Struggle with feeling lonely? Even when with friends? And aren’t sure why the dull, empty sensation keeps taking you over?
The Campaign to End Loneliness suggests almost half of us in the UK feel at least occasionally lonely.
Sometimes people confuse being alone with loneliness. But we can feel just as much (if not more) lonely when we are with others.
Loneliness isn’t about who we are or aren’t with, it’s about how connected we do or don't feel to others, and how understood we feel. If we feel unseen and unheard, and don’t see evidence that we matter, then the loneliness sets in hard.
So essentially, loneliness is disconnection.
There are all sorts of factors that and leave you more prone to loneliness than others. Some of it might be personality. Some of us are naturally more introspective, and prone to analysing our situations.
But often loneliness comes from childhood. Our parents didn’t teach us how to connect well to others as they themselves had relating issues. Or we never got to be a kid and learn socialising skills as we had to take care of a sick parent or otherwise.
And neglect or trauma as a child is a big factor. It leaves us with hidden negative beliefs about ourselves, like feeling we are flawed or unloveable. We learn to hide ourselves away, or to just be what others want, which is a very lonely way to live.
Why is it so hard to stop feeling lonely? Evolutionary psychology puts forth a model that the brain sees loneliness as a threat (it's basically still stuck on our cavemen days, when being alone was quite dangerous). And the more we feel under threat, the more we become hypervigilant, on the lookout for danger. So the less we are going to let others get close, and the lonelier we get.
Sometimes it takes a bereavement, moving cities, a breakup, or losing a job to suddenly feel very lonely. We can struggle to understand how that is possible if we were ‘never the lonely type’ before.
But more often than not it’s just that we never had the time to know if we were or weren’t lonely. We were never alone enough to discover if we felt connected to ourselves or others, we were just going along with what we thought we were supposed to do and be.
This is why sometimes life-changing events that leave us very lonely are a catalyst for realising who we really are and what we really want from life.
On the other side of the abyss of loneliness can be a life that suits us far more than the one we have.
For some of us our loneliness is different. We have what is rather horribly termed, a ‘personality disorder’. Personality differences would be a more sensible way to say it, as it simply means that the way we see ourselves, others, and the world is markedly and consistently different from the way most other people do, and has been since late adolescence.
If we don’t realise how differently we see things, we can feel endlessly frustrated with all our efforts to make friends and fit in that don’t work out. Only when we realise we are different and learn how to understand others and relate in ways where we will be heard can we start to feel connected.
So if we are personality disordered, we need to learn to understand how others see us, and how to parlay who we are in a way they understand.
But otherwise, we are left facing a sea of well-meaning advice. This includes things like volunteering, taking up new hobbies, upping your self-care, or being creative.
Some of these things might only work as temporary distractions. But some of these do dance around something essential about ending loneliness. As by trying new things and crossing paths with new people, we learn more about who we are and what matters to us.
You see often with loneliness the person we need to connect to first is ourselves. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of ourselves, perhaps when we had to be everything our parents wanted to get any form of attention and safety, or when our self-esteem got so knocked down we just started pleasing others to feel a sense of value.
And if we aren’t connected to ourselves, it’s very hard to feel connected to others, especially as they might struggle to know who we really are.
And then we need to learn how to relate if it’s not natural for us, or we didn’t learn it from the adults around us growing us. Good relating is the way to feel connected. It’s a skill and takes study and practice but we can all learn to do it.
So how can we connect with ourselves? There are many self-help tools available, such as journalling and mindfulness.
And it can mean becoming a bit of a detective about yourself, almost as if you were a new friend you were getting to know.
And working with a coach or counsellor can really help. Your therapist can help you hone in on what your personal values are, what negative beliefs are stopping you from living those values, and help you decide what actually helps you feel that your life has meaning. And you can also work on your relating skills, and how to connect with others in a lasting, fulfilling way.
Ready to start feeling connected and seen? Use our easy booking tool now to find your perfect therapist.
Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer and editor of this blog. A popular mental health writer, she has studied person centred counselling and coaching.