Dealing with loneliness

Different people will experience loneliness in different ways and it comes with a wide range of emotions: feeling sad, detached, isolated, alienated, misunderstood, rejected, hurt, disconnected, worried, insecure, vulnerable, anxious, ashamed, ostracized, helpless, hopeless, trapped, desperate…

If you feel left out, not accepted, not loved, how do you deal with that? Where do you start? There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are things you can do.

How to deal with feelings of loneliness?

If you feel lonely for a long time, you may tend to simply surrender, to give up the hope of ever being able to satisfy your need for meaningful connections. You simply accept that you feel lonely and that things will remain that way for the rest of your life. But sustained loneliness can have a major impact on your mental and physical health.

You can also see the feeling of loneliness as a warning. As a signal that something is wrong and you need to do something about it. “Loneliness creates a space in which we can reflect on our relationship to others, and feel how much we actually need them,” Philosopher Lars Svendsen says. And social neuroscientist John Cacioppo sees loneliness as “a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out towards others.”

Now that sounds nice, but it’s not that simple. The problem is that loneliness makes us, in the words of psychologist Guy Winch, “extremely hesitant to create new opportunities for social engagement or to take advantage of existing ones.”

Going out and meeting people is part of the solution, but not the whole solution. After all, you do not so much lack the possibility of social interaction as you lack meaningful connections. And lasting, meaningful connections don’t just happen. Overcoming loneliness, says loneliness expert Olivia Laing, is “something which cannot be achieved by sheer willpower or by simply getting out more, but only by developing intimate connections.”

Now, because feelings of loneliness are the result of your personal situation and needs, there is no simple one-size-fits-all step-by-step plan to get rid of your loneliness. You can, however, try a number of things to establish social contacts – and thus at least increase the chance of lasting, meaningful connections.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take time and a lot of effort. Your past experiences and your expectations may make you feel hesitant. There may be disappointments. You may not succeed. Keeping things the way they are is a lot safer, but the price you will pay is that you will remain feeling lonely.

Reaching out means you will feel vulnerable. But it’s the only way. It starts with simply making a decision. Decide that you are not going to surrender to your loneliness, you are going to do something about it. You are going to reach out and meet people. Making that decision and committing to it is the first step towards change.

One thing you know for sure: If you stay alone at home and do nothing, nothing will change. Like Cacioppo notes, tackling your loneliness “is both as simple and as difficult as being open and available to others.”

What to do when you feel lonely?

Feeling lonely can feel like you are the only one feeling like that. You’re not. 40 percent of all people experience (temporary) feelings of loneliness at some point in their lives. About 20 percent of people often feel lonely. And 1 in 10 people feel seriously lonely permanently. Let that sink in for a moment. Of every ten people you know, on average one feels seriously lonely all the time…

How do you deal with loneliness? Where do you start? Before moving to the things you can do to establish new social contacts and work on meaningful connections, there are four important steps to get there (plus one extra if you need it):

#1 Admit that you feel lonely. Dealing with loneliness starts with acknowledging that you feel lonely. For some people this is kind of a step and sometimes it takes a while before you fully realize what’s the matter. It may trigger emotions. That’s OK. But please don’t feel ashamed to admit that you feel lonely. There is nothing shameful about it. Feeling lonely just means you are human. It means there is a mismatch between your personal need for connection and the degree to which that need is fulfilled. Admitting you feel lonely is the first step towards a solution.

#2 Change how you think about feeling lonely. Maybe you’re the kind of person who thinks: “It’s stupid, I shouldn’t feel lonely.” Don’t blame yourself. It’s OK to feel lonely sometimes. Well, not really OK, of course, it sucks and you want to get rid of it. Just realize there is nothing wrong with you. Many people struggle with loneliness at some point in their lives. It’s nobody’s fault. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or that you are weak.

#3 Challenge your thoughts. When you are alone with your thoughts, you may feel rejected and think nobody cares. But maybe this isn’t true. Maybe somebody did actually think about you but maybe they were too busy to contact you. Maybe if you would call them, it would turn out they do care. Be critical about the thoughts you are having: are they really true? Do they make you feel better or worse?

#4 Reflect on what kind of connection you seek. Interacting with people is not the same as connecting with people. You can socialize all you want, but reaching out or trying to connect will probably not lead to the desired result if you don’t know what kind of connections you long for. So before you start, ask yourself what kind of connection you seek. Do you want to talk to people about mutual interests or hobbies? Do you want to talk on a more personal level? Do you want to just hang out and have a drink? Before reaching out, know what you are looking for.

#5 Talk to a mental health professional. If you feel like you can’t cope and you need help, please reach out to a mental health professional. A mental health professional cannot solve your loneliness – only you can do that – but they may be able to help. They also might discover other issues that play a role in how you feel and function as an unvisible barrier to connect with people, like depression, anxiety or stress. There’s nothing shameful or weak about reaching out to a mental health professional. They might be able to help you.

How to break the vicious circle of loneliness

Loneliness can trigger a cycle of psychological reactions that perpetuate the situation and can actually make things worse. Self-protection and social avoidance can make your fear for loneliness become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, you miss opportunities to make social connections.

Getting out of that vicious circle is not easy. If you struggle with loneliness, there are three important lessons you need to keep in mind:

#1 Don’t set your standards (too) high. You probably have high expectations of interpersonal relationships. As a result, there is a risk that you will not see meaningful connections – or opportunities for them – or that you will reject them because they do not meet your expectations. So don’t set the standard that the connections you desire must meet (too) high. You don’t have to be 100% the same to have a connection. And don’t expect too much too soon – give a new connection time to grow.

#2 Be responsive. You may be holding back because you have negative expectations about social interactions. You look too much for signals that indicate that a contact is not meeting the requirements. Subconsciously you are prepared for the disappointment and rejection you are expecting. Instead, try to be responsive when an opportunity comes up and remind yourself that it might actually have a positive outcome. Have a little bit more faith.

#3 Don’t assume the worst. If you have been feeling lonely for a long time, you may have developed a negative self-image and you are probably judging both yourself and other people negatively. You may feel less safe in social situations and focus too much on signals that indicate disapproval or rejection. Try not to assume the worst about how others feel about you. Challenge your negative thoughts and reserved attitude by trying to be more open to new connections.

5 practical tips to battle loneliness

How do I stop feeling lonely? That’s probably the most important question you have if you struggle with loneliness. Although there is no simple one-size-fits-all step-by-step plan to get rid of your loneliness, there are things you can do to establish social contacts – and thus at least increase the chance of lasting, meaningful connections. Here are 5 few practical tips to battle loneliness:

#1 Find out who you already know and make a list of them. Family members, friends, vague acquaintances, colleagues. Include what you appreciate about that person and why you enjoy interacting with them. This way you gain insight into your social network (however limited that may be).

#2 Select one or two people from your list with whom you would like to meet up and contact them. Even if it has been a long time since you spoke to them. Simply asking how they are doing can be enough and the start of renewed contact. Or propose to meet. (It’s scary, I know, but hey, what have you got to lose?)

#3 Check whether there are online communities where you can meet new people or websites that organize activities or meetups. In The Netherlands there is a website called Nieuwe Mensen Leren Kennen, which literally translates as “meeting new people”. The more internationally oriented website MeetUp is another example. These are great places to meet other people who are looking for new connections, just like you.

#4 Think about things you enjoy doing. Your hobbies, things you are interested in. Chances are there’s a club or community for people who like those things too. Join them. That way you can get to meet people with similar interests.

Did you succeed in catching up with someone you already knew or get acquainted with someone new and did you have a nice time? Make a proposal to see each other again. That way you start to build a (hopefully) lasting connection.

Adopting a pet Some articles and blogs about loneliness suggest you might want to adopt a pet. For sure a pet can help ease feeling lonely. You can enjoy their company, take care of them, walk them (if it’s a dog). But before you adopt a pet, please consider carefully if you are willing and able to take care of them for a longer period of time and if you can afford them.

How to enjoy time alone without feeling lonely

Loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can be alone without feeling lonely and you can feel lonely while you are not alone. Once you understand this essential difference, it will be easier to combat loneliness and enjoy being alone as well.

If you are feeling lonely, you may think that other people are out socializing all the time, but this is not true. At any given moment many people are doing things by themselves. Reading a book, working out in the gym, tending the garden, watching television or doing house chores.

Many people value spending time alone like this in a positive way. They actually choose to spend time alone. It’s called solitude. There are many ways to enjoy alone time (or ‘me time’) and spend time alone in a meaningful way.

Turn your alone time into something valuable. Instead of feeling lonely, try to think of your alone time in a positive, meaningful way.

This can help as an alternative to connecting as well. If you feel like talking to someone, but you know nobody to call or nobody answers, you might feel even lonelier. Why don’t you think instead: “OK, so at the moment there’s nobody to talk to, how can I enjoy myself?”

If connecting to someone doesn’t work at a given moment, try to enjoy your alone time. Read that book, hit the gym or go for a walk (fresh air and physical activity are great mood boosters!). Keep yourself busy and your mind occupied (without denying or running away from your feelings) and enjoy what you are doing.

Most of all: Connect to yourself first before connecting to others.

Although humans are social beings, it’s also important to be able to be alone, to be able to enjoy yourself without others. This requires you to be okay with yourself. Not just for your own mental well-being, but also for connecting with others.

Being okay with yourself is the foundation to having meaningful connections with others.

So how do you feel about yourself? Do you feel comfortable with yourself? The saying goes that if you feel lonely when alone, you are in bad company. Your best defense against feeling lonely is being comfortable and content when you are by yourself.

What not to do when you feel lonely

Besides things you can do to cope with loneliness, there are also things you should not do. Or at least try not to do. Here are five of them:

#1 Don’t let your feelings of loneliness consume you. Feeling lonely is often accompanied by negative thoughts, such as:

  • I am not important to anyone
  • Nobody cares how I’m doing
  • I am not needed
  • Nobody understands me
  • I feel like I don’t exist
  • I’m missing out on life
  • My existence is meaningless

Don’t get stuck in these kind of thoughts. Try to focus on dealing with your feelings. Take control and look what you can do to battle your loneliness.

#2 Don’t blame yourself or the world. Where non-lonely people often think that it is the lonely person themselves who’s to blame (“you’re just not trying hard enough”), the lonely person often thinks that it is the fault of others (“people have let me down”). Neither is entirely true. And blaming yourself or others isn’t going to help. Feeling lonely is a normal human emotion. It’s nobody’s fault.

#3 Don’t run and hide from your feelings. Don’t run away from being alone by going out and constantly socializing all the time. Keeping yourself busy like that is not going to solve the problem. Admit your feelings and pay proper attention to them.

$4 Don’t numb your feelings. Indulging in alcohol, cigarettes or drugs is never a good idea, and it will surely not help you cope with loneliness. It will be like taking a painkiller: you may not feel the pain for a while, but you are not taking care of the issue that caused it in the first place.

#5 Don’t compare yourself to others. Or worry about the idea you may have of what your social contacts should be like. Connections have to be meaningful and satisfying for you and the other person involved, not according to some external measure.

Keep a few things in mind

• Try to be positive. Don’t expect a negative outcome. As Devora Zack points out, “Every interaction is an opportunity.” It might actually work.

• If you have agreed to seeing somebody or going to a meetup, and at the last moment you start to have doubts or you don’t feel like going after all: make yourself go. Force yourself. You will experience that afterwards it feels very satisfying that you went anyway.

• Don’t dismiss people too quickly. You don’t have to be 100% the same to have a connection. In other words: don’t set the standard that the connections you desire must meet (too) high.

• Don’t expect too much at once. Take a first step instead of expecting depth from the start. Just try to have a nice time. Connecting takes time, don’t give up too soon.

It may not be easy, but one thing you know for sure: If you stay alone at home and do nothing, nothing will change. And remember: many people struggle with this. You are not alone!