Have you ever felt lonely and wondered why? We don’t have to be alone or isolated to feel alone. Loneliness can happen when we are with family, when we get along well with other members of our community, and even when we have many friends on social media. So what, exactly, is loneliness? We feel lonely when we perceive that our social needs are not being met. Loneliness is an internal, subjective matter, explains Judith Shulevitz, science editor of The New Republic, in her 2013 essay on loneliness. It’s not about what’s happening to us on the outside, but rather what’s happening on the inside—how we think and feel about a situation.
Loneliness is an experience, a feeling of social disconnection. It can be induced by loss or a major life transition. Changing schools, a miscarriage, or a breakup can result in feeling lonely. All of these experiences share in common a broken connection. But more importantly, they share the perception one lacks an emotional bond, a bond we’re meant to have with others. How we perceive it may depend on our past.
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth describe this bond in infants and their parents (or primary caregivers) in their well-known attachment theory (Mercer, 2006). Their research suggests that, like infants, adults rely on an attachment figures to feel safe and supported. In fact, we unknowingly learn about relationships from attachment experiences in our early years. The attachment behaviors that develop when we are young tend to predict the way we behave when we are older. Thus, it can be insightful to think about our relationships with our parents as we grew up.
Another perspective on loneliness is that of evolutionary science. In this view, human survival depended on our ability to collaborate and share resources, explains Lynch (2017). We’re meant to connect and share our lives because our survival depended on it. We’ve become hard-wired to be social.
We know the distress loneliness causes human beings in extreme cases of social disconnection. Think, for instance, of the consequences of solitary confinement, which may include emotional distress, perceptual distortions, and self-harm. Think of the movie Cast Away, where Tom Hanks, depicting a man stranded on an island, created an imaginary friend out of a volleyball. It’s far from inconceivable. Our need to connect is strong.
Our understanding of and positive response to emotions is important in protecting us from the undesirable feeling of loneliness.
There is still much to learn about loneliness. Scholars continue to explore this topic, and contributing factors are still under study. However, research to date suggests emotional intelligence (EI), defined as the ability to identify and manage emotions, can be a strong predictor of loneliness (Zysberg, 2011). In other words, our understanding of and positive response to emotions is important in protecting us from the undesirable feeling of loneliness.
How can we use EI to overcome feelings of loneliness?
- Identify the cause: Is it limited social skills or a traumatic experience? Is it something else? Once we know the cause, we can begin to repair or find ways to heal.
- Check your thinking: Because loneliness is an internal experience of how we think and feel about a situation, it is important to check our thinking. We want to make sure we are reasonable about the situation, not overreacting or misjudging it.
- Be open to new experiences: This can be important to work on, especially if we tend to experience loneliness often. Trying something new can bring new chances for connection that we may not have considered.
- Enhance social connectedness: Here are a few ideas: reach out to old friends, coworkers, or neighbors to learn what is new in their lives; begin a tradition or ritual to connect with someone we miss (e.g., write letters to each other); or become part of a group that shares our values.
- Connect with yourself: It is okay to spend some time alone and learn to feel comfortable with our own company. We do not need to be with others all the time to enjoy life. It can be insightful to notice feelings that arise when we are alone, what happens when we change our environment, or how it feels different to engage in an activity without anyone we know around. This alone time can give us appreciation for small things we may have taken for granted and shift the way we think about feeling lonely.
Commitment to actions that may alleviate loneliness is an important ingredient for success. It can be helpful to schedule time each day to work on these changes. Cognitive behavioral therapy remains a popular treatment for loneliness (Russo, 2018). If you can’t shake feelings of loneliness, consult with a mental health professional.
- Lynch, T. (2017). Lonely apes die—A new psychotherapy for chronic depression and anorexia nervosa. Retrieved from https://www.newharbinger.com/blog/lonely-apes-die—-new-psychotherapy-chronic-depression-and-anorexia-nervosa
- Mercer, D. (2006). Understanding attachment: Parenting, child care, and emotional development. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Russo, F. (2018). The toxic well of loneliness. Scientific American, 318(1), 64-69.
- Shulevitz, J. (2013). The lethality of loneliness. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/113176/science-loneliness-how-isolation-can-kill-you
- Zysberg, L. (2011). Loneliness and emotional intelligence. The Journal of Psychology, 146, 37-46. doi: 1080/00223980.2011.574746
© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Dr. Monica Lake, PsyD, NCSP, therapist in Tampa, Florida
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.