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"There is loneliness in this world so great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock." — Charles Bukowski, Love is a Dog from Hell.
Most of us have occasional feelings of loneliness. But what happens if loneliness refuses to go away? Read more to understand the loneliness trap.
When Ruth’s long-term partner suddenly left her for a younger woman, she was devastated. As well as the pain of loss and rejection, the thing she remembers is the unbearable loneliness of it all. It wasn’t just that for the first time she was living alone, and all her friends seemed to be paired off. "I felt cut off from everyone and everything. I despaired of ever having another relationship again. I felt very afraid and indescribably lonely."
Loneliness is subjective. One person’s fear of being on their own is another’s release, a chance to be free from the demands of other people. But whether you’re a party animal who loves to surround yourself with people, or you prefer your own company or that of close friends or family, it’s an unmet need for social connection that makes us lonely, rather than the fact of being alone.
Loneliness can make us feel absent or disconnected from those around us. It can rob us of our personality, destroy our sense of social ease. It can also be acutely painful, overwhelming and devastatingly bleak.
You don’t have to be alone to be lonely—as anyone who’s felt lonely at a party, or even among friends, knows. Whether surrounded by strangers, or people we know well, social contact has to be meaningful to give us that sense of connection.
"It’s strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely." — Albert Einstein
This is true however you choose to connect with people—and these days it’s increasingly the internet. So no matter how many friends you have on Facebook—and the problem is our consumer society tends to commodify friendship as though it’s a collector’s item or something you can buy—you can still be lonely.
The truth is that in an age when we can connect with more people than ever before at the touch of a button, we have never been lonelier. Research last year by health charity the Mental Health Foundation revealed that one in 10 of us confesses to feeling lonely, and half of us believe we’re getting more lonely generally.
The reasons for this are complex, but the report blames the decline of community, along with changing work and social structures. People living away from their families, more people living alone, the loss of local shops and amenities in favour of out-of-town shopping centres—and an increasing focus on work at the expense of time with friends and family—are just some of the changes contributing to this loneliness epidemic.
The good news is that if you’re going through a lonely period in your life, it’s unlikely to mean that you’re incapable of getting along with people. Studies show that on average, people who are lonely spend no more time alone, are no more or less attractive, educated, or intelligent, and are just as socially adept as anyone else. The difference is that they may have a lower threshold for loneliness than others—what social neuroscientists call a "higher sensitivity to loneliness"—which may inhibit them from using the social skills they have.
So if you’re lonely, it doesn’t mean that you’re a social misfit. Rather, it means that you need to find the confidence to be yourself again, so you can start connecting with people and take back control of your life.
Freeing yourself from the loneliness trap isn’t easy, but a good starting point is to understand how loneliness affects you.
Though we are social creatures, most of us benefit from some time on our own. Solitude may be something we seek out, perhaps because it feeds our creativity, gives us time for reflection, or simply gives us a much-needed rest from the demands of other people.
Being alone with our thoughts and our senses can give life a particular intensity—it can make a sunset burn brighter, make the night air smell sweeter. As American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich said, "Language … has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone."
The trick is achieving a balance that’s right for us, between time on our own and quality time spent with other people.
Few of us can say we’ve never felt lonely—it’s part of being human. Like pain, loneliness is there for a reason: an age-old defence mechanism that prompts us to seek out the safety of social groups.
If our need for social connection is not met, our body alerts us that something is wrong, triggering the "fight-or-flight" response that kicks in when we feel threatened in any way. This causes physiological changes, such as increased heartbeat, heightened senses, and a turning-down of our thinking processes. It’s our body preparing for action—in this case, a prompt for us to try and reach out to others.
Most of us experience transient feelings of loneliness at some time or other, but mainly we cope until the next opportunity for connection comes our way. The problem arises when that feeling doesn’t go away, so that loneliness becomes chronic.
Chronic loneliness can be caused by a lack of opportunity to form meaningful connections. Extreme examples might include solitary confinement, being bed-ridden or confined to the house for some reason, or moving to a country where you don’t speak the language. Or there could be other less obvious reasons, such as being trapped in a controlling or abusive relationship, or living or working in a community where money and status are valued above anything else.
But acute and persistent loneliness can also result from the experience of loneliness itself, and the way it reduces our ability to connect with people in a meaningful way.
Research shows that chronic and persistent loneliness has an adverse effect on our immune and cardiovascular systems, as well as being linked to stress and depression. If we’re lonely, we are more likely to drink too much, eat badly, and exercise less. There is even some evidence that chronic loneliness can accelerate the ageing process.
But loneliness also affects how we feel about ourselves—and, crucially, how we understand and interact with other people. When we’re trapped in the well of loneliness, it distorts our perspective on the world, setting off a loop of self-destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. The longer it goes on, the deeper it gets, and the less able we are to do anything about it.
The truth is that when we’re lonely, the vibes we put out can make people less friendly towards us. It can also make us less well disposed to other people. Just what we don’t need when we are feeling lonely.
"The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters." — Friedrich Nietzsche
As well as diminishing our feelings of self-worth ("People don’t like me," "I can’t talk to people," "I’ll never make friends," "I’ll always be lonely"), which can make us socially awkward, it makes the world a more threatening place. As John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe in their book, Loneliness, when we feel isolated, "other people may appear more critical, competitive, denigrating, or otherwise unwelcoming."
And this fear of rejection that puts us on the defensive also changes how we behave, which further increases our vulnerability.
When we’re lonely, our normal judgment system takes a back seat, making us prone to misinterpreting other people’s intentions. For example, we may imagine that people are shunning us, or take what people say the wrong way. Worse still, when people are friendly, even if we don’t throw it back in their faces, we may discount it or take little pleasure in it.
Ruth found, in her lonely state, that she became super sensitive to friends’ comments. "Even though my friends were supportive, I felt easily criticized and let-down. I sometimes felt they were siding with my partner or criticizing me for ever being with him in the first place. It nearly ended one close friendship—I had a feeling of betrayal that lasted a long time."
Loneliness also causes us to behave in a way that courts the very rejection we most dread—for example, playing the victim, blaming or lashing out at people, or simply being too desperate to please. And when we're lonely we are more likely to fall into self-destructive behaviour that, in the long run, can increase our sense of isolation, such as drinking too much, relying on drugs, binge-eating or mistaking casual sex for true intimacy.
The lonelier and needier we get, the more likely people are to run a mile—and the more isolated we become.
But why are some of us more prone to loneliness than others? We all know seemingly self-sufficient people, who don’t seem to need people in the same way as we do—or perhaps we’re one of those people ourselves. Conversely, we may find that we always need other people more than they need us. It’s these differences that make the experience of loneliness so subjective.
Social neuroscientists believe that our need for inclusion, or sensitivity to exclusion, is set early on, shaped by our genes and our early social environment. This explains why some of us have a lower threshold or higher sensitivity to loneliness.
For example, one person may uproot themselves from the community in which they’ve lived for years and start out afresh without too much problem. Meanwhile, another may feel lost and miserable without daily physical contact with close friends and family, and really struggle to make new connections.
While few of us are immune to feeling lonely, an inherited disposition to loneliness, combined with difficult life events, increases your vulnerability.
No one disputes that big life changes like moving away from home, giving up work to raise a baby, losing your partner, or outliving your friends can make it harder to satisfy our need for meaningful social connection. But for those who easily feel lonely, it’s even more of an uphill struggle.
"Loneliness is never more cruel than when it is felt in close propinquity with someone who has ceased to communicate." Germaine Greer, feminist writer and social commentator
It’s also thought that losing your role, either real or symbolic, in your family or the wider community, may worsen feelings of isolation—for example, if your children leave home or you lose your job through retirement or redundancy. Researchers have shown that people tend to cope better with being alone when they are sure of their role in life.
However, our ability to connect with others depends as much on our internal state as the circumstances we are in. For example, you’re more likely to feel disconnected from others if you’re depressed, recently separated, or bereaved—all of which can be intensely lonely experiences.
Problems can also arise within relationships. Maybe your partner can’t give you the level of intimacy that you need, perhaps because you’re mismatched or simply growing apart. As John Cacioppo and William Patrick point out in their book, "Being miserably lonely inside a marriage has been a literary staple from Madame Bovary to The Sopranos."
Alternatively, you might be trying to make your way in a community where you don’t fit in for some reason—perhaps because of differences in values or culture. These can all be barriers to friendship and stop you from connecting with people, so you feel awkward and out of place.
There are many reasons why you might feel lonely. But despite the stigma that society often attaches to loneliness, it doesn’t make you a weirdo or social outcast.
It may sound perverse, but the fact that our response to loneliness worsens the problem offers a ray of hope. If you can learn to modify that response, and tone down the sense of threat you feel, you have a chance to break this self-perpetuating cycle and escape the loneliness trap, which can help you connect with people again.
In the words of John Cacioppo and William Patrick, "What feels like solitary confinement…need not be a life sentence."