How to Help Yourself When You Feel Lonely
Loneliness comes in all shapes and sizes and is something that we will likely all experience, to some degree, at different points throughout our lives.
On a personal note, the feeling of loneliness is something that I’ve encountered quite a bit over the last year; however, in retrospect, loneliness has been a common thread that weaved its way throughout and around many of my experiences in general.
We know that to feel lonely isn’t a pleasurable experience, but what exactly is loneliness and what can we do to feel less lonely?
“At the heart of loneliness is the absence of meaningful social interaction - an intimate relationship, friendships, family gatherings, or even community or work group connections.” - Brené Brown on loneliness
In Brené Brown’s book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and Language of Human Experience, Brown describes research findings by co-founder of the social neuroscience field and loneliness expert, the late John Cacioppo, in which he defines loneliness as “perceived social isolation.”
In an article by The Guardian written in 2016, Cacioppo states that what matters more than actually having social connections is feeling like we have them. So, it doesn’t matter if we have a lot of friends or people that we interact with; if we don’t feel connected, then we may feel lonely.
This is why people can be surrounded by others and still feel lonely, sad, and isolated.
Drawing from my own experience, I often feel loneliest when I’m with others and feel like, for some reason, I’m unable to connect with them; as if we’re not on the same wave length. More harshly, for me, sometimes it can feel that there’s a disconnection because there’s something inherently wrong with me. Which often isn’t actually true.
Being alone and loneliness are two different things.
On the flip side, I can be physically alone and feel fine. In fact, I find that being alone even provides a space for me to recharge my batteries and be at ease with myself.
There seems to be an agreement that the feeling of loneliness, however and whenever you may experience it, acts as a sort of warning indicator that you’re in need of being in connection with people whom you like or have similar interests or values with.
“The purpose of loneliness is like the purpose of hunger. Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We're a social species.” Joe Cacioppo in The Atlantic
So, if we need social interactions, why is it that we struggle to feel connected to those around us? In Atlas of the Heart, Brown discusses how we deny our feelings of loneliness because of shame - shame to admit that we feel lonely because it might mean that there’s something wrong with us. This is true even if our loneliness is caused by something like grief, loss, or heartache.
Reflecting on my own experiences of loneliness, I can confidently say that shame was a factor that inhibited me in some cases from reaching out and connecting with those in my close circle. On some of my loneliest days, even though I had a legitimate reason for feeling lonely and sad (major heartache post break up), I also felt shame that I craved being close to others.
As someone who can romanticize being alone a little too much, I can sometimes sway too heavily over into the place of stubborn determination to fix things on my own. I don’t always want to admit to people that I’m in pain and in need of help because I don't want to be perceived as 'weak' (faulty thinking on my part).
In trying to save face, I isolated myself, even when I was in the company of others.
Knowing what we know about loneliness - that it’s different than being alone; it’s when we perceive social isolation; it’s a warning indicator that we are in need of social connection; and that shame may be associated with it - what can we do to help ourselves feel less lonely?
How to help ward off feelings of loneliness:
For starters, check in with yourself with gentle curiosity. What’s going on to cause the feeling of loneliness? Is it a perceived isolation? Have you been spending a bit too much time alone? Are you holding back from communicating that you feel lonely? What else is going on?
If feelings of shame come up here, how can you be soft with yourself? Remember that to have a need for connection doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you; we need connection in the same way that we need food and water.
Next, based on what comes out of your gentle self-inquiry, what can you do in this moment to help yourself feel connected again? Perhaps this means touching base with someone close to you (friend, family member, partner, etc.) to help re-establish that feeling of connection. Maybe it actually means spending a little time alone and getting grounded within yourself to help make connection with others easier.
Another thing that I’ve been practicing to help with feeling lonely comes from the book Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakeable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness by Rick Hansen - the acronym HEAL:
- Have a beneficial experience: Notice it or create it.
- Enrich it: stay with it, feeling it fully.
- Absorb it: Receive it into yourself.
- Link it (optional): Use it to soothe and replace painful, harmful psychological material.
As an example of this in practice, if I’m feeling lonely I can consciously choose to be aware of a situation where I’m around my close friends, confidants, or people I encounter in my life (like a barista in a coffee shop). When I have a positive experience with these people, whether it be warm smile, an inviting question, or a good belly laugh, I can stay with that feeling for a beat longer than I typically would and feel the goodness of that moment. I can then imagine that good feeling soaking into my skin like sunlight, warming me up.
When we feel lonely, leaning into pockets of connection, however small, can feel like lighting a match in a dark room.
Lastly, be kind to yourself; as kind as you can.