Loneliness: what is it, and how to cope with it
Ami Rokach, Ph.D. – Clinical psychologist and member of the psych. Dept. at York University, Toronto
There has never been a person who walked on this earth who did not experience loneliness. It is something that we all share, and if we look at its evolutionary function, we see that despite the pain it causes, it is actually important for our survival. In nature, if a herd of animals is running, the one who lags behind may become lunch for the hungry lions. Humans are not different. We cannot survive alone. We are social animals, and thus need to be part of a group. And when we are not, bells start to ring in our heads, in order to alert us to join the group, and we consequently do so to stop the pain. It is, in many respects, like physical pain which none of us likes. It is an important alarm system that directs our attention to some damage that was done to our body, and so we can address it.
What is, and is not, loneliness
Before delving deeper into loneliness, lets clarify what it is, and what it is not. We, may, feel lonely when we are geographically separated from others, but alternatively there are those who are with others and at times even surrounded by a loving family, and still feel lonely. The most painful loneliness is said to occur when we are in a romantic relationship, which in our culture is seen as the antithesis to loneliness, and are still lonely. Loneliness is not a feeling, but an experience. It is the experience of being alone, disconnected from others, not important, not valued, unwanted and at times rejected. It affects our feelings, i.e., we may become sad or depressed, our thoughts (doubting our value, feeling hopeless, and discouraged), and our behavior which may become hostile, pushing others away, or alternatively desperately seeking their attention and company.
Addressing the nature of loneliness, lets distinguish between loneliness, loneliness anxiety, the stigma of loneliness, and solitude.
- Loneliness is based on our perception, or belief, that we are lone [not necessarily geographically], unwanted and worthless to others. Being social animals who depend on the community for survival, this realization is frightening and agonizing, especially if the loneliness lasts for a long time. Here is the time to distinguish between reactive and essential loneliness. Reactive loneliness is what we all experience, occasionally. It may happen due to losing an important relationship, death of a loved one, or during a temporary situation we find ourselves in, one that when the conditions are ripe, will usually dissipate. Essential loneliness is the type that is intertwined into our personality, likely having originated in damaging relationships with a significant person in our infancy or childhood, and may be quite stable despite good relationships that we may develop throughout our lives. Essential loneliness, usually, requires professional help.
- Those who experienced being in a concentration camp during WW2 or know a person who was, may be aware that such a person will hoard food even when plenty of food is readily available. Frequently, such a person, who experienced real and terrible hunger, will have under the bed days’ old bread which is moldy and old, just to quell his anxiety regarding starvation. Loneliness anxiety is somewhat similar. The person, in order to reduce his or her anxiety regarding being lonely, is intentionally getting involved socially to sometimes an extreme degree, just so loneliness may not be an option that she may face. So, the socializing is not geared to reduce the chance of being lonely, but to minimize the anxiety that loneliness is possible. Examples can be seen in singles who date, sometimes every day and possibly more than one person an evening, those who over work, or in addition to all their chores -which may be many – take on additional responsibilities, ensuring that they do not have any alone time in their days.
- Loneliness is stigmatized. People may be ready to talk about their health issues, emotional difficulties, romantic flops, or other personal issues, but loneliness is stigmatized and thus not openly discussed. It was suggested that the internal process that is leading to it goes something like this: ‘If I am lonely, that means that I am alone. I am alone because no one wants to be with me, as I am worthless and unlovable. Knowing that out culture adores success and achievement, when I reveal my loneliness and inability to have close friends, others will shy away from me, not wanting to associate with a loser such as I am, for fear that they may be perceived as losers as well’. So, those who are lonely, usually see the reason for it as a result of their shortcoming, and thus keep quiet about it. It was only thanks to COVID, that the public started to, openly, speak about loneliness. COVID made it much easier to mention that dreaded word since it was now COVID to blame for people’s sense of alienation – due to the imposed social distancing- rather than their own traits or behaviors.
- Solitude is the complementary experience to loneliness. Just as we may be lonely when we are alone or with others, and never as a result of conscious choice, solitude is an experience which we choose, in order to be alone and be able to do what requires centering, concentration, and sometimes silence. Some of the greatest literary and artistic creations were a result of solitude, and there are some religions that encourage solitude, to various periods, as a means to cleansing, reflecting, and cognitive restructuring. During solitude, we can get away from the humdrum of everyday life, with its innumerable noises and demands, attend to nature, read, create, write, plan, or just be, possibly in nature. Solitude, unlike loneliness, is refreshing, nurturing, and can be controlled by us as to its duration, frequency, and content.
Why is loneliness bad?
Loneliness, just like joy, sadness, or pain, is a normal reaction to specific situations. However, when loneliness lasts for long periods of time, it may bring about depression and negative self-thoughts. Depression, as we all know creates much stress in our bodies, which then react to that stress in unhealthy ways. Loneliness was shown to be associated with poor health, physical symptoms such as stress related illnesses, sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, cardiac problems, it may encourage development of dementia, and even hasten death!
If you want to better understand why loneliness is not a good experience, look at what lonely people say about themselves: They feel unwanted, unloved, even rejected, perceive themselves as unattractive, worthless, socially incompetent, desperate, vulnerable, and hopeless to name just some of what research tells us about how the lonely feel. When their loneliness lasts for too long and the pain is unbearable, the lonely may become demanding, angry and critical of others who they perceive avoid them. That, unfortunately, further reduces the likelihood that others would want to interact with them.
So, can we do anything about loneliness?
There are many things that we can do about loneliness, and the first one starts with our thinking and perception of the situation.
- We must internalize that loneliness is a normal human reaction to something that is missing in our lives, just like hunger indicates that we need to eat. It does not indicate that it is our fault or shortcoming, or that we are weak and incapable of taking care of our social world. Once we, as a society, take loneliness “out of the closet”, it may greatly help us address it and we may then help each other in dealing with it. We need to remember that loneliness, being a natural human experience, cannot be prevented. We, therefore, need to aim to reduce its frequency and duration.
- I mentioned, previously, hopelessness which many lonely people may experience regarding their situation. Dr. Seligman, an American psychologist, developed the notion of learned helplessness, which is an ineffective and many times destructive approach to life’s difficulties which results in our being convinced that we cannot get out of – or resolve – a difficult situation, and we just give in to it, although the solution may be presenting itself right in front of us, but we cannot even see it. Many lonely people, research shows, adopted learned helplessness in their lives, and cannot see a way out of loneliness, though objectively such a way may readily be found. The second step, thus, in addressing loneliness is to deal with and change our learned helplessness. There is a way to become un-lonely, to rediscover the joy of the community, and to find love, for those who look for it.
- Loneliness, as surprising as it may sound, has some positive elements to it. It allows you to be with and by yourself. You can see who really notices your situation, and who truly cares about you. Loneliness allows you to examine your strength, creativity, abilities, and resolve. It also heightens your appreciation of friends and of those who do care and support you. Many times, coming out of a lonely period, we have more appreciation of our existing relationships, and it enhances our motivation to establish them, if they are lacking in our life.
- Coping with loneliness requires self-reflection. We need to listen to ourself, understand from where does the pain that we feel originate, and what do we really want. Not always we want what we think we do. Take, for instance, those who are afraid of intimacy. Yes, they keep claiming that they want intimacy, close friends, and togetherness, but they may have such a low opinion of themselves, that they are afraid that should they let others get close to them, all their shortcomings and “pimples” will be exposed and they will, thus, be rejected. They choose to remain lonely rather than risk rejection.
- I mentioned that we need to reflect on our situation, if we are lonely [and otherwise as well, of course]. It may be important to understand why are we lonely, and then attempt to correct what needs correction. For example, I may be too aggressive, or shy – two behaviors which may not be attractive to others and result in them distancing themselves from me. Or I may not know how to develop small talk, or I stay at home a lot and thus miss opportunities to meet people, which will leave me alone and possibly lonely. Working on what needs improvement will enhance my chances to come out of loneliness.
- If you are in a romantic relationship, ensure as much as you can, that the two of you do not drift away, that your togetherness is continually strengthened, and that you encourage your partner to be with you. I, often, mention to a couple who may come to see me for marital therapy, that one of the things that is very important that they do is date each other. No, not the one with roses, wining and dining. The essence of dating [think about it for a moment] is not to make the other person be with you [a marriage certificate does that], but to make your partner want to be with you. Once you achieve that, you won! Date your partner, and make them appreciate, love and want to be with you. Seek help as soon as you notice that there are difficulties in your relationship. Being proactive increases your chances of saving and improving the relationship.
- Beware of destructive ways to deal with the pain of loneliness. Research found that some people, when lonely do the opposite of what they may want. They distance themselves from others, and actually push them away. On the face of it, it does not make any sense. However, delving into it, it was discovered that these wounded and lonely people are so terrified of getting involved with others, and then experience the sharp pain of rejection, that they prefer [many times unconsciously] to push others away, so that they do not get rejected once they got into a new relationship.
- Be active. Not physically, necessarily, but actively seek opportunities to engage with others, to make new acquaintances who can then become friends, take some modest social risks and approach people who seem approachable, and do not deny yourself from attending community gatherings and activities. It is simple: the more socially engaged you are, the better your chance to feel connected, appreciated, valued, and wanted.
All in all, loneliness happens, it is painful, and none of us like it. However, it is a normal reaction to various situations, and we need to remember that there is a way of addressing it, lowering our pain, and freeing ourselves from its grip. The GenWell Project (GenWellProject.org), a Canadian led NFP that is working to educate, empower, and catalyze Canadians around the power of human connection to overcome many of the challenges that we face with loneliness, is a great organization to follow and engage with. Their efforts to build a greater knowledge and intentionality around our social connections is key as we work to recover from the disconnection of the global pandemic and rebuild the social connections that make us happier, healthier and create a greater sense of belonging. Our connection and community are central to us getting back to a connected world. Get involved, step out of your comfort zone, and take some social risks. Maybe not everyone will like us, but there are others who will, and some of them may even be nice people.