Is social isolation a recipe for loneliness? We don’t think so.
Sometimes we find ourselves feeling alone in a dark place. Sometimes it shows up with thoughts suggesting that no one loves us or cares about us, our experiences or our feelings. Other times, we feel an intense sense of loneliness even in a sea of people.
For those of us who may feel extremely alone in the world and empty inside, it can be a scary experience. We might cling to the adage of “fake it till you make it” as we navigate our days and time with other people, but when it comes time to return home we hide out and feel isolated and alone.
In the TV show Dexter, they talk about a concept called the Dark Passenger. While it’s often discussed in connection to addiction, I think it also applies to those of us who feel lonely. The Dark Passenger refers to the secrets we bury deep inside and try to hide even from ourselves. We repress trauma and negative thoughts which creates internal turmoil. Eventually, the Dark Passenger transforms into feelings of loneliness and pain that we carry with us as we navigate our world.
Loneliness has a serious impact on physical and mental wellness. It increases the risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease and other illnesses. Fortunately, some countries are speaking out and addressing the issue. The United Kingdom, for example, created a Ministry of Loneliness that made headlines around the world in addressing this epidemic with research-backed interventions.
Loneliness in the Workplace
According to Harvard Business Review, loneliness in the workplace is a “growing health epidemic” and “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Even entrepreneurs may feel like no matter what they do, success is always slightly out of reach. Meanwhile, workers feel increasingly detached from their work and role in society.
Indeed, loneliness is an epidemic but we can take steps to combat the suffering at its source with reflection, connections, and psychotherapy.
Being Alone Doesn’t Always Cause Loneliness
Any introvert will agree that being alone doesn’t necessarily trigger negative emotions or feelings of worthlessness. For many of us, it can be very peaceful. We don’t always need to be surrounded by other people. Spending time with ourselves can actually inspire and energize. Solitary time on a retreat, for example, can help connect us with a higher power or meaning in life. Spending time alone to reflect and enjoy our own company is healthy.
It’s a matter of perspective, as well. Many people feel alone even surrounded by loved ones. The sources of loneliness are much deeper than that.
What’s Triggering Our Loneliness?
“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” – Orson Welles
Most of us didn’t feel lonely our entire life. We can remember feeling loved and accepted at certain points. So, what changed?
In some cases, our life experiences skew our self-perception. In other cases, we do things against our values to avoid feeling lonely, which only perpetuates self-criticism and self-imposed isolation.
Let’s look at some of the major triggers of loneliness:
Grief and Life Transitions
Grief shatters our world as we know it. Whether a mother or father, partner, best friend, or sibling, losing someone close is devastating.
The person we could always count on is suddenly removed from our lives and there’s nothing we can do to restore or replace the bond. Of course, everyone knows grief is a natural process but that doesn’t make us feel any less helpless and isolated while we go through it.
Indeed, we must relearn and rediscover the world around us. When managing a protracted war against grief, it can be helpful to connect with support systems.
I read Dr. Lucy Horne’s book, Resilient Grieving: Finding the Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything last year which helps us learn to cope. Local bereavement groups are also worthwhile.
My colleague, Megan, wrote a post on grieving called “Am I Doing Grief Right?” explaining there is no “normal” way to manage grief.
Remember too that grief doesn’t only accompany death. We can also grieve our lost health, jobs, divorces, and other traumatic situations. Loss can also open the door to loneliness and transitions which I’ve written about in the past.
Of course, breaking up is another form of loss. However, even people in committed relationships sometimes feel alone. People often stay in toxic or abusive relationships because they fear loneliness. However, this is nothing more than a negative prediction rife with underlying assumptions.
We assume that if we are alone, we will always be alone, we will never be happy, and we will die alone.
These thoughts create a self-fulfilling reality. Of course, being alone doesn’t guarantee misery. In some cases, breaking up leads to freedom and happiness.
Other times we fear facing life alone because we don’t want to face our true selves. However, if we want to create a healthy relationship, we must help ourselves before anything else.
Feeling alone in a relationship doesn’t have to be permanent. We can first work on the issue with our partner.
Many people assume life will never be the same after a breakup. They’re not wrong. In many cases, life becomes much better as time passes.
Sometimes we aren’t aware of our true selves. We want friends but struggle to form connections and feel alone.
Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
It’s common for us to cling to unhealthy or unproductive behaviours. We don’t recognize the detrimental impact they have on our lives. Take smoking for example. Most people know it’s dangerous and costly but can’t bring themselves to quit.
These repetitive actions trigger internal distress, loneliness, and self-crisis. When we feel shame over such things, like a failed marriage, lost job, or any action we perceive as negative, we feel alone. But 1+2 doesn’t equal 5 no matter how hard we try to force it.
We think our situation is horrible, unmanageable, and our behaviour is or was so shameful that we punish ourselves. Being lonely is the by-product.
Feeling Disconnected from Family Due to Trauma
Family is a curious thing. Society tells us we should feel a sense of home in our family members. We are expected to feel connected to family. However, families are also rife with trauma. No family is perfect but pretending they should be perfect leads us to feel lonely, misunderstood, and detached around our parents and siblings.
We should develop strong boundaries and manage our personal expectations. Maybe our attachment style isn’t the best fit for our family members.
Therapy and identity rebuilding are essential to overcoming family trauma and the associated loneliness.
We can’t choose our family but we CAN choose our friends. If we feel lonely when we hang out with friends that could mean we’re not expressing our needs properly. Or, perhaps we could stand to choose better friends. Other times, we expect unreasonable things from our friends and feel invalidated when they don’t live up to our standards.
Depression / Other Mental Health Conditions
Depression is a genuine medical condition. It’s common for people to invalidate our feelings when we tell them we’re depressed. They’ll say “you just need to…” or something equally insensitive. We may even invalidate our own feelings.
It’s important for everyone to educate themselves on mental health conditions like depression, especially for anyone feeling chronically lonely. Talking to a doctor or therapist is critical.
On that note, several mental health conditions overlap with depression symptoms. Plus, we can experience multiple conditions at once. Again, that’s why it’s so important to bring up these concerns with a family doctor. We can never take our mental health too seriously.
How to Overcome Loneliness
While this is far from an exhaustive list, I hope to provide some food for thought. Feel free to take this loneliness quiz for something to reflect on.
First, we need to think about what benefits our loneliness brings to our life. Next, we should analyze the cost. The pros and cons.
Sometimes when we engage in unhealthy strategies to cope with problems, we forget why we started bad behaviours in the first place, such as compulsive drinking or seeking out a “high” from love. People do all kinds of things to avoid loneliness and self-reflection. We even push people away. Ironic, huh?
Many times, taking stock of our lives is enough to drive the motivation we need to change.
Finding Purpose in Life
Some people search their whole lives to find a “true calling” that never appears. We must ask ourselves, what does it mean to find purpose in life? Do we have to climb Mount Everest? Find a cure for cancer? Solve world hunger?
Life isn’t so all or nothing. Leading a purpose-driven life doesn’t necessarily mean collecting achievements. The book Man’s Search for Meaning got me thinking about the true meaning of life and its power. I loved it so much I gave it away to anyone who’d take it.
This book taught me how to find my “why.” Sometimes, searching for our “why” is half the fun! It helps us clarify our values and what we don’t want in life. We can discover what we value in life and if we’re living a value-driven lifestyle.
Even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company might not have time for family and might consider their life still lacks a purpose.
Another Harvard Business Review article called How Will You Measure Your Life? is a classic on this topic. We must remember that if we’re not happy and we feel alone, it may be because we don’t have a true purpose or drive. Guess what? It’s never too late to find it if we keep an open mind!
Developing Social Connections
Having 1,000 followers on Instagram doesn’t mean we can’t feel alone. In fact, research shows spending too much time on social media can lead to social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
As Dr. Jeste’s research says, loneliness is “the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have.”
Tribe by journalist Sebastian Junger speaks to the importance of connections in our lives to prevent feelings of social isolation. We need meaningful connections. I would encourage everyone to think about who they can count on in their life. Who can support us financially or emotionally? Who gives us the straight truth when we ask for it?
Many times, lonely people look at who isn’t in their lives. However, I wonder how often they make themselves available to people who need them in a meaningful way. Even superheroes don’t work solo. They always have a sidekick.
Enhance Our Emotional Supports
It’s common to look fondly on the way “things used to be” when we feel lonely. It’s also a universal rule that we always want what we can’t have. However, we can take a moment to evaluate our support circle and lean into it.
People often tell me making friends as an adult is a challenge. I think it only seems hard because we get blinded by comparing our future friendships to past ones. We must test things out before we write them off as miserable. We have to lean into uncomfortable situations sometimes.
The Gen Well Project, WeShare Housing Campaign, Eden Project, and The Loneliness Project all help people get out of their comfort zone and work on enhancing social support networks.
Unplug and Connect
I’m not saying we should avoid technology and social media completely. We can create meaningful connections with people all over the world online! We can also stay connected with old friends. In the past, this wasn’t possible.
However, we also tend to spend more time than we’d like to admit staring at our screens consuming content that, honestly, we often don’t care about. We must admit we’re using screen time to procrastinate and avoid loneliness. We must also acknowledge that every hour we spend scrolling through Instagram looking at lives we wish we had is an hour lost not making real-world connections with people.
Instead, reach out and volunteer. Get inspired to build community. Volunteering is more than just working in soup kitchens. Find something interesting and meaningful like wildlife preservation, education, children, peace-building, or senior care.
Even if we aren’t lonely, helping others or working on something bigger than ourselves can build character and gratitude. In Dr. T. Davis’s new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone: Conscious Tech Habits for Finding Happiness, Balance, and Connection IRL, she explains how to help us overcome negative repetitive behaviours that prevent us from leading a fulfilling life.
In her article, Feeling Lonely? Discover 18 Ways to Overcome Loneliness, she also provides some great tips to jumpstart progress right away.
Improve Social Skills
Let’s be honest. Even the best of us could stand to improve our social skills. Many people get lonely because they don’t have adequate social skills or they lack the right social skills for all situations. Other times, social anxiety prevents them from seeing their wonderful qualities!
Most of us can be pretty charming IF we allow people to get to know us. We don’t need to be an actor or a socialite. However, we can start with effective communication! We should learn the subtle art of communicating our thoughts and emotions by getting out of our own way.
The Fine Art of Small Talk and the classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, are two books that can help develop strategies. It’s normal for us to ruminate on past negative experiences where we felt invalidated. However, the past doesn’t predict the future. We must produce a new game plan and put forth a willingness to experience and build relationships.
Psychotherapy Can Help
Loneliness doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when we lose touch with our life’s purpose and meaningful relationships. Psychotherapy can help you strengthen social skills, overcome grief, and put yourself out there to the wider community.
Ready to start working towards that goal? Schedule an appointment today!