Loneliness is one of the most powerful experiences in human psychology. It’s also one of the most misunderstood.
While everybody basically knows what it means to be lonely, it’s surprisingly hard to define it precisely. This is partly because our experience of loneliness tends to be so varied and individual-specific.
What’s more, loneliness and the fear of loneliness are often powerful influences in our lives, frequently leading to poor decisions and self-sabotage.
COMMON TYPES OF LONELINESS
While there’s no single set of characteristics that define someone who’s lonely, it’s my experience that most lonely people fall into one or more of the following types of loneliness.
Note: There’s nothing official about these types. I describe them here because I find them useful as a way to think about loneliness, how people experience it, and how best to help people who are lonely.
LACK OF PHYSICAL CONNECTION
Some people feel lonely primarily because they are physically isolated from others.
At the time that I write this, much of the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and all its effects, one of which is isolation and lack of physical connection. Many people are still able to connect with others via technology like phone, text, FaceTime, Zoom, etc. And yet, for many people, there’s something lacking.
We humans often crave literal, physical closeness in a special way. And when that closeness is deprived for extended periods of time, we can end up feeling quite lonely despite still being connected in many other ways.
LACK OF COMMON INTERESTS
A surprisingly common type of loneliness stems from not having shared interests with people you interact with regularly.
For example: If you’re a sports fanatic surrounded by people who couldn’t tell a fastball from a slam dunk, that will eventually lead to feelings of loneliness and disconnect. This is especially important when it comes to the handful of people in your life who are the most important: spouses, children, parents, friends.
One of the biggest situations, where this loneliness stemming from a lack of shared interest shows up, is marriages and other long-term romantic relationships.
Basically, people get into a relationship because they’re “in love,” only to realize that they don’t actually have many common interests once the honeymoon phase ends. And without a lot of proactive and intentional work to build shared interests, this division can lead to resentments and loneliness.
LACK OF SHARED VALUES
Even if you’re in close physical proximity to people—and even if those people share similar interests - if you don’t have at least a couple people in your life who share similar values you can end up feeling quite lonely.
Values are the things that matter most to us. But if you’re surrounded by people who have very different ideas of what matters most in life, it can get kind of lonely. On the other hand, even if you don’t have many shared interests, very strong alignment between core values can bring people together in remarkable ways.
Unfortunately, values are not something many of us spend a lot of time deliberately considering and clarifying. And if you aren’t clear yourself what your own values are, it’s difficult to find other people who share them.
LACK OF EMOTIONAL INTIMACY
Whenever I talk to people who are very lonely, a common denominator is that they don’t feel connected to other people on a genuine emotional level:
- They have a hard time opening up and expressing their feelings.
- They have the sense that other people don’t really “get” them in a deep way and frequently feel misunderstood or not appreciated.
- They open up a little bit, but easily feel frightened or threatened by vulnerability and end up sabotaging promising relationships for fear of future vulnerability.
Sadly, this lack of emotional intimacy is incredibly painful because there’s such a strong tension between desperately wanting to feel close but being terrified to act in a way that would allow for closeness.
So not only do these people feel chronically lonely but they also frequently experience a lot of anxiety and shame about knowing what they “should” do to be closer but not actually doing it.
LACK OF SELF-INTIMACY
Self-intimacy is the term I use to describe the quality of your relationship with yourself. And for many people who struggle with chronic loneliness, the core issue is that they don’t have a very good relationship with themselves.
Here are a few examples of what a lack of self-intimacy might look like:
- You keep yourself constantly busy so that you never have to be alone with your own thoughts.
- You habitually try to “fix” difficult emotions like fear, sadness, or anger rather than trying to understand them.
- You intellectualize your moods and feelings — talking about them only in the vaguest and most general or metaphorical terms.
In short, poor self-intimacy means that you don’t make time to be with and understand your own mind—your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, moods, expectations, desires, etc.
This avoidance of your own mind can be a relief in the moment since it gets you out of having to experience something difficult or painful. But in the long run, it disconnects you from yourself - leading you to feel like “a stranger in your own skin,” and therefore, very lonely.
HOW TO BE LESS LONELY: 4 PRACTICAL STRATEGIES
What follows are a few strategies I’ve found for dealing with loneliness in an effective way.
By targeting the underlying causes of loneliness rather than the symptoms, they tend to be quite effective in the long run if implemented consistently.
1. USE BEHAVIOURAL ACTIVATION TO GET MOVING
Behavioural activation is a technique to help you do things you know you should do despite not feeling interested or motivated to do them.
In some ways, the core problem with chronic loneliness is that you want more connection but you seem to lack the motivation to go get that connection:
- You know you should pick up the phone and call some old friends, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it…
- You know you should start going back to your weekly church service, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it…
- You know you should give dating another shot, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it…
Behavioural activation is a structured approach to helping you get started doing those things you know would be good for you and reducing your loneliness. And while it’s historically been used as a very effective approach to helping people who struggle with depression specifically, I’ve found that it can be equally effective as a way to deal with chronic loneliness.
HERE’S HOW IT WORKS:
- Brainstorm a list of things you’ve enjoyed doing in the past. Don’t worry if they don’t seem enjoyable or interesting right now. When you’re in the grips of chronic loneliness, often nothing seems particularly enjoyable, which means your past experiences are probably a better guide here. This list can include really big things (travel to foreign countries) or very small things (that particular brand of vanilla tea I used to drink in college).
- Rank the items on your list according to doableness. Once you’ve got a pretty good-sized list, the next task is to sort or rank the items according to how doable they seem to you in the moment. Even if travelling sounds wonderful, if it’s not very doable right now, it should go toward the bottom of the list.
- Assign each of the most doable items an enjoyment score. Quickly, scan through your top 5-10 items that are most doable and, on a scale of 1-10, assign each item a value in terms of how enjoyable you imagine it would be if you did it.
- Take your top, most doable, item and break it down into its smallest steps. For example, if your item is “go for a walk,” your steps might include 1) gather walking clothes since it’s cold outside; 2) cue up a good podcast or music to listen to while I walk; 3) decide where I’m going to walk; 4) decide when and for how long I’m going to walk; 5) set a reminder in my phone for my walk time. Now, if this sounds painfully detailed, good! Lack of clarity is usually the main obstacle to getting things done, so the more clear you can be about even simple things you have a hard time doing, the more likely you will be to actually do them. Plus, the mere act of clarifying these steps is itself rewarding and motivating in a small way.
- Track your progress. Keep a little notepad on your counter, for example, and write down each day of the week. Then, each time you successfully go for a walk, cross off the day with a big, colourful marker. This has three big benefits: 1) The notepad itself serves as a reminder and small accountability mechanism; 2) Crossing off the days is itself rewarding and therefore reinforcing; 3) Being reminded of your past successes walking will be rewarding and reinforcing of future walks.
- Track your enjoyment. After completing an item, note how enjoyable it was and compare it with your initial assessment. On average, these activities will tend to be more enjoyable than your initial assessment. When you “prove” this to yourself repeatedly, it starts to change how you look at these activities and increase your future motivation for them.
- Rinse and repeat. Once you’ve successfully done the first item on your list at least once, begin working your way down the list using steps 4-6.
THE “SECRET SAUCE” OF BEHAVIOURAL ACTIVATION IS TWO-FOLD:
- The Power of Specificity. By forcing you to clarify and get specific about the actions you would like to take, it dramatically increases your odds of actually following through on them. Generality leads to stuckness; clarity leads to motivation.
- Harnessing Reward and Reinforcement. Just like isolation and inactivity tend to make it harder and harder to get energy and motivation, taking action and getting even small amounts of enjoyment back into your life creates motivation. And once you have a little more motivation, it makes it a little easier to do a little more. From vicious cycles to virtuous circles.
If you’ve been feeling lonely and have a pretty good idea of what you need to do — but just can’t seem to find the motivation — behavioural activation is worth a shot.
2. CLARIFY YOUR VALUES
As we discussed earlier in this guide, one of the core drivers of chronic loneliness is a lack of shared values. When we’re either isolated or surrounded by people with different values, it can feel disconnecting and alienating.
Our values are a hugely important part of our identity and sense of self, which means it’s important to have people in our lives whom we can relate to on a values level—people who inspire us and whom we inspire.
The problem is a lot of the time we’re not actually very clear about what our core personal values are. And when you’re not really clear about your values, it’s hard to find other people who share them.
All of which means, if you want to surround yourself with and feel more connected to people who share your values, it’s critical to really get to know your values and clarify them more specifically.
Here’s one technique I like that can help you to clarify your core personal values: Relive the three happiest days of your life.
Often, the happiest days we experience are happy precisely because we’re really connecting with and living out our values:
- Maybe it was the day you ran and finished your first marathon.
- Maybe it was the day you had your first date with your first girlfriend/boyfriend.
Whatever the case may be, if you were genuinely happy that means you were connecting with some of your most important values. And those extremely happy days can be a good place to look for clues to help rediscover those values.
HERE’S HOW TO GET STARTED:
- Schedule yourself an hour or so of quiet time and make a list of your three happiest days.
- For each day, try to really remember as many details of the day as possible. If it helps, revisit old photos of that day or call/text an old friend/family member who was present and pick their brains about it too. You could also just start writing about it — literally tell the story of each day as if you were writing a short story.
- Next, look for patterns among the three days. What are the elements that are consistent between them all? For example, maybe in all three of your happiest days, you were doing something intellectually stimulating and exciting. Or maybe all three of your happiest days involved your sister. Or perhaps in all three of those days you were outdoors.
- Make a list of these common elements or patterns, and for each, try to articulate a particular personal value they represent. For example, spending time with my sister. Spending time outdoors. Intellectual stimulation. Etc.
- Pick the one personal value that seems most exciting or appealing and try to identify activities or situations in the present that could help you connect with and elaborate on that value. For example, if spending time outdoors is the value you choose, you might write down Go hiking in the national forest.
- Once you’ve identified several activities that align with your newly clarified value, try to generate a shortlist of people you know who would also enjoy that activity.
- Experiment with doing activities that align with your values, and if possible, inviting people who share that value to do it with you.
3. PRACTICE INTENTIONAL VULNERABILITY
Emotional vulnerability is the willingness to acknowledge your emotions, especially the difficult or painful ones. And while it’s typically thought of in terms of expressing your emotions to other people, it’s just as much about being willing to look at your own difficult emotions.
This ability and willingness to acknowledge painful emotions is important when it comes to working through loneliness because, for many people, the key driver of their loneliness is a lack of genuine emotional connection — either with themselves or others. And by far the biggest reason this happens is that people are afraid to be vulnerable with their emotions.
Consequently, if you want to build more meaningful relationships with yourself or others, emotional vulnerability is key.
The trouble is, it’s hard. Being more emotionally vulnerable with yourself or others isn’t something you can just decide to do. Instead, it’s a skill that has to be built up slowly and progressively over time (much like any other skill).
The best method I know for doing this — for training yourself to be more capable and confident acknowledging your emotions and expressing them — is what I call intentional vulnerability.
Now, intentional vulnerability isn’t as complicated as it perhaps sounds… All it means is that you deliberately make time to be emotionally vulnerable — initially in small ways and then in progressively bigger ways as your skill and confidence with it increases.
IF YOU WANT TO PRACTICE INTENTIONAL VULNERABILITY, HERE ARE A FEW GOOD PLACES TO START:
- Label your emotions with plain emotional language. One of the reasons many people feel so emotionally disconnected from themselves and others is that the language they use to describe how they feel is overly intellectual and vague. When you describe how you’re feeling emotionally as stressed, or bugged, or just tired, you’re avoiding the actual emotion (afraid, for example). And when you get in the habit of avoiding your emotions, you train your mind to see them as threats, which makes you even more likely to avoid them (instead of acknowledging them) in the future. So, a great way to practice intentional vulnerability is to get in the habit of using simple, plain language to describe how you feel instead of intellectualizing your emotions.
- Practice emotion-focused journaling. A big part of what makes being emotionally vulnerable hard is that we have many thoughts and feelings in our heads, but we don’t express them and articulate them very often. This means we don’t feel very confident in our ability to acknowledge or express our feelings in a coherent way. You can practice expressing your emotions clearly by forcing yourself to write them down. Try spending 5 or 10 minutes per day free-writing about how you’ve been feeling.
- Learn to be more assertive. Assertiveness means communicating your wants and needs honestly and respectfully. If you do this regularly — when you are direct about asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want — you become more confident in your ability to express difficult moods and emotions. For example, practice expressing what you actually want to watch on TV instead of simply deferring to what your partner suggests. Practice requesting a better table at a restaurant instead of sitting wherever the hostess leads you.
4. ADDRESS PREEXISTING MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Sometimes chronic loneliness is a very direct result of a preexisting mental health issue.
For example, in my work as a therapist, there have been many times when a client came to me with a primary complaint of loneliness. But when I discovered that they also had an existing mental health issue that seemed related, addressing that issue often took care of the loneliness on its own.
For example, if you’re chronically lonely but also struggle with social anxiety, often simply addressing the social anxiety on its own is enough to alleviate most of the loneliness.
In other words, just because you’ve been chronically lonely for a long time, that doesn’t mean that loneliness is actually your “biggest issue.” For many people, it will resolve itself once another mental health issue driving it is resolved.
While anxiety is often a hidden driver of chronic loneliness, I’ve seen the same thing be true of insomnia, trauma, bipolar disorder, depression, and eating disorders.
If you have a preexisting mental health issue that could be contributing to your chronic loneliness, it’s a good idea to talk to a qualified mental health professional and see about addressing the mental health issue first.
Source: Excerpts from Nick Wignall, Clinical Psychologist
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