’t seem to need others in the same way as we do. Or perhaps we’re one of those people ourselves. On the other hand, we may find that we always need other people more than they need us. It’s these differences that make the experience of loneliness so subjective.

Social neuroscientists believe that our need for inclusion is set early on. It’s shaped by our genes and our early social environment. This explains why some of us have a higher sensitivity to loneliness.

For example, one person may move to a new community and start out afresh without much problem. Meanwhile, another may feel lost and miserable if they can’t see close friends and family, and really struggle to make new connections.

What triggers loneliness?

While few of us are immune to feeling lonely, an inherited disposition to loneliness, combined with difficult life events, increases your vulnerability.

No one disputes that big life changes like moving away from home, giving up work to raise a baby, losing your partner, or outliving your friends can make us feel lonely. But for those who easily feel lonely, it’s even more of an uphill struggle.

“Loneliness is never more cruel than when it is felt in close propinquity with someone who has ceased to communicate.” — Germaine Greer, feminist writer and social commentator.

Losing your role in your family or the wider community may worsen feelings of isolation. For example, if your children leave home or you lose your job through retirement or redundancy. People tend to cope better with being alone when they are sure of their role in life.

But our ability to connect with others also depends on our internal state. For example, you’re more likely to feel disconnected from others if you’re depressed, recently separated, or bereaved. These can all be intensely lonely experiences.

Problems can also arise within relationships. Maybe your partner can’t give you the level of intimacy that you need. Maybe you’re mismatched or simply growing apart. As John Cacioppo and William Patrick point out in their book, “Being miserably lonely inside a marriage has been a literary staple from Madame Bovary to The Sopranos.”

Alternatively, you might be trying to make your way in a community where you don’t fit in for some reason. This may be because of differences in values or culture. These can all be barriers to friendship and stop you from connecting with people, so you feel awkward and out of place.

Breaking the cycle

There are many reasons why you might feel lonely. But despite the stigma that we often attach to loneliness, it doesn’t make you a weirdo or social outcast.

Our response to loneliness can make the problem worse. But it can also make it better. If you can learn to modify your response, you have a chance to break the cycle and escape the loneliness trap. This can help you connect with people again.

In the words of John Cacioppo and William Patrick, “What feels like solitary confinement … need not be a life sentence.”