Most people would say that I have a lot of friends. Most of the same people would also say that I’m an extrovert who loves talking and listening to people. Some of them might go as far as to say that they think I’m popular. On a good day, I might even be inclined to agree.
Why is it, then, that I feel so lonely? Why do I feel as though none of those people, who proudly call me a friend, would come and sit with me in my times of need? Why do I feel as though none of them really care?
I am currently seeking therapy for loneliness. The more I talk about my internal sense of solitary confinement – which leaves me feeling like my body is hollow – the more I am starting to realize that I am actually not alone in the traditional sense of the word.
But being alone and feeling lonely are two very different issues, and must not be used as synonyms. David Owen, author of All The Lonely People, describes his loneliness as follows:
“Loneliness is a feeling of being irrevocably separate. It’s not as simple as physically being alone and missing your friends. It’s more like pining for people, or time, or a version of yourself that never existed. It feels like grasping for an unidentified something that will make you happy, make you feel more connected to the world, make you feel more like you belong.”
Loneliness has long been associated with social isolation, an epidemic that is linked to old people living alone after the death of a significant other. These older people are also unlikely to be able to operate independently, and thus spend large amounts of time in their own home.
Increasingly, however, young people, who are not necessarily physically or socially isolated from the outside world, have reported feelings of severe loneliness. Like me, a lot of young people are surrounded by others, and yet feel unable to connect with them. According to recent research, 40% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 reported feeling lonely.
It would seem obvious, when discussing young people’s mental health, to point the finger at social media. Young people increasingly rely on social media for their social interactions, but online interactions fundamentally cannot make up for the companionship that humans need to feel fulfilled.
On the flip side, however, social media can be said to aid the process of alleviating loneliness altogether, by acting as a simple platform used to connect people to one another. It is then down to the users to police their own interactions with the platform in such a way that does not cross your personal boundaries.
Changing patterns of work is also leading to more loneliness. Hot-desking, flexible working, and digital collaboration tools are all enablers of a work culture of anytime-anyplace teamwork.
However, these ways of working fundamentally take away the opportunity for human interaction and the gradual building of relationships with team members.
In increasingly busy times, as well, where everybody is stretched thin, we want to avoid being a burden to those around us. When asked, 75% of those experiencing loneliness symptoms actually did have somebody that they felt that they could lean on. The real question, then, is what is stopping people from using that option of support?
And there are particular demographics of people that appear even more vulnerable to loneliness than others: those of ethnic minority backgrounds – due to historic discrimination and a general sense of not belonging, those with disabilities and long-term illnesses, those who have caring responsibilities, those of a lower socioeconomic status, and those who live and work in urban environments, whereby they see people everywhere and all the time, without any meaningful interaction. 27% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 living in London are experiencing loneliness.
Loneliness has even been connected to an individual’s genetic make-up.
So, loneliness is much more than a simple state of mind, but rather a combination of biological, psychological, and socioeconomic factors that can quickly have physical health impacts. These could be changes in brain activity and chemistry, heart problems, decreased memory and symptoms of stress.
And yes, although loneliness and isolation are not interchangeable terms, they are two sides of the same coin. Loneliness can lead to self-induced social isolation if an individual feels unwanted or not needed, which in turn exacerbates the loneliness.
Those experiencing loneliness are more sensitive to rejection, and pre-empting that any interaction will lead to some sort of shunning, they may choose to shut themselves away altogether to avoid the risk of disappointment.
We must now come to the conclusion that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.
It is not a problem that can be fixed by simply talking to a stranger. After all, it is the quality and depth of interactions that matter when an individual feels overlooked.
If you, or someone you know, are struggling with loneliness, attempting to build or rebuild high-quality relationships with those who share your interests and values is a good first stepping stone. This is a quiet way of supporting your brain to believe in itself again and feel validated.
This is also a fantastic way to allow yourself to find your ability to trust again. Collaborating and interacting with like-minded people reduces the chances of ‘rejection,’ and in turn, increases feelings of acceptance.
Depending which side of the “technology-leads-to-loneliness” fence you sit on, you might also want to try one of the digital solutions to loneliness. Valerie Stark and Stina Slinders are the co-Founders of Huggle, an app that allows you to connect with people who frequently visit the same places as you or share your interests.
And finally, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, consider moving somewhere abroad, to a place that culturally favors community, complementarity, and collectiveness.
Therapy is a process. Sometimes it is two steps forward, sometimes three steps back. Loneliness therapy is the same; I’m working through my feelings of vulnerability, of feeling overlooked and under-heard, of thinking that nobody truly cares.
Knowing that I am not the only person who feels this way is both heartbreaking and strangely reassuring because it tells me that it is not our problem: it is a societal problem.