Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. You can be around other people, your partner, your family and still feel lonely. You can be all by yourself and yet, not feel lonely at all. Contrariwise, you can feel at peace, connected, calm, joyful, satisfied with your life, you name it. So, what is loneliness then?
What is loneliness?Loneliness is the feeling of disconnection. Loneliness is a profound state of distress. As a psychotherapist, I have worked with many people when they are going through tough periods in their life, and I have come to observe and realise that during these periods they experience two kinds of loneliness, without meaning that one excludes the other. Actually, in many cases they are interrelated. I will explain what I mean.
Disconnection from othersOne type of loneliness is the feeling of disconnection from others. It’s when we feel that people around us are not aligned with us, not in the same space with us. This means that they are not able to understand us, to feel our struggles, to resonate with our experience. They are not getting us. We don’t share the same values; we don’t authentically care about each other.
Not presentIt’s the moment when we are in a conversation with someone and they don’t seem genuinely interested in us: no eye contact, distracted on their phone, busy in their mind with something more interesting or urgent. We can see that they are not there, present and connected with us.
Lonely even if in a relationshipIt’s the moment when we sit next to our partner, but we have nothing to talk about. There is no emotional, no intellectual, no physical connection. We are absorbed in our own worlds. We are afraid to reach out to each other. We are emotionally exhausted from trying for our relationship. We are in pain and hurt from our partner and we choose to disconnect as a way of protecting our last energy resources. We have forgotten how it is to be emotionally connected.
Not belonging, too differentIt’s the moment we are part of a group, a work group, a family group, a friend group, but we still feel that we don’t belong there. We feel too different: different values, different culture, different beliefs. We feel as if we are aliens. On top of that, no one is trying to help us integrate; contrariwise, they let us struggle alone, and they go about forming even stronger bonds with the other members of the group, but not with us.
Not only do we feel ostracised, but we also feel ashamed of who we are. We keep ruminating over what is wrong with us, how unfairly everyone is treating us, how unlovable or unlikable we feel, and whether that means that we will be alone and disconnected forever.
Pandora’s box with all our fears and negative self-talk has opened.
Feeling like a burdenIt’s the moment when we feel we are a burden to someone’s life. When we are struggling with our mental health, we assume that people around us will not understand us, or they will judge us, or even worse, they will invalidate our struggle. We are afraid that we will impose on someone if we share what we are going through and that they will not have the space nor the mental capacity to support us and be there for us. This is when we hide our challenges, but that is when loneliness peaks even more. It’s us on our own.
Feeling like the odd one outIt’s also when we belong in a minority group and we feel that we will always be the “odd ones”, the “strangers”. For example, this is particularly common for immigrants or people who belong to the LGBTQIA+ community; or people who belong to different race ethnicities or cultural communities.
Disconnection from selfBut there is also another kind of loneliness. It’s the one we feel when we have disconnected from ourselves. After a long time of taking care of others, supporting them and focusing on their needs, it makes perfect sense why we don’t recognise ourselves anymore. We feel estranged from parts of ourselves, we don’t know who we are, what we want, where we are going. We don’t know what gives us joy, meaning and purpose in life. We have probably changed a lot, we have grown, and we don’t know which direction we are headed towards.
Loneliness is there in every transition, either internally or externally. It’s one of these moments that we call “existential crisis”, and these moments are very lonely ones.
Not liking myselfIt’s also the moments when we don’t like ourselves. It is common especially when we are struggling with our mental health. It is then when our inner critic yells all these harsh and nasty messages in our head: “You are not enough”, “You are a failure”, “There is something wrong with you”, “You will be alone forever”, “People don’t like you”, “You don’t deserve to be happy”, and so on.
Not only do we listen to these messages, but we surrender to them, we agree, and we repeat them in our head during our sleepless nights, when people mistreat us, when others judge us (“See? I was right!”), when people forget about us, when we can’t make a decision, when we face a setback.
Not a good friend of mineIt’s the moments we are not good friends with ourselves. Instead of being understanding, validating, supportive and compassionate especially when we are struggling, we dismiss ourselves and we push ourselves even further.
How to defeat loneliness and create connectionBut how do we create connection? Here are a couple of ideas on how to create connection with people around us but also with ourselves:
Connection with others Join groups of people that have the same values and interests as you Practice empathetic listening, to try to get into their shoes Be authentic and honest when around them Be curious about them and non-judgmental about their life and their life experiences Accept them as they are Give, offer, help and support them Connection with yourself Allow your feelings and accept them as they are Stop the harsh critical voice in your head Try to stay with the discomfort Be true to your needs Make space for your needs and set boundaries to others Have fun when alone Comfort yourself when hurt Connect with your values, your wants and likes – journaling helps with that Explore meaning and purpose in your life Practice self-love and self-acceptance Loneliness is…Remember: Loneliness is the need for connection. Loneliness is the signal that reminds us how much we value relationships, and we can’t survive without them. Loneliness is the message that our body sends us that we are important, and we need to become friends with ourselves again.
In order to defeat loneliness, we have to listen to its message.