Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible form of poverty. – Mother Theresa
In a world of 24 hour access to each other, it may be surprising to learn that many people suffer from the pain of loneliness. Loneliness is hard to identify, often misunderstood and can be shamed. It’s a quiet epidemic that silences the voices of the afflicted and leads to settling for lukewarm relationships and neglecting dreams in an effort to play it safe, minimizing vulnerability.
Loneliness is one of the most challenging emotions to experience. Unlike other emotions which come and go in waves, loneliness lingers like a thick fog and can be experienced as a dull ache or it can throb like a fresh wound. Perceived as dangerous to the nervous system, loneliness is a frequent visitor that can take your breath away, causing you to feel like the tools you use to best function as an adult are far out of reach.
Simply put, loneliness hurts emotionally and physically.
A lonely individual rumbles with the fears triggered by loneliness and is at increased risk of making bad choices in relationships and in how they care for their body. Many can feel ashamed for feeling lonely, especially when comparative suffering (comparing your suffering to the suffering of others) arises. This shame is possibly a result of an inaccurate understanding of loneliness, for it’s often mistakenly seen in others as being distant, awkward, selfish, or insensitive.
… loneliness is a frequent visitor that can take your breath away, causing you to feel like the tools you use to best function as an adult are far out of reach.
There is an important distinction between experiencing loneliness and simply being alone. Loneliness is an experience of isolation due to lack of connection — a lack of being seen and understood. Everyone needs varying degrees of connection with other people to help keep loneliness at bay. When your unique need for social connection is not met, loneliness arises. These social needs are determined by your individual genetics, temperament, environmental and social experiences. Applying a prescription for loneliness broadly may not only be ineffective, but could actually be harmful when attempts to move away from a state of loneliness are unsuccessful.
In their book, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick discuss their discoveries researching loneliness and found that people who experience loneliness fit a broad spectrum of people.
– Are no more or less physically attractive than deemed “normal.”
– Do not differ, on average, in terms of height, weight, age, education and intelligence.
– Can be just as socially adept as anyone.
These findings show how loneliness does not discriminate while it profoundly distorts your lens on what is true about both you and your world. Cacioppo and Patrick further found that, over time and if left unaddressed, loneliness impacts a person’s capacity for empathy and self-compassion; its pain is all-consuming — shutting down the ability to see a situation from someone else’s perspective.
Addressing Loneliness = Understanding Loneliness
Whatever our own individual sensitivity, our well-being suffers when our particular need for connection has not been met. – Cacioppo & Patrick
Chronic feelings of loneliness and alienation, along with unmet social connection needs, will increase stress. This kind of chronic stress impacts physical, relational and mental health. Since loneliness is part of the human experience, trying to never feel it and/or thinking you are a failure because you feel this emotion will only add to the pain of loneliness. Loneliness does not need to be justified, so it is important to re-evaluate the voices speaking into your life if that is a message you are regularly receiving.
You can do this by:
– Developing an accurate understanding of loneliness. Reflect on the above stated differences between being alone and loneliness.
– Take the UCLA Loneliness inventory to assess where your loneliness baseline is.
– Get curious about your and your loved ones’ unique needs for social connection – which vary person to person. Respecting your unique needs for social connection instead of comparing yourself to others will help you get relief quicker when loneliness arises.
– Be honest about your beliefs around feeling negative emotions like loneliness. Practice breathing slow, deep breaths when this pain creeps in, reaching out to your trusted support system and remembering the lies of loneliness are wrong: you are not alone and loneliness is a common struggle that is part of being human.
– Respect the pain, even if you hate it. Practice giving yourself permission to struggle. If this is hard to do on your own, reach out and get help from a therapist or join a support group.
– Get clear on your expectations and biases around loneliness. Assess your protective and critical self-talk and get curious about what these protective parts want to protect you from and what they want you to know about them.
There is nothing like the experience of loneliness to help you realign where you are putting your worth and your value. Benching loneliness takes some deep soul character strength, faith and fortitude. It is a life-long practice in building emotional resilience. Mastery is not the goal, simply practice.
Compassion, curiosity and understanding can help take the edges off the pain when darkness surfaces. And never forget: we are in this human journey together.
Images via Sara Forrest