However, here’s something you might not know – you can experience loneliness even when you are surrounded by others.
There are plenty of successful celebrities out there who have later admitted that their rise to fame was accompanied by intense loneliness, despite the fact that they found themselves constantly surrounded by people. Essentially, loneliness can arise due to a lack of quality social connections. We may have 400 ‘friends’ on social media, but how many of these people do we feel we can really turn to for help, and how many of these friendships bring us contentment and satisfaction?
It follows that loneliness is not something that is limited to the elderly or those who are single or live alone – we can all experience periods of loneliness in our life. The Campaign to End Loneliness reports that 45% of adults in England feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely. In fact, it is one of the largest health concerns we currently face – it’s a bigger problem than obesity, yet it seems to receive far less attention. It doesn’t help that there is a social stigma surrounding loneliness; many still believe that loneliness occurs due to poor social skills or some other perceived flaws in a person’s personality. As a result, people experiencing loneliness can feel ashamed and may refrain from being honest about how they are feeling or seeking the support they need.
The problem with this is that over time, loneliness can have devastating impacts on a person’s mental and physical health. In fact, even the anticipation of loneliness has been shown to have negative effects. It can result in a less active immune system which impacts on the body’s ability to fight and recover from infections and viruses and has also been linked to greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Loneliness slows down our thinking, making it difficult to concentrate and is also associated with lower self-esteem, anxiety, depression and may actually shorten a person’s life expectancy.
As humans, we are essentially pack animals; we are social creatures and so we are not designed to be isolated from others. Research has consistently shown that one of the most fundamental and universal psychological needs that needs to be satisfied to secure our well-being is the need for ‘relatedness’: experiencing positive interactions and connections with others. We may try to convince ourselves that we are happy being completely independent, but the evidence suggests that even those who are dismissive of forming close relationships with others are found to have higher levels of positive affect and self-esteem when they feel accepted by others at an interpersonal level. Loneliness is a feeling that we shouldn’t simply brush off – we should recognise it as a warning sign that we need to take action to protect our health.
First of all, it’s important to take the time to understand ourselves before we try to throw ourselves into social situations. We need to become self-aware and consider the way our previous or existing relationships might have influenced us. For example, are you drawn to dysfunctional relationships that fail to meet your need for meaningful interactions and connections with others and encourage a negative self-view? If these are the relationships that we end up attracting, then we can find ourselves never having our need for relatedness met and experience a cycle of loneliness that can be difficult to break. We naturally find ourselves drawn to things that are familiar, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for us and through engaging in self-reflection we can start to understand this better and break this cycle. We need to invest the time in people who understand, respect and care for us.
We also can benefit from being kind to ourselves, engaging in positive self-talk and reminding ourselves that we are worthy of love and support from others. If we do not like ourselves, we can struggle to see how we can be liked by others and this lack of self-confidence can perpetuate the cycle of loneliness. To overcome this, we need to become better at challenging the distorted self-views we may have that can impact on our ability to form and accept close social connections and show greater acceptance of ourselves. Remember: no one is perfect, and everyone is unique, but this is what makes us interesting! Stop comparing yourself to others. This can be damaging for your self-esteem and a lot of the time we are comparing ourselves against inaccurate representations of reality – just because you believe someone to be more attractive or talented than you doesn’t mean they don’t have their own insecurities.
Of course, once we have understood ourselves better, there are some practical things that we can do to increase the number of social interactions we have; for example, volunteering or joining a social group that you consider to be safe and supportive. It might be a group that is geared around a hobby or interest of yours, or for people in a similar life situation. This can feel daunting at first, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You might prefer to start with groups that require relatively little interaction so you can ease yourself into feeling comfortable around others. We can also take steps to plan in activities during the times when we are most prone to feeling lonely and become braver at reaching out to others. Sometimes, we can let our fear of rejection hold us back from initiating contact with people and we miss out on opportunities to maintain or reignite a friendship. It’s also important to be a friend – make a conscious effort to check-in with others, ask how they are, offer to help. And try to open up to others about how you’re feeling; this can help to build relationships that are built on trust and honesty, making them stronger and more likely to withstand the test of time.
Each of these seemingly small steps can help to make big strides towards building strong and rewarding connections with others. The more we allow ourselves to experience the joy of meaningful relationships, the more likely we are to attract them!