Updated: Dec 24, 2019
As I reflect upon loneliness, I remember these words written by Carl Rogers:
What is most personal is most universal
I recognize that by its very nature, loneliness is a solitary experience and that our feelings and emotions are unique to each of us.
At the same time loneliness is a shared experience. Many of us can relate to the sadness, emptiness, anxiety, hopelessness, and the sense that we are invisible to others.
I consider some of the reasons for loneliness that I have come across:
Missing someone and just wanting to be with them again.
Being the type of person who wants and needs social contact, and spending too much time alone, missing the interactions and the company of others. Rogers writes about:
the lack of any relationship in which we communicate our real experiencing – and hence our real self – to another.
This might be due to circumstances such as a disability that makes it difficult to go out and meet people.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2016-2017
People in poor health or who have conditions they describe as “limiting” were also at particular risk of feeling lonely more often.
Loneliness can be about the quality of our relationships. Having plenty of acquaintances does not satisfy the need for deep bonds and being with people who we love and trust.
We may feel lonely in our community or religious group, lacking a sense of belonging and feeling like an outsider. This can happen when someone is new to a group and has not yet found their niche. Some of us are not very confident socially and find our self on the outskirts. Another possibility is that our views and beliefs have changed and are now at odds with this particular community.
Loneliness related to depression, anxiety and trauma
This is about the loneliness of not having anyone around you who truly understands. Describing personal experiences of depression, anxiety and trauma to people who have not been through something similar can be extremely difficult.
This can be due to symptoms such as exhaustion as well as the challenge of finding adequate words to capture the feelings, emotions and moods.
Kay Redfield Jamison writes about her experience of social loneliness and isolation:
People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough.
Inner loneliness concerns the relationship that we have with our self.
Depersonalization is a form of dissociation. It is a feeling of being detached from one's self. There can be a sense of going through the motions of day to day living without being emotionally present. This has been described to me as being like a zombie, and being a body without a soul.
Without an inner connection to one's self it is also difficult to relate emotionally with other people.
Loneliness and shame
Feeling lonely is very painful and can affect our physical and emotional health. As I reflect upon loneliness, I note that some people feel ashamed of being lonely and that this exacerbates their suffering.
Everyone else might seem to be living an exciting and sociable life, surrounded by family and friends. The 'evidence' is posted on social media with photos of people having fun together. Those of us who are feeling lonely and isolated may conclude that there is something 'wrong' or 'different' about us. Perhaps we focus upon our looks, personality, a disability or a general sense of 'wrongness'.
This can be especially painful in situations where we are expected to have sociable experiences such as university, and on birthdays and festivals that we spend alone.
We may become ashamed of our self and our loneliness. Withdrawing rather than reaching out for help, and hiding our shame away.
Loneliness and counselling
Counselling begins with someone sitting in the room with us. They are beside us in a physical and emotional sense and this creates a space for change and allows the quality and intensity of loneliness to shift.
When we share our experiences of loneliness with a person who is genuinely attentive, respectful and accepting towards us the feeling can alter. Central to person-centred therapy is the counsellor's intention to understand, as closely as they can how things are from the client’s point of view. In a non-judgmental and non-directive atmosphere, there is room and safety to explore our self and our experiences.
As we share our perspective and feel understood and accepted the healing connection between client and counsellor can grow, and our connection with our inner self can deepen.
Loneliness can be explored and new understandings and insights tend to emerge. We might change our perceptions of loneliness and understand it in a fresh way.
As clients and counsellors we can work with loneliness together in a thrapeutic way. There are also steps that we can take for ourselves.
I recognise that when we are in an emotionally low place taking some sort of action tends to be extremely difficult. Self-care can be a gentle start. the decision to consider our needs and then do something for our own benefit indicates that we are important and deserving of nurturing attention. This can increase our confidence and sense of worth.
If we are able to involve ourselves in activities that boost our physical and emotional health, we are likely to have more energy and enthusiasm for social engagement.
Research into Loneliness shows that in the UK over 9 million people always or often feel lonely (British Red Cross and Co-Op, 2016).
Joining voluntary projects can be a way of connecting with others and alleviating both our and their loneliness.
We can all be aware of the people around us. Noticing and including someone who looks left out in a social situation and offering our companionship where we can.
Kay Redfield Jamison An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
Carl Rogers A Way of Being