Struggle with loneliness? You aren't alone.
To be human means we experience an array of feelings over the course of our lives. Perhaps one of the most universally experienced difficult emotions that we face is loneliness.
Loneliness is a tough emotion to put our finger on because there is no formula for preventing it or curing it. It doesn’t matter if you are a widow or a married mother of three. Loneliness doesn’t care about how strong your relationship is with your spouse, or how many people you are around on a daily basis.
"Loneliness happens any time there is a discrepancy between what we want in terms of social relationships and emotional intimacy and what we get."
- Paloutzian & Janigian, 2008
Loneliness is different than social isolation. A person can be alone without being lonely. Social loneliness occurs when a person’s desire for social contact is significantly less than what they get on a regular basis. Emotional loneliness occurs when a person lacks an intimate bond with another person in which they feel seen, validated, and understood.
Loneliness starts for many of us in childhood. The experience of loneliness can become ingrained early in life, and so often we re-experience those same feelings as adults. The tightness in our chest, the pressure behind our eyes as we fight tears. Feeling alone at 40 feels just like it did when we were left to eat alone in 3rd grade.
The experience of loneliness is tough at any age, but it often gets overlooked in early adulthood. We think of the mid twenties through mid forties as the “prime of life” with the busyness of family, job demands, and our romantic partners.
What isn’t discussed as much is how difficult a time this can be for many of us. Making friends as an adult can be incredibly difficult BECAUSE of these competing priorities. Our long-lasting friendships become annual visits (if we are lucky) because we are spread out across the country and have a limited number of days we can take off. The time crunch makes us prioritize those precious weekend hours, and often that means our travel time to see our loved ones is limited.
Making friends as an adult is also difficult for the “intrusion” factor. We don’t want to burden our prospective friends who have other relationships that they need to attend to.
Altogether, the difficulty of making deep friendships as an adult leads to loneliness because it can seem that no one has the time to put in to the development of a lasting relationship.
When I first moved to North Carolina, I remember going out with a group of girls to a “Wine and Design” class. We sipped wine, painted, and had a great time. I was so excited when I came home that night. I said to my husband, “I think I made some friends!” I felt like I was in kindergarten making new friends again. Over the next few weeks, schedules clashed, I was heading back and forth between North Carolina and Maryland, and what time I did have I wanted to spend with my new husband. The girls I went out with also had known each other for 10 plus years. I was an outsider. Sure, they liked me, but the comfort they had with each other just wasn’t there with me. I saw them doing fun things together on social media and realized that I wasn’t invited to their outings. I was an outsider, and it hurt.
Loneliness is a difficult emotion because it does bring up all the old stuff.
I turn 30 in 10 days. Birthdays have never been a big deal to me, but this one seemed different. It wasn’t the whole “30 thing,” but it was the notion that everyone else I knew seemed to have parties and celebrate their 30th with friends and family. Enter compare and despair.
I began feeling sorry for myself. I tried to organize things with friends and family, but my closest friends are spread out around the country, and spending time with two of my best friends would mean a 7 hour drive after a long work week. Sure, I’ve made some good friends since moving several years ago, but I was yearning for my best friends and my family, and unfortunately, all of our schedules clashed.
So I felt homesick and lonely, and began feeling sorry for myself. I consider myself very lucky to have an amazing partner who offered to help coordinate something with my friends and offered to “do something special”. I continued to wallow, telling him, “we do things together all the time, all I want for my birthday is to spend time with my family and friends who I never see.” I was acting like a spoiled child, but despite our wonderful connection, I was lonely for my family and friends.
So, as a therapist and as a human being who has always struggled with loneliness, despite having wonderful relationships, I wondered, how do we help people who are lonely?
I think one of the greatest fears and questions people who experience loneliness face is this:
Will it ever change? Will I always feel this way?
As a therapist (and human-being), I wish it was as easy as encouraging someone to take interpersonal risks, like going to that meet-up, checking out that church cookout, or saying “yes” to the invite. Unfortunately, the reasons that people don’t take the risks is more complex, and usually it stems from two places:
Self-defeating beliefs they have about themselves (“I’m a loser and they won’t really care about me.”)
Having taken risks and put themselves out there countless times before and feeling rejected (“I had fun, but they don’t really want to put the effort in to be friends. I’m so exhausted from putting myself out there over and over again.”
So how do we overcome these mental hurdles?
First, we have to look at our beliefs. Who are we blaming our loneliness on - our parents, our friends, ourselves, God? Is what we expect from others realistic? Does having conflicting schedules (largely due to poor planning on my end) mean that they my friends and family don’t care about me? Of course not. I had to come to grips with the story I was telling myself. I had to ask some painful questions. Am I telling myself that I have no friends? Where is it coming from- is it triggering the feelings I had when I felt like a misfit in middle school?
Extensive research has found a unifying theme among people who report higher levels of loneliness. This theme is unrealistic expectations.
People who tend to be lonelier (myself included) set up incredibly high expectations such as having a perfect partner, having a totally satisfying job, having friendships that are deep, lasting, and authentic.
Similarly, people who are lonelier tend to have ridiculously high expectations of themselves. These expectations may be that they are the perfect partner, that they are highly successful financially or occupationally, that they must be always “on” (engaging and entertaining) for someone to like them, etc. These expectations can become self-ascribed prerequisites for relationships. “I’m not feeling super chatty or funny, so I don’t want to go to hang out. They’ll think I’m boring.”
Expectations are born out of a fear of rejection.
So, how do we defeat loneliness? I wish there was a magic bullet. Like most other challenges we face, the most effective route is understanding our own narrative and beliefs. If someone can’t hang out with you, do you think that makes you less worthwhile as a person?
Get curious about your loneliness. When does it show up, what is it telling you? Is it true?
Raymond F. Paloutzian PhD & Aris S. Janigian MA (2008) Interrelationships Between Religiousness and Loneliness, The Psychotherapy Patient, 2:3, 3-14, DOI: 10.1300/J358v02n03_02