Rethinking Loneliness

Posted by Karen in friendship | Personal Development | Reflections | Self-compassion | Wellbeing

Last autumn, the BBC Loneliness Experiment* (a global survey of 55, 000 aged 19 – 99) found that one third of participants often feel lonely, and perhaps surprisingly, it was the 16-24-year old category, along with single parents and women carers who said that they often feel very lonely, findings contrary to what we often hold true, that loneliness is a problem of the elderly and isolated.

Loneliness has been a topic I’ve been interested in because of my own experience as a child. Growing up with a single mother working full-time and a sister I was not getting on with, meant I often felt lonely. And even now, at 51, I have moments when I feel lonely despite the fact that I have close friends in my life. My own busyness sometimes gets in the way, when I prioritise work over spending time with the people that matter to me.

January, as the darkest month of the year, can make many of us feel blue and lonely. At the end of this blog, I share some tips for how to feel less lonely, but first I wanted to explore what loneliness a little more.

Connection is a universal human need

Connection is a universal human need. And where we all experience loneliness in life (it’s normal and part of our common human experience, a biological warning system, just like hunger, thirst and pain), it’s important that we listen to that painful, empty feeling of disconnection that we call loneliness and change our behaviour (seek out safety in numbers).

Loneliness vs being alone

Despite being how it is often defined, loneliness may have very little to do with being on one’s own (alone), or having few friends.

Loneliness is not social isolation, it is feeling socially isolated (alone in the crowd), which comes from lacking close connection to another person and/or to ourselves. When we then, on top of this, self-stigmatise and feel embarrassed about feeling lonely, it makes matters worse.

Aloneness or solitude can be a hugely inspiring and creative experience

Last spring, I went on a two-week solitary retreat in a small hut in the Scottish Highlands. During this time, I didn’t feel loneliness, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction and contentment in my own good company and from recognising my part in the wider web of life – family, friends and community. (See my blog ‘Why Less is More’ here .)

Enjoying time alone is a vital life skill

We are ultimately on our own, responsible for our life (no one can do it for us – even though many of us – me included – harbour a secret wish that someone will take us by the hand and guide us through life), therefore, being able to spend time alone is a vital life-skill.

How to feel less lonely – some tips:

Not all tips will work for everyone, they will very much depend on your personality type, for example, I have a preference for introversion which means I take my energy from having fewer but very close friends as well as spending a good chunk of time on my own reflecting. Others, with a preference for extroversion take their energy from having a broad range of friends and from talking things through with others.

1. Dedicate time to work, study, hobbies or social activities

Loneliness is often temporary, something we experience when we go through a transition in life such as a relationship breakup, the death of a loved one, starting a new job or college or moving to a new place.

Even if we often don’t feel like it, when we feel lonely and cut off, it can be hugely helpful to reconnect with oneself and life. This can enrich life in a meaningful way, helping us to see that there is so much more to life than our momentary feeling of loneliness.

Try engaging in a pastime such as painting, playing or listening to music, making things, learning something new, spending time in nature (discover a new walk/area or watch birds). A great website to find social activities is:

2. Change your thinking to foster positive emotion

It’s worth remembering that loneliness is often temporary (although chronic loneliness can lead to serious health issues and needs addressing) and that we won’t feel like this forever. It’s also important to become aware of our habitual ways of thinking about feeling lonely, of any self-stigmatising, negative thoughts and to turn our thinking around. Here is how you can work with your thoughts:

“I shouldn’t feel lonely” turns into: “Who says? Feeling lonely at times is normal and human.”

“It’s embarrassing to feel lonely, other people will think badly of me if I share my feelings” turns into: “How do I know what other people think? I don’t. Other people feel lonely too and can understand my feelings.”

“Something must be wrong with me” turns into: “There is nothing is wrong with me. I’m only human after all and have a broad range of emotions, one of them is feeling lonely at times. It will pass.”

“I’m the only one who feels lonely” turns into: “How do I know? Everyone experiences loneliness at some point in their life – loneliness is a part of our common humanity.”

3. Talk to friends or family about your feelings

Many of us still feel that there’s a stigma surrounding loneliness and worry about other people’s reactions but it is worth remembering that often it’s our own judgement that we project onto others. In my experience, whenever I share my feelings with a friend, let them know that I feel lonely, they meet me with understanding and would often share their own feelings of loneliness. As soon as this happens, my feelings of loneliness dissipate.

4. Look for the good in every person you meet

When we have a tendency to feel lonely regularly, it can create mistrust in others because it creates a sense of separation, ‘them and me’.

When this happens, see whether you can detect some good qualities in a person, something you appreciate about them – whether you know them well or not. There is always something to appreciate about everyone. We just need to really look and see.

5. Invite people to do things without fearing rejection

Do you tend to wait for people to ask or invite you to do something versus asking them first for fear of feeling ‘abandoned or rejected’. For me, it’s one of the hardest things to do, my ‘feeling abandoned/rejected button’ is easily pressed. However, whenever I take the initiative, I almost always get a positive response contrary to my fearful thoughts that say: “they won’t want to spend time with me” or “they’ll have other friends they prefer” or “they don’t like me anyway”. These are harsh and unhelpful thoughts that can get in the way of staying connected to others.

And if people say ‘no’, which of course they do at times, we need to be careful not to take it personally. If they say they are busy that day, they probably are or have another good reason that has to do with what’s going on in their life.

Wishing you well in the year ahead.



*1 The BBC Loneliness Experiment was conducted in collaboration with Wellcome Collection and devised by psychologists from the University of Manchester, the University of Exeter and Brunel University London, 2018

*2 Mental Health Foundation, The Lonely Society report, 2010

Related blog posts:

January Blues – It’s easy to let January Blues get to you

Friendship – Good friends are one of the greatest sources of happiness and freedom

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