Are you lonesome tonight?
Why do we find it so hard to admit to being lonely? We shy away from admitting it, even to our friends, and there can be shame attached to it. We pretend it isn’t happening, cover it up, bury it, deny it, distract ourselves from it, disguise it - anything to avoid admitting to ourselves and others that we’re suffering from it; that we’re lonely. Confessing to being lonely can feel like admitting to the world that you’re a failure, a loser, you’re not enough, not normal, not like other people; that there’s something wrong with you. But why is this the case? Loneliness is very common and part of the human experience, but it’s reaching epidemic proportions, affecting our health and well-being and society too.
If you’ve ever felt lonely you’ll know how loneliness feels physical. The part of the brain that experiences loneliness is the same that experiences physical pain. So when people talk of the pain of loneliness, it’s very real and visceral.
It makes people feel sad, empty, alone, and unwanted. Lonely people often crave human contact, but the ironic thing is that chronic loneliness changes the landscape of the brain, affecting the way you think and your outlook on life, and this state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people and can lead to social isolation and depression. When you think of it, isolation is used as torture. Chronic loneliness can be the same.
According to many experts, loneliness is not necessarily about being alone, but about feeling alone and isolated, never mind where you are or who you are with.
There are so many reasons why you may be lonely or have been lonely in the past; bereavement, for example. The intense feelings of loneliness that come with bereavement can be shocking as you realise you are alone; no one else can do it for you - it’s something you have to go through.
Maybe you’re lonely because you’ve got too much going on in your life, and you’ve let staying in touch with people slide. Maybe you’ve moved to a new area, left your friends behind, and feel your friendships fading with the move.
"If someone moves away from a place where they lived for many years, it may be hard to rebuild new networks of friends," says Dr Irene S. Levine, PhD, psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. "Close friendships develop slowly, over time".
Promotions or frequent job changes can make it difficult to maintain friendships with people you meet in the very environment where you spend most of your adult life - at work. "It also can be lonelier at the top, as a manager, with fewer opportunities to socialise with peers," Dr Levine says, also noting how women who work in a male-dominated workplace can struggle to find female friends at the office.
Ending a relationship can be very lonely, even if it is the best thing for you and something you originated and wanted. You might not realise it because you know it’s the right thing for you, but even leaving an abusive or toxic relationship involves loss. There may be times when you feel intensely lonely for the loss of a partner, the loss of a dream, the loss of an illusion of everything being OK, the loss of the time invested in that relationship. This loss can make you lonely because you and you alone have to deal with the tsunami of emotions that can come with grieving, loss, or change of any kind. The same with a job change - every change involves losing something.
Sometimes it’s because you've come to realise that the friends and family you thought you were close to are no longer part of your tribe; maybe they never really were, and you don’t feel you belong or you have less and less in common as you’ve grown older or changed your lifestyle or outlook.
I’ve been lonely at various points in my life. I remember when I was travelling around the world on my own in my 30s. Most of the time I was fine and met and travelled with some lovely people, but I also remember times when I was intensely lonely, even though I was in crowds and with lovely people, but I still felt that gnawing, empty feeling of loneliness.
I’ve been lonely at times recently because I’m making big changes in my personal life and, although they are changes for the better and my choice, I’m still leaving something behind. I’m losing connections.
Loneliness is about the loss of connections - to others and ourselves. It may be that something has happened in your life that has made you rethink who you are, where you fit in, or what you stand for. Maybe you are going through a big change which might or might not be of your doing. It doesn’t matter. Simply acknowledge that one of the emotions that may come up for you could be loneliness.
Perhaps the loneliness is only transient, and you get over it and get on with your life.
But if you have been lonely for a while, or you feel lonely at least once a week, then please do something about it. We know how bad loneliness is for our health. Loneliness accompanied by depression has a health risk factor the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The science shows that there is a wide range of negative effects on both physical and mental health, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, decreased memory and learning, more likelihood of alcoholism and drug abuse, and progression of Alzheimer's disease.
We evolved in tribes; to be part of a pack. We’re not lone wolves, no matter how romantic or macho that sounds. Human beings need to connect with other human beings. It’s how we know we exist - we need to belong. To anything. It doesn’t matter. It can be a family or friends group, a social group, a church group, a sports group, a political party, a charity - anything - but we need to be part of something; something meaningful to us.
And it needs to be in real life, not through digital connections (although I’m not knocking social media). Scientists studied loneliness in the 18-30 age groups and found that there was no difference in the levels of loneliness of those using social media regularly and those not, as long as there was interaction in real life.
The level of connection is also important. When you look at how we connect, there are three levels; it’s like an inverted triangle. At the top, the widest part of the triangle, there’s the superficial connections; you know the conversation you have when you are getting your morning coffee, with work colleagues, people you chit chat to, interaction on social media but with no depth to it. This is where we have the greatest number of connections. Then there’s a medium level of connection, acquaintances, people you can meet up with, have fun with, but you are not revealing yourself fully to them. There are less of them than the superficial connections but more than the next level - the deeper connections. These are the people that know you - all your dirty, dark secrets, your failings, your mistakes - but they accept you. You trust them, as they trust you. These are the connections that are the most important. You may not have many of these, and that’s fine, but you need some. About three or four is good. It’s not the number of social interactions that's important, but the quality. That’s why loneliness is on the increase, despite the rise of social media. You may have a load of 'friends' on Facebook or other platforms, but how many of them would you trust when you need to confide in someone? Some people have very few deep connections for various reasons.
Sometimes it just takes time to make the deep connections, but it also takes work, energy, and courage. It's a brave thing to show your true self to someone, to say "look here I am. I’m not perfect, but this is me", and allow them to be the same.
Some people struggle with this, and I’ve worked with people in the past who have either lost the ability or never had it; to make these meaningful relationships. This can be because they haven’t been brought up in an environment that has taught them how to do this. Maybe their childhood was abusive so it was safer to retreat inside, or some past trauma has resulted in trust issues. It can be because of a lack of confidence or low self-esteem, and a feeling that you’ll never be good enough to be accepted by others - that you’re flawed.
Don’t let your past define your future. It doesn’t have to. Just because you haven’t been able to do this in the past doesn’t mean you can’t learn now; that you can’t change. You can, and people do all the time. I know this is true because I work with people who overcome appalling childhoods or events and move forward from them. It may take a little time and work, but it is work that’s worthwhile for your future happiness.
But it may not necessarily be because of past trauma. Some people are not very good at building relationships. Again, they may not have had great role models growing up, or are just not confident in relationships, but this is a skill you can learn. Just because you’ve been awkward with people in the past doesn’t mean you have to be that way now.
Social anxiety may be holding you back from making friends and forming relationships, and it’s more common than you think. Social anxiety is more than shyness. It can make your heart pound, your palms sweat, and even trigger panic attacks, knocking your confidence and making it feel unsafe to reach out to others and make a connection or form new friendships.
Good quality relationships and friends are what we want. They help us to be more resilient - happier. Friends don’t cure loneliness but they do help us to weather the storm. They teach us how to reach out and ask for help.
They can change our value system so we learn to inject more meaning into our lives. In spending time with friends, we fill up our lives with great conversation, heartfelt caring and support, and laugh-out-loud fun. When we fall on hard times, friends are there to put things in perspective and help us. When we have success, they’re happy for us. With down-to-earth, positive people in our lives, we’ll be more mindful of gratitude and doing nice things for others. We don’t just live when we have healthy friendships - we thrive.
The healthiest people manage to hold onto the friendships that nourish them whilst forming new connections at the same time, but losing and gaining friends is a normal part of life.
Perhaps you’ve had a bit of an epiphany lately and you realise that your friends are not your friends. Maybe they never were - maybe they were at one point, but they’re not now. You might have outgrown them, or your circumstances or values might have changed.
If you feel that your friends don’t quite fit your personality and lifestyle any more, reach out and form some new relationships. It takes courage to make new friends, but it can be done!
Think of a hobby or interest you would like to pursue, and join a class or group. Join a choir or a dance class - why not?
If you miss some of your old friends, why not take a few minutes today to drop them a message? Simply sending a short email or a text message can be enough to rekindle a friendship. Just remember that they might feel as though they have outgrown the friendship too. If so, don’t take it personally. Focus on moving forward and making new connections instead.
Take the time to nurture your relationships. They’re precious, like plants; they need attention, and they need to be fed and watered to stay healthy and grow.
It's important to invest yourself in your friends, regardless of how many you have. In a 2002 analysis, researchers found that the common bond between 'very happy people' was their close friendships and relationships, and the fact that they devoted time to meaningful one-on-one interactions.
So, if you are feeling lonely, don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. You’re not alone, you’re one of the millions of people around the world. Don’t let it define and dictate your life; don’t allow it to keep you small, stop you from going out there, being yourself and building honest, authentic, meaningful relationships.
If you suffer from social anxiety, past trauma, depression, or a lack of confidence, then you may need some help to shift your mindset to a more positive, open one. One where you can grow, thrive and create or strengthen existing relationships to move on and live the fulfilled life you were meant to live.