The Common Experience of Loneliness

By: Laura Hull 

In a world that holds over seven billion people, it seems counterintuitive that anyone should be lonely or experience loneliness.  Yet, loneliness is a common thread in the human experience.  Regardless of gender, race, age, economic status, personality types or any type of category that separates us into groups, everyone experiences loneliness at some time. 


Explaining why we experience loneliness is not something that can be summed up in a series of sentences or even a series of discussions due to the individual and unique nature of the experience.  Life choices can be made which can isolate us from meaningful contact with individuals who fill an emotional need in our lives.  Still others can be in the middle of a crowd of 100,000 people, and feel it’s the loneliest place on earth, not understanding why the feeling of loneliness is present.


We need people in our lives.  Period.  To be emotionally healthy, we need healthy, meaningful relationships with others.  We know this on a conscious level. It’s not something to be found in a light bulb moment in the journey of discovering self.  Yet, a sense of loneliness is a common symptom identified in issues that bring individuals to counseling.  We know it when we feel it.  Experiencing the death of a spouse or a best friend can result in a profound feeling of loneliness.  Divorce or the loss of a longtime, close friend can leave a hole in our lives.  A spouse who is feeling disconnected in the marriage may be feeling a different sense of loneliness.  The parents in a new empty nest may feel a sense of loneliness and perhaps abandonment.  An employee who is left out of the daily lunchroom break invites with co-workers may feel excluded, rejected and lonely. 


The physical absence of individuals in our lives can certainly exacerbate feelings of loneliness.  But the emotional absence of meaningful relationships in our lives is perhaps more difficult to address and more damaging.  Physical absences that provoke loneliness may include moving to a new city, where everything and everyone is new.  Starting a new job, especially if in a new city, can be challenging.  Being the “newbie” on the staff of an already well established team can feel like a lonely place to be, particularly if the cohesion of the “team” is so solid that it can be hard to break through the boundaries of those relationships in order to establish a place within the group.  These types of situations are common, and generally get better with time, patience and effort.


The feeling of loneliness is not always driven by external experiences.  An unfortunate side effect of struggling with depression or anxiety can be loneliness.  When we are depressed or anxious, it is not uncommon to withdraw from our social connections/contacts, which in turn has the potential to breed isolation. This also has the potential to become a cyclic problem: “I am depressed or anxious.  I do not want others to see that I am depressed or anxious.  I do not feel like going out with friends today.  I do not feel like returning that phone call today…”  Of course, functioning this way over an extended period of time results in friends losing touch and relationships drifting apart.  Hence, the feelings of loneliness intensify, causing depression and anxiety to increase, thus becoming a cyclic pattern.


Loneliness can be both a physical and emotional experience.  How do we address it when we experience it? 


  • Acknowledge it; normalize it. We have all been there at one time or another in our lives.  To acknowledge it is to own it, and by owing it we can take control of the situation and start making a plan for how to address it. 


  • Take time to process and understand the root cause of your individual sense of loneliness.  If loneliness results from being in a new place, with new people, understand that meaningful relationships take time to develop and grow.  Patience with the process is key in this situation.  It is also important to realize that we do not necessarily “fit in” with every group of people we approach.  This is normal, and does not necessarily mean that we are doing anything “wrong”.   But it is important in those situations to recognize when something is not working, and do not invest time and energy worrying about “why I don’t fit in, or why they don’t like me”.  This only makes the sense of loneliness worse and extends the time it takes it find a friend or group of friends that is a good fit.


            When loneliness is driven by depression and /or anxiety, it can feel like a mountain to climb in order to address.  Depression and anxiety can sap the motivation it takes to address issues of loneliness.  Working through depression and anxiety often makes feelings of loneliness lessen. 


  • Seek counseling. Counseling provides a very helpful setting for addressing issues.  Finding out what is driving the feelings is a key to re-engaging in meaningful contact with others.  In the same way that depression-anxiety-depression can become a pattern, the reverse is also true.  When we lessen anxiety, we lessen depression and we are more likely to engage in activities which can lessen the feelings of loneliness. 


  • Evaluate the way you approach relationships. There are times when individuals find themselves struggling to find a place with any group of friends.  Sometimes the way we approach relationships can hinder the process of building meaningful relationships.  Some people struggle in social settings and can benefit from social skills training.  When we possess good social skills, it then becomes easier to seek out situations where we are grouped with people who hold the same interests.  Seek out opportunities to meet people in church, or volunteer time with an organization whose work is close to the heart.  Join Toastmasters or any type of community group with similar interest. The point is to make a deliberate effort to engage.


Loneliness can be overcome.


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