“There are moments, such as the one that oppresses me now, when I feel my own self far more than I feel external things, and everything transforms into a night of rain and mud where, lost in the solitude of an out-of-the-way station, I wait interminably for the next third-class train.”
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Ever felt lonely while surrounded by people? I sure have.
And coming back from it… well, it can be difficult.
Loneliness Is Self-Sustaining
This is because prolonged feelings of loneliness can lead us to make harsh evaluations of others. One study found that lonely people disparage the quality of their interactions with others — even their friends.
Loneliness renders us to feel socially disconnected and therefore emotionally vulnerable. And when we feel vulnerable, we can become defensive. Don armor. Become protective. Cynical, skeptical.
And unfortunately? These self-protective behaviors work against forming meaningful connections with others, exacerbating the underlying problem.
Loneliness begets negativity which begets more loneliness. It’s self-sustaining.
And as we fall out of practice using relationship skills to interact with others, the chance decreases that we will effectively use those skills when we again have the opportunity.
Loneliness Is Contagious
As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s been found that loneliness is contagious. So if one person in a group feels lonely, it can spread to everyone they know. It’s a bit of a counterintuitive finding since we tend to think of lonely people as being by themselves. However, people can definitely feel lonely when surrounded by others if those connections don’t feel deep or meaningful. And while lonely people tend to go on to isolate themselves (and in that process often cut social ties completely), many times they spread those feelings to others around them long before they do.
And in this way, loneliness can ripple across a group — whether it’s a social network or a polyamorous relationship system.
What to Do About Loneliness
Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, recommends the following measures to combat loneliness:
- Give others the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume the worst of others. True, you’re giving people a chance to disappoint you, but if you don’t keep an open mind, you’re not giving them a chance to connect with you.
- Identify behaviors that are self-defeating and working against you (such as finding excuses to turn down social invitations, not extending invitations to others, or displaying defensive body language). Work on them.
- Make an effort to take other people’s perspectives. Mental and emotional isolation (and a sense of self-containment) often lead to social isolation.
- Feel and express empathy in order to strengthen any existing emotional bonds. It’s quite possible to feel lonely even when having friends if we stay on the surface with them.
- Create opportunities for social connection. Join new forums online. Volunteer. Actively look for events that you can join. Or even start your own outing.
- Adopt a pet. Pets are awesome. And can help get us back to a place where we feel like we can take on the world (a bit closer to it anyway).
Non-Lonely Folks: Reach Out Proactively
And I would add one more to Dr. Winch’s list: Even if you aren’t personally feeling lonely, you can combat loneliness in others. Make sure to continue to reach out to those people you know and love. It’s not always possible to know who is struggling and who isn’t just by looking at them, and loneliness is easier to prevent than to fix once it’s become a problem.
This goes for everyone — folks who are natural social connectors and those on the margins, those most at risk for becoming disconnected.
As those great philosophers The Wyld Stallyns will one day (no doubt) say, “Be excellent to each other.”