Feeling lonely

Loneliness is one of the most common experiences that people go through, and also one of the most difficult.

What is loneliness?

It can be a very painful thing. People are inherently social, and loneliness can make you feel like something very fundamental is missing from your life. In an age where a lot of emphasis is put on connectedness and having a full and vibrant social life, loneliness can feel like a real form of failure. A misguided feeling of not being wanted can lead to feelings of shame. When we feel shame we are less likely to reach out making the feeling of isolation more powerful and disabling. 

But, although it can be hard when you’re going through a period of loneliness, it’s important to try to remember a couple of things. Firstly, there are actually many, many people who are going through the exact same thing as you — with many of them feeling like they’re the only one in this position too. And secondly, there’s nothing inherently wrong with feeling lonely. While it can be hard to bear, it’s also a natural reaction to feeling like there’s something missing from your life — in that way, it can be viewed as something useful: a signal that you might want to make some changes. 

What causes loneliness?

The most obvious is an absence of company. When there aren’t many people in our lives, things can begin to feel quite drab and colourless. Very often, one of the biggest things that makes us feel like we matter in the world is that we’re noticed by others. Sometimes, something as small as chatting to a stranger on the bus can make a day go from feeling cold and colourless to full of potential. 

This is a challenge that often comes down to two things: a lack of perceived ability or a lack of opportunity. 

You might feel that you simply aren’t good at talking to people. Perhaps you get anxious when you meet someone new, or start to worry that they’re not interested in what you have to say. 

In some cases, this is something you can address by thinking hard about the skills you feel you don’t have, and making a concerted effort to practice them. It might be that you start to set yourself some simple tasks — talking to one person you don’t know at a party, for instance, or saying hello to a stranger in the street — and try to carry them out. You may find that once you start to get used to doing this, your confidence begins to build, and you’re better able to manage social situations more generally. 

If you feel like you simply don’t have the opportunities to meet people, it can be worth trying to do some new things. It’s an obvious suggestion, but always worth stating: sports and social clubs can be a great way of meeting people and you know you’ll have at least one thing in common. Socialising in these settings can also take some of the pressure off, and you’ll usually be doing something other than just talking. 

Likewise, trying to create new opportunities in your life generally can open up the possibility of meeting new friends. If you feel like you don’t really have anyone to talk to at your job, you could always consider trying to find a new one. Or if you feel you’re not clicking with the people at the sports and social clubs you go to, then there’s no reason you can’t try out different ones. 

Feeling lonely even when there are other people around

Of course, it’s also entirely possible to feel lonely when there are other people in your life. You may be feeling like you see lots people every day, but that you just don’t feel that close to anyone. 

In this case, it may be that it’s not the quantity of relationships that’s the problem, but the quality. As humans, we don’t just need connections, we need meaningful connections — ones where we feel we’re really getting to know the other person, and they’re really getting to know us. In other words, meaningful relationships are usually ones where you are able to be vulnerable with each other. When this doesn’t happen, it can feel like our relationships don’t really reach us — that they’re present, but not really that important. 

If you think this might be a factor in your own feelings of loneliness, then you might want to consider a few things. 

It may be emotional issues elsewhere in your life are making it hard for you to be vulnerable with others. The reasons behind this kind of block could be really varied. For many people, this feeling often has something to do with relationships they’ve experienced in the past — either as part of their upbringing or with previous friends or romantic partners. You may feel that opening up with people will have negative consequences, and that may make you feel guarded. 

Alternatively, it may be that you have some issues with self-esteem. You may feel that people don't want you to open up to them because you feel you aren't that interesting. Again, this may be due to previous experiences in relationships, or it may just be something you’ve always struggled with. 

Overcoming this feeling can be challenging, but for the vast majority of people, it is possible. For lots of people it can be useful to begin to think of vulnerability as a skill — something you can learn to do. Again, it’s about identifying small goals and then trying to carry them out. In this case, that might mean letting one person know how you’re truly feeling, even if you aren’t feeling particularly good. Or it might mean telling someone something personal about yourself. Obviously, you only need to go at a pace that doesn’t make you feel too uncomfortable, but you may find that by attacking this feeling bit by bit, you can get to a point where it really doesn’t bother you as much anymore. 

Another reason people find it hard to be vulnerability is dissatisfaction elsewhere in their life. If something making it significantly hard for you to feel positive about things — for instance, you’re experiencing a lot of stress at work or going through a really difficult family situation. This can make you feel pessimistic and discourage you from making the effort to connect with other people because you feel like there’s no point. Sometimes, loneliness itself can be the thing that does this — by making you feel down and too discouraged to try. 

If you think this might be the case, it might be useful for you to focus on your emotions and try to understand where they’re coming from. Having an idea about why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling can allow us to be more practical about things: recognising, for instance, that it isn’t necessarily the case that there’s no point in trying to make friends — you’re just feeling low about other things. 

Feeling lonely in a relationship

Loneliness in a long-term relationship or marriage can be a real burden. 

It can leave us not knowing how to make things better: should we try to talk to our partner? Or will whatever’s caused this sense of loneliness make it difficult? Apart from leaving us feeling isolated, loneliness can also make us feel helpless. 

When someone says they feel ‘lonely’ in a relationship, it can mean a variety of things. It might mean you feel unheard or unloved. It may be you’re feeling disconnected from your partner – like you aren’t as close as you used to be. Or it could be you’re feeling confused about something: you’re trying to resolve a problem but feel unable to talk about what’s bothering you. 

How does loneliness affect relationships?

In a sense, it’s not that common that someone might admit to being ‘lonely’ in a relationship. This tends to be the way someone might phrase things after a period of analysis or soul searching.   

In reality, loneliness tends to express itself more indirectly. You might find yourself feeling more annoyed with your partner: starting arguments or interpreting things they do and say negatively. 

You may act a little childishly, start avoiding your partner or give them the silent treatment. You may become less sexual and feel less attracted to them. Or we might just get the general underlying feeling that we’re drifting apart – becoming disconnected over time. 

This kind of feeling is actually one of the most common reasons for affairs: when we feel that our partner is unable to give us the attention or care that we deserve, we can be susceptible to others who might. 

Loneliness is part of life

Something it’s worth remembering when things are hard is that some degree of loneliness is often just a part of life. 

Our lives go through different stages. Sometimes we’ll have more people around us, and feel closer to these people, whereas at others times this might be less the case. This can be dependent on something as practical as moving to a new country and it taking a while to make new friends. Or it might be something less tangible than this — feeling like you’re drifting away from some of the people you were once closer to, and that you haven’t meet new people to take their place. 

Sometimes, it’s good to simply not be too hard on yourself, and to accept that, while things may be difficult at the moment, that doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way. 

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