The song ‘Lonely’ by singer Akon became a world-wide hit and the line “I have nobody for my own” possibly resonated with a number of people. Yes, feeling lonely is a common human experience. But that doesn’t make it any less painful an experience for us.
Feeling lonely is different from being alone. When we are alone, we need not necessarily experience loneliness – on the contrary, we may enjoy getting time for ourselves. On the contrary, many of us could experience loneliness even at times when we are surrounded by people, such as at a party.
So when do we experience loneliness? Feeling lonely is often a result of having fewer interpersonal relationships than we desire or when these relationships are not as satisfying as we desire.
There are different types of loneliness and to help ourselves overcome it, it is useful to identify what the source of our loneliness could be.
- We all commonly experience transient loneliness, i.e. brief and sporadic feelings of loneliness, inspite of having a full social life.
- We may experience transitional loneliness when we move to a new city or job and there is a disruption in our previously satisfying social network. Such feelings continue until we form new friendships.
- We may experience emotional loneliness if we lack an intimate relationship in our lives, such as a very close friend, spouse or partner.
- We may experience social loneliness if we lack a friendship network
- We may experience chronic loneliness when we have not been able to develop a satisfactory interpersonal network over a period of years. Factors such as shyness, inadequate social skills or a self defeating attribution style may play a role.
Shyness: Refers to a discomfort or excessive caution in interpersonal relations. This could be due to our negative self talk or due to our early experiences. Shyness could lead to loneliness – since we do not share who we are with others, we may feel that no one around us really knows or understands us, including loved ones.
Inadequate social skills: All of us vary in our social skills. Just like driving, dancing and cooking are skills, interacting with people involves a number of social skills that can be learnt and practiced.
Self-defeating attribution style: Often, we may explain other people’s behaviours in ways that are self defeating to us. For example, concluding that a friend has not called because they are not interested in us or do not have the time for us. This explanation is self-defeating because it may cause hurt feelings in us and also prevent us from calling the friend ourselves, who may actually be delighted to hear from us. Or not, but the point is we don’t know until we check with them. I’ve had experiences with friends who stopped being in touch and who later shared that it was because they were going through a rough patch, not because they were too busy or disinterested as I had assumed earlier.
Apart from these reasons, social trends indicate that social isolation is increasing. Often due to our busy lives, face to face interactions with friends and family members are greatly reduced. This could contribute to us feeling lonely. Whatever the reasons for our loneliness, it feels unpleasant and could include feelings of depression, anxiety, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, pessimism about the future, self blame and even sleep problems.
The good news is that we can help ourselves overcome loneliness or at least cope with it better, through multiple ways. Interventions that are helpful include Cognitive therapy and social skills training. Just sharing painful feelings with a counsellor and feeling understood can also be helpful in itself.
Weiten,W., Lloyd, M. A., Dunn, D. S., & Hammer, E. Y. (2009). Psychology applied to modern life: Adjustment in the 21st century. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.