We’ve all felt lonely from time to time. But sometimes, things can get out of hand. Psychologist Guy Winch lays out some straightforward tips to deal with the pain of deep loneliness.
Loneliness is a subjective feeling. You may be surrounded by other people, friends, family, workmates — yet still feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you. Other people are not guaranteed to shield us against the raw emotional pain that loneliness inflicts.
But raw emotional pain is only the beginning of the damage loneliness can cause. It has a huge impact on our physical health as well. Loneliness activates our physical and psychological stress responses and suppresses the function of our immune systems. This puts us at increased risk for developing all kinds of illness and diseases, including cardiovascular disease. Shockingly, the long-term risk chronic loneliness poses to our health and longevity is so severe, it actually increases risk of an early death by 26%.
Emerging from loneliness is far more challenging than we realize.
There are many paths to loneliness. Some enter loneliness gradually. A friend moves away, another has a child, a third works a seventy-hour work week, and before we know it our social circle, the one we had relied upon for years, ceases to exist. Others enter loneliness more suddenly, when they leave for college or the military, lose a partner to death or divorce, start a new job, or move to a new town or country. And for some, chronic illness, disability or other limiting conditions have made loneliness a lifelong companion.
Unfortunately, emerging from loneliness is far more challenging than we realize, as the psychological wounds it inflicts create a trap from which it is difficult to break free. Loneliness distorts our perceptions, making us believe the people around us care much less than they actually do, and it makes us view our existing relationships more negatively, such that we see them as less meaningful and important than we would if we were not lonely.
These distorted perceptions have a huge ripple effect, creating self-fulfilling prophecies that ensnare many. Feeling emotionally raw and convinced of our own undesirability and of the diminished caring of others, we hesitate to reach out even as we are likely to respond to overtures from others with hesitance, resentment, skepticism or desperation, effectively pushing away the very people who could alleviate our condition.
Distorted perceptions have a huge ripple effect, creating self-fulfilling prophecies that ensnare many.
As a result, many lonely people withdraw and isolate themselves to avoid risking further rejection or disappointment. And when they do venture into the world, their hesitance and doubts are likely to create the very reaction they fear. They will force themselves to attend a party but feel so convinced others won’t talk to them, they spend the entire evening parked by the hummus and vegetable dip with a scowl on their face, and indeed, no one dares approach — which for them only verifies their fundamental undesirability.
Breaking free of loneliness and healing our psychological wounds is possible, but it involves a decision — a decision to override the gut instinct telling you to stay away and to play it safe by isolating yourself. Instead, you must do three things that require both courage and a leap of faith:
Accept that loneliness is impacting your perceptions and understand that people are likely to respond more positively than you expect. If you feel socially disconnected, go through your phone and email address books, and your social media contacts, and make a list of people you haven’t seen or spoken to for a while. If you feel emotionally disconnected, make a list of five people you’ve been close to in the past. Reach out to them and suggest getting together and catching up. Yes, it will feel scary to do so, and yes, you will worry about it being awkward or uncomfortable. That is why it is also important to:
Give the benefit of the doubt
It is fair to assume that someone who enjoyed your company in the past would likely enjoy spending time with you in the present as well. Yes, maybe they’ve been out of touch, maybe they never called after promising to see you soon, but you must accept that the reason they’ve been out of touch or the reason you haven’t been close lately might have nothing to do with you. In all likelihood, it is their busy lives, their competing priorities, stresses or opportunities that led to the “disconnect” between you. In many cases, there might not even be a disconnect — in other words, the reluctance you assume on their part might not even exist. So reach out to the people on your list but remember to:
Approach with positivity
Yes, you fear rejection and yes, you’re not in the best frame of mind, but this is one situation where it might be important to fake it. When contacting the people on your list, try to put yourself into a positive mindset. One safe way to do that is by using text or email so you can use emoticons to create the smiley face you might have a hard time manufacturing on your own face. Review your messages before you send them to make sure they sound appealing. Avoid accusations (“You haven’t called me in months!”) or statements of disconnect (“I know it must be weird to hear from me…”). Express positive sentiment (“Was thinking about you!” or “Miss you!”), an invitation (“Let’s grab coffee,” or “I’d love to get dinner and a catch-up,”) and be specific in terms of time frame (“How’s next week looking?” or What’s a good day this month?”).
Loneliness is extremely painful, but once you recognize the perceptual distortions it causes and the psychological trap it creates, you will be able to marshal your courage, take that leap of faith, and plan your escape. Freedom will be sweet once you do.
Illustration by Anna Parini/TED.