Loneliness has historically been defined in many ways: the perception of being alone or isolated, the inability to find meaning in one’s life, or the subjective negative feeling related to deficient social relations. Loneliness is a multi-dimensional and often misunderstood problem, and is repeatedly underestimated in its seriousness. In fact, loneliness also co-occurs with depression, mood, and anxiety disorders.
Unfortunately for all of us, there are many different times in life where we have to navigate through feelings of loneliness and living in isolation. The truth is it’s normal at different times in our lives to feel lonely and somewhat melancholy. Maybe you’ve moved to a new town, lost your job, experienced the death of a loved one, changed friend groups, been through a bad breakup, experienced failure, or something just feels like it’s missing in your life. There really are times when we are alone in our lives, feel isolated, alone, and like our world is simply dark.
The most important thing you can do in these circumstances is to understand the five types of loneliness and how you might be feeling. It’s important to be able to identify the kind of loneliness you are experiencing so that you can understand how your own behaviors might be contributing to the underlying cause, and the potential opportunities to change these behaviors. If you are experiencing periods of sadness and believe you might be suffering from a bout of loneliness, think about where you might fall within these five categories based on what is happening in your life:
Situational loneliness is something that is temporary and with time, typically passes fairly quickly. For example, it’s normal to feel lonely when you are put into a new or unfamiliar situation. Maybe you’ve just started a new job, moved to a new town, or your spouse and children left town for the weekend without you for the first time (p.s. this is when you should make time for you, do something special for yourself, or visit some friends you haven’t been able to connect with in a while!) If you are starting a new job, of course it takes time to meet and connect with people you may have something in common with. First and foremost, give yourself the time you need to acclimate and adjust. If you have just moved to a new town, consider joining a local gym, taking classes around a particular hobby to meet others, or maybe consider joining a book club. Or maybe your partner has gone out of town with the kids to visit his family, and you are staying home alone? It may feel strange, but enjoy this time alone! In this case, being alone is a good thing and you can now do something nice for yourself. Go out with friends for dinner or read that book that’s been getting dusty on your nightstand. This feeling of loneliness is likely temporary and will pass soon!
You might feel relational loneliness if you are experiencing an issue with your family, friends, relationship, or if you have just lost someone significant in your life. Relational loneliness can feel like a genuine loss of love or emotional intimacy. The people that care about you most may have rejected you and now you are completely alone in the world, worried about what others might think of you in the future. This is a very common form of loneliness that almost all of us can relate to. A divorce or death of a spouse would fall into this category, or even an unresolved conflict with a member of your family. What to do? First, give yourself the permission and time to grieve the loss of the relationship. Unfortunately, sadness and loss are a part of all of our lives, even though we sometimes don’t want to admit it and are often not ready to accept it. When we are with a partner or spouse for an extended period of time, we can feel hyper-connected to that person and that makes functioning in a complicated world much easier. The end of this relationship may make you wonder, will anyone ever love me again, will anyone ever care about me again, or how can I ever expect to open up to anyone again? Once you’ve given yourself the time you need for grieving the relationship loss (this will be different for everyone), put yourself back out there socially. It isn’t easy to do this, but it’s important to start connecting with others to break the loneliness cycle. This type of loneliness will also become less frequent as your situation changes, you pursue new social connections, and as time goes on.
This type of loneliness is common when someone has been immersed into a culture that is new or unfamiliar. Those who have immigrated to a new country may experience culture shock and have some difficulty fitting in to unfamiliar cultural norms. Or maybe you have entered a relationship with someone from a completely different cultural background and you are trying to understand and acclimate into new rituals and traditions and finding it difficult. Existing in a different culture than what you are accustomed to can be challenging. Imagine you are a single American, accustomed to our independence-based westernized way of life and you have been asked by your company to take a job in an Asian country. As an American, you may find it difficult to adjust to the more interdependent Asian culture that tends to be more focused on how individuals are connected to others. Without the existence of a social network, it may be hard to get used to this way of life. Give yourself the time you need to get settled in this environment and then consider connecting with other American groups living abroad as a way to begin your social outreach.
You may experience this type of loneliness if you have experienced a deeply disturbing or reality altering event, like having been a victim of a violent crime or if you are a survivor of sexual abuse, for example. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may play a role in this type of loneliness, especially if you are finding yourself reliving the traumatic experience over and over again in your mind. Sometimes you may want to disconnect from those closest to you because you believe your loved ones can’t possibly understand what you are going through. This type of loneliness can become chronic if not addressed promptly and properly. People who have experienced significant trauma and possibly grief after war or other traumatic event often have difficulty readjusting to daily life. Flashbacks and panic attacks can also present themselves in these situations. Those suffering from trauma-oriented loneliness can benefit from talking to others in support groups or from exposure based therapy treatments. More often than not, trauma-based loneliness is not something that should be taken lightly and may require the help of a therapist.
Inevitably, the experience of death and the thought of dying is a part of life and a concept that most of us find scary and difficult to grasp and face. If you have been or know someone who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, this type of loneliness can be a natural part of the process. When someone knows they are dying, death is likely on their mind daily and often. The best way to help someone work through their loneliness in these dire circumstances may very well be to talk to them about their own death and what their hopes and fears are. Many times, when someone is dying, loved ones surrounding him or her are hesitant to discuss the topic even though the person facing death has a desire to do so. When you find yourself in this situation, try to be an active listener. Being open to helping the person facing death by hearing their concerns and being willing to talk openly is a great first step.
If you feel like you have been feeling lonely or depressed, and your loneliness is not getting lighter or better within a reasonable amount of time, consider talking to a therapist or even attending a support group. At The Center For Growth, we have therapists who are trained in helping their clients develop skills to remedy loneliness and get back to feeling more like themselves and also offer weekly support groups. Visit www.therapyinphiladelphia.com to make an appointment or call 215-922-5683.