Lonely vs Alone: What is Loneliness & How To Overcome It
Feeling Lonely vs. Alone
Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. You can be surrounded by other people, sitting next to your partner, or sharing with your family, and still feel lonely. Whereas, you can be all by yourself and, yet, not feel lonely at all. In fact, you might be alone but feel at peace, connected, calm, joyful, satisfied with your life, you name it! Being alone simply refers to the fact of not being surrounded by people at the moment. It is about an external state (aka not having people around you), rather than an internal feeling. So, if being alone is not the same as being lonely, what exactly is loneliness?
What is Loneliness? 2 Types Explained
Loneliness is a feeling of disconnection. As a psychotherapist, I have worked with many people when they are going through tough periods of their lives, and I have come to observe and realize that during these challenging phases, people can experience two kinds of loneliness. This does not mean that one type excludes the other, actually, in many cases, they are interrelated.
The two types of loneliness are:
Disconnection from others
One type of loneliness is the feeling of disconnection from others. It is when we feel that the people around us do not align with who we are. When we feel that others are not able to understand us, to feel our struggles, and to resonate with our experience. We feel that they do not share our same values, that we do not authentically care about each other, and that they simply do not get us.
For example, think of a time when you had a conversation with someone and they did not seem genuinely interested in you. There was no eye contact, they were on the phone and busy with something more interesting or urgent. In moments like this, we can see and feel that the other person is not present and connecting with us. We then start feeling lonely.
This type of loneliness can also manifest in romantic relationships. For instance, it can look like when we sit next to our partner but we have nothing to talk about. We do not feel an emotional, intellectual, or physical connection. We are absorbed in our own worlds and we are afraid to reach out to each other as we are probably emotionally exhausted. We might feel in pain and unheard by our partner so we choose to disconnect as a way of protecting our last energy resources. Or, sometimes we might have simply forgotten how it is to be emotionally connected and, therefore, seek refuge in distractions.
We might also feel this kind of loneliness when we are part of a group but we feel like we do not belong. We can feel like we are different, that our values do not align, that we are from a different culture, or have different beliefs. Scenarios such as this can be quite familiar for immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or people of different races, ethnicities and cultural communities. These types of experiences can leave us feeling like aliens and ostracized members of society.
It is also particularly common to feel this type of loneliness when we are struggling with our mental health. Oftentimes we assume that people around us will not understand, will judge us, or, even worse, they will invalidate our struggle. We feel afraid that we will burden others by sharing what we are going through and that they will not have the space or the mental capacity to support us. We might then hide what we are going through and our feelings.
During moments like this, we begin to ruminate over what is wrong with us, how unfair everybody is treating us, how unlovable or unlikable we are, and whether this means that we will be alone and disconnected forever. This is when our Pandora's box opens. All of our fears and negative self-talk rush out to the surface and it can be difficult to close that box again.
Disconnection from ourselves
The other kind of loneliness is the one we feel when we have disconnected from ourselves. This is usually common after we have spent a long time taking care of and supporting others. During these life periods, we focus on other people's needs, so it makes perfect sense that, after some time, we do not recognize ourselves anymore. We can feel estranged from parts of ourselves, we do not know who we are, what we want, or where we are going. We have forgotten what it feels like to be us and we do not know what gives us joy, meaning, and purpose in life anymore.
Loneliness and Mental Health
Loneliness is present in its own, unique way during every transition of our life. It can be present when we change schools, graduate from high school, begin a new job, and become an elderly person. It is especially present when we are struggling with an existential crisis or with mental health issues. When we are feeling lonely, our inner critic yells all these harsh, nasty messages in our head:
"You're not enough,"
"you're a failure,"
"there is something wrong with you,"
"you will be alone forever,"
"people don't like you,"
"you don't deserve to be happy,"
you name it.
When our inner critic is relentlessly belittling us, we not only listen to it, but we surrender, we agree, and we keep repeating these messages in our head during our sleepless nights. When people mistreat us, judge us, forget about us or when we face a setback, we should treat ourselves as if we were a dear friend in need. But, instead, we treat ourselves with lack of compassion. So, how can we become better friends to ourselves?
How To Overcome Loneliness: Best Tips
So, what can we do about loneliness? How can we overcome the inner critic's voice, find people that we resonate with, and foster fulfilling connections with those around us and ourselves? The following tips might offer you a starting point.
Fostering connection with others
In order to foster connections that will help us find meaning and feel fulfilled, we must get out of our comfort zones. The first and most important step is to join groups that resonate with you. Think about your values and interests, and search for groups you could join. For example, joining a pottery class, a nature walking group, or a book club.
By putting yourself out there, you might find people who share the same values and interests as you. When interacting with like-minded individuals, try to practice empathic listening and to get into their shoes. Be unapologetically authentic and honest when you are around them. But try to be curious about them too and not judgmental about their life and their experiences. Accept them as they are and provide support. And, who knows, you might end up meeting unique and wonderful people.
Connecting with ourselves
In order to connect with yourself, it is essential to allow yourself to feel your emotions. Even if the only emotion you are feeling is uncomfortable loneliness, allow it to be there. Remind yourself that the uncomfortable feeling is going to be there only for a little bit, not forever. Accepting your feelings means that you are accepting yourself; this is the first and most important step.
In order to hush the loud inner critic voice, you need to first become aware of its presence. Mindfully observing your thoughts can help you really hear the inner critic and question it. You can ask yourself whether you think the critic's messages are helpful, and carry on. Try to stay present with the uncomfortable feeling and it will help you find out what your needs are. Identifying your needs can be really helpful as it will allow you to create space for them and listen to yourself. By maintaining an awareness of your needs you will be able to set important boundaries that will ultimately help you rediscover who you are.
One last, important tip is to have fun with yourself when you are alone. This is especially helpful for those that do not like themselves anymore, and are no longer friends with themselves. When you are alone, find those things that bring you joy, and do them! This can be tricky for some, but try to power through the discomfort. You are in a growth journey, and some things you try will feel uncomfortable, silly or unnatural at first. The goal is to become a good friend of yourself. So, as you would do with any other friend, comfort and hug yourself. Give yourself the love you need and deserve. Especially when you are feeling hurt, connect with your values, your wants, your dislikes, and soothe yourself. Journaling can become your best ally. Writing down who you are and what you feel, can help you better understand yourself, and make of yourself your acquaintance. Ask yourself questions, doodle how you feel, list activities you enjoy and do them. Explore everything that gives meaning and purpose to your life and practice daily self-love and self-acceptance, because this is what you need.
You are not alone
Loneliness is the need for connection, it is the signal that reminds us how much we value relationships and how we can't survive without them. Loneliness is the message that our body sends, letting us know that we are important and that we need to become friends with ourselves. In order to defeat loneliness, you have to listen to this message.
If you are feeling lonely or struggling with your mental health, please remember, you are not alone.
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