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Karyn Hall, Ph.D., is the director/owner of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, Texas, and a consultant/trainer with the Treatment Implementation Collaborative.

Being lonely seems to carry a stigma, yet most people feel lonely at times.

There seems to be a strong stigma about loneliness. Many people will admit to being depressed before they’ll talk about being lonely. They fear being judged as unlikeable, a loser, or weird so they don’t discuss their sense of aloneness, alienation, or exclusion.

Not feeling free to talk about loneliness adds to the problem and to the judgments of the experience. If you judge yourself for feeling lonely, it makes it even more difficult to take steps to change the situation. Then you may judge yourself for not taking action to solve the problem.

That horrible experience of being the last one chosen for teams in school seems to continue into adulthood, though the reasons are different. The general idea seems to be that 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.

Actually, 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 those who feel more connected.

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.

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. 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.

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 your needs.

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. How well you manage those feelings affects the degree of pain you experience. If you are chronically upset, this 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 find a sense of belonging and also 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 dysregulated 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.

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 and intimacy as contributing to their happiness, wealth or social fame.

Only 22% never feel lonely and one in ten reports 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, 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 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

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 condition 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.

Profound loneliness can go back many years. Some sources say that the roots of profound loneliness come from experiencing lack of love as a young child. Sometimes a deep loneliness comes with having a physical difference or suffering from a mental disorder that leads to discrimination and isolation. For others loneliness may come from struggling with friendships in school, perhaps having been bullied or having no one to sit with at lunch. Being on the playground with no one to play with can be a very lonely feeling. Having different interests, such loving sports when others are into video games, can be very lonely.  Maybe as a child you had a single friend who moved away or you had an argument with that friend that led to a loss of the friendship. Loneliness in childhood seems to be related to loneliness s as an adult, including an increased sensitivity to loneliness.

There is no one idea or one path to move from loneliness to contentment, but there are general ideas that seem to work. A first step seems to be acceptance without judgment.

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