What is loneliness and why am I feeling lonely?

It’s not uncommon to feel lonely, and it’s even ok to feel lonely too, but I appreciate that it’s not a state one wants to be in for longer periods of time. Indeed studies show prolonged loneliness can have a negative impact on our overall wellbeing and health. There will be a number of reasons why you feel lonely, luckily there are things you can do to feel better. In this article I will explain how and what you can do to move away from loneliness.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is a universal human experience, usually marked by a sense of sadness, disconnect, isolation and emotional pain regardless of whether the person is actually isolated and without social contact.

In order to decide why you are feeling lonely, it might be helpful to figure out whether it’s social, emotional or existential loneliness. This can give some clues to how to deal with loneliness. Social loneliness is a subjective appraisal of feeling isolated. Here there is no sense of belonging and no access to a meaningful social network or companionship. This typically arises when you don’t have a social network or have limited to no access to other people.

Emotional loneliness is characterised by lack of recognition by others, with an intense feeling of abandonment and emptiness. This typically occurs when you are with people, but they don’t seem to acknowledge you or your needs.

Existential loneliness on the other hand, is defined as experiencing a sense of separateness from others and the wider world, with an acute awareness of mortality. This often arises when major life events happen such as the death of a loved one or loss of a significant relationship or job. The most common are social and emotional loneliness. Do any of these distinctions resonate with you?

Loneliness vs being alone

I think it’s important to note the distinction between feeling lonely and being alone. Being alone simply means that one is in a situation without other people around. For example, you might be the only person in a garden. On the other hand, being lonely is a subjective experience of being isolated in some way. For example, you might be at a party and feel disconnected to those around you. In summary, one can be alone and not feel lonely, or one can be surrounded by people, even loved ones, yet feel lonely.

Loneliness test

Some researchers have come up with a number of questions to figure out whether you are experiencing social or emotional loneliness, you may even experience both. I have adapted and rearranged them slightly to make it easier to figure out, and this is by no means a fixed assessment, but rather a rough estimation. These questions are adapted from the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale.

social loneliness
emotional loneliness

It’s important to note that these are estimations, and that your experience is individual and will be different from other people who feel lonely. While there is a correlation between feeling lonely and poor mental health, it does not mean you are suffering with a mental health problem. Feeling lonely, as I mentioned earlier, is a universal human experience, and it is thought to motivate us to seek out social contact and connection. Hence why it’s not necessarily a bad thing to feel lonely.

That said, prolonged loneliness can lead to mental health problems such as depression, low self esteem and social anxiety. So learning more about it and figuring out what to do, means you are reacting normally. Your body is functioning in the way it was designed. To seek out what to do to reduce this uncomfortable feeling of loneliness.

How do I overcome loneliness?

There are a number of things you can do to address loneliness. This can include learning how to love your own company, regaining connections to others and rewiring some of your thoughts. I’ll give you some ideas below.

Remember I said that loneliness is not the same as being alone? One way to address loneliness is to figure out how to be ‘ok’ with being on your own. Plan a list of activities that you enjoy doing ‘solo’. How often do you do these things? Perhaps things like going for a walk, bird watching, cooking a nice meal, tidying up or ironing (some people actually like this!), or it could be reading a book or enjoying a magazine in a coffee shop. If you can’t think of any, then even more reason to figure some activities out. What things might you find enjoyable that you haven’t tried?

Next up, write a list of advantages of being alone. What benefits are there from being alone? Why would some people choose solitude over social activities? Think about these reasons for a moment. Allow yourself to notice these experiences within your body.

If you are suffering with social loneliness, the most obvious solution is to seek out human contact. Think about where you might be able to build a social network and where there might be opportunities to connect with other humans. Often people gather over hobbies and interests. This can be a good place to start. What are you interested in? What communities exist that involve these interests.

If you are suffering with emotional loneliness consider ways to reconnect with those around you. Are you withholding how you are truly feeling? Do people know this about you? What would they say if they realised you weren’t feeling connected with them?

You may find yourself saying ‘yes but’ to some of the above suggestions. Yes, but I don’t have the time or means to go out and see people. Yes, but no-one wants to be friends with me, no-one likes me so there’s no point in telling them. And this can be hugely challenging. I’d invite you to consider that you might be making use of cognitive distortions. We all have these. Ways of seeing the world that is not necessarily true. For example you might compare yourself with someone who seems popular and conclude you are not interesting or attractive. Or you might think in absolute terms like no-one likes me, I’ll never make friends or everything is hopeless. This is called all-or-nothing thinking. Notice when your thinking might not reflect the facts. If you were to say ‘there is noone to talk to’, you might on reflection be able to think of at least one person you can talk to.

Talking therapy can be a great place to start if you are feeling too stuck to get out of your state of loneliness. Whether you see a psychologist or psychotherapist, just talking to someone about how you feel is a step you can take.

In conclusion

There is not one way to address loneliness, as each person has their own journey, but know you are not alone. This article is by no means a fix-it all but a guidance, and I hope you have gained some ideas as to what you can do.

References and resources:

Mandfield,L. et al (2021) A conceptual review of loneliness in Adults: Qualitative Evidence Synthesis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(21)

De Jong Gierveld,J., & Van Tilburg, T. (2010) The De Jong Gierveld short scales for emotional and social loneliness: tested on data from 7 countries in the UN generations and gender surveys. European Journal of Aging, 7(2)

Alonement: How to be alone and absolutely own it by Francesca Specter (2021)

Overcoming loneliness and making friends by Marianna Csoti (2006)

See also the MIND website on loneliness