Loneliness is a deeply unpleasant feeling, one that often triggers depression and wrecks self-esteem. Experienced for years on end, it can even lead to physical illness, increasing your risk of everything from cancer to heart disease. It can occur at any period of life, from infancy to old age. And it is not experienced only by the isolated. Indeed, you can live alone and not be lonely, just as you can be surrounded by friends and family yet feel desperate.
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Lonely people feel the way they do because they lack a deep bond with another human being. Some do not want, or need, that bond and are content with their isolation. Others lack this sense of deep connection even though they have a partner, children, and plenty of friends. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell provides a wonderful example of this sense of connection. When he met the novelist Joseph Conrad in London, Russell recalls that “we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire… The emotion was as intense as passionate love.” When you have no one with whom to share that “central fire,” loneliness begins.
The problem with loneliness is that people aren’t always the solution. This may sound odd, but it is true. You can fill your life with people and find that nothing has changed. On the contrary, fill your life with the wrong people, those with whom you have nothing in common, who do not share your sense of humor, or interests, or view of the world, and it may intensify your sense of loneliness and isolation.
Many people never admit just how lonely they really are. This is especially true of the young. It is as if they feel that by doing so, they are also admitting to being unlikeable. But loneliness is a complicated beast. You might be beautiful, witty, and popular and yet still feel dreadfully isolated. Remember, if you do feel lonely, it probably has nothing to do with how likeable you are.
Before you tackle these feelings, you must first be sure that loneliness really is the problem. Many people seek out company in order to escape themselves. If you have unresolved grief, past traumas, or bouts of existential angst, you must deal with them via therapy. You cannot expect others to take care of you. Neither can you expect to escape such feelings through the noisy distractions of a hectic social life. At some point you will find yourself alone once more.
How to Overcome Loneliness
If you are sure that loneliness is the problem, try overcoming it in stages:
1) Find the right sorts of people
Consider the sorts of people you wish to meet. If you are a sensitive, introverted type, you are unlikely to form a deep bond with a group of men who like nothing more than hunting and drinking. Make a list of hobbies and interests. Now look around for any local clubs or groups. Nothing bonds people quicker than a shared passion.
2) Have something to offer
When young and single, people have more time to form shallow, casual friendships. As they age, pursue a career, and raise children, they become far more choosy, seeking to form friendships only with those who have something to offer. Take an interest in as wide a range of subjects as possible. And learn to empathize with other’s problems. You need to offer more than a wish to be liked! If people sense that you are lonely and desperate for a friend, they will avoid you.
3) Arrange to meet somewhere different
This is where it gets tricky. Anyone can join a local sports club or reading group and get chatting to people. The hard part is turning such casual acquaintanceships into deep, loving friendships. First, you must move the relationship to a new setting. For example, if you have joined a book group and each week you chat to the same person, find a reason to meet outside of the class. If they mention that they need to get fit, tell them you have also been meaning to get in shape and suggest joining a gym or yoga class together.
4) Let them in
Those who spend a lot of time alone often find it difficult to allow other people to get close to them. However, in order to establish a true, lasting friendship, you must first establish intimacy. But this will only flourish in the right setting. If you and your friend now attend an exercise class, suggest going for a drink afterwards. Or if you both own dogs, suggest meeting up to walk them. These are the kinds of situations where intimacy begins. When the time is right, move the conversation on to more personal ground. Of course, you must use your own judgement here. Some people may find intimate questions intrusive.
Many people succeed with the first four stages, then allow the relationship to falter. Don’t lose your nerve. If they agreed to walk their dog with you, or they have been giving you a lift to the new exercise class, they must like you. Exchange phone numbers, add them on social media, and introduce them to your family and friends. Again, you must use your judgement. A tightrope must be walked between neglecting the friendship and becoming a pest. Never forget, your new friend may be unsure how you feel about them. Be sure to tell them.
The world owes you nothing. Many lonely people literally sulk at home and blame others for not reaching out to them. But you cannot expect other people to ride to your rescue. You must go out there and seize hold of life. Above all, you must be patient and determined. Don’t allow a couple of bad experiences to put you off. Finally, remember that all human relationships are based upon give and take. If you want a good friend, you must be a good friend.