Loneliness is a universal experience known to every human being on earth. Everyone is potentially susceptible to loneliness, including the rich and famous. Judy Garland once said, "If I'm such a legend, then why am I so lonely? Let me tell you, being a legend is all very well if you've got somebody around who loves you."
Many of us are probably lonely but are reluctant to admit it. We may feel ashamed and stigmatized by our loneliness and see it as a sign that we are unlovable or defective instead of recognizing it as an essential part of the human condition.
James Park, an existential philosopher, asks, "Is there a person who has never known the eerie distance of isolation and separation, who has never suffered the pain of rejection or the loss of love?" Park eloquently goes on to say, "Loneliness is an aching void in the center of our being, a deep longing to love and to be loved, to be fully known and accepted by at least one other person."
The Faces of Loneliness
Experts say there are several different kinds of loneliness.
- Emotional isolation springs from the absence of close emotional attachment. Dr. Robert Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a social scientist who did much of the seminal research on loneliness, describes emotional isolation as the terror of a small child who feels abandoned by his parents.
- Social isolation results from the lack of a social network. Dr. Weiss characterizes social isolation as the mind-set of a child who is bored and feels left out when his friends are unavailable at a given time. It is no coincidence that children often create imaginary companions to chase away their feelings of loneliness.
- Spiritual loneliness stems from a void within ourselves, a sense of feeling incomplete and unfulfilled even when we have many loving people in our lives. Mark Epstein, MD, a New York City psychiatrist, practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and author of Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, tells his patients that instead of fearing this emptiness, they should learn to embrace it. He writes, "Only when we stop fighting with our personal emptiness can we begin to appreciate the transformation that is possible. Only then can we have access to the still, silent center of our own awareness."
Although getting a divorce, moving to a new state, or having a child leave home can cause feelings of loneliness and loss, feelings of loneliness are often based on an internal sentiment rather than an external reality. Even a socially active, "popular" person can feel emotionally isolated when surrounded by a roomful of superficial acquaintances with whom she lacks a true emotional connection. Even those in a satisfying intimate relationship can feel lonely if they do not have a network of friends to turn to for support when their partner is physically or emotionally unavailable.
Loneliness vs. Solitude
Because aloneness is different than loneliness, we need to tune in to the unique pleasures of solitude. We need the freedom to devote hours to our passions, the opportunity for self-reflection and introspection, and space to engage in activities in which creativity gushes forth so that we are oblivious to the passage of time.
People who suffer frequently from loneliness find that it is often accompanied by a host of other negative emotions, including sadness, boredom, anxiety, restlessness, self-pity, and a lowered sense of self-esteem. One lonely woman says, "I feel like my stomach is a big cheese with a little rat gnawing away at it—never making any progress."
Loneliness and Your Health
In his book The Broken Heart, Dr. James Lynch at the University of Maryland Hospital makes a powerful connection between social isolation and heart disease, pointing out that "reflected in our hearts there is a biological basis for our need to form loving human relationships."
Along the same lines, researchers found that older adults who reported being lonely were more likely to have difficulties doing their daily tasks and were even at an increased risk of death. These are good reasons to combat loneliness!
Tips for Combating Loneliness
To feel complete, we need to nurture a strong connection with our inner selves as well as all kinds of social connections—spouses, lovers, best friends, or mentors with whom we can share our most private thoughts and feelings. We also need casual buddies to "hang out with" (shopping pals and "let's see a movie" friends), and work or church acquaintances who share common day-to-day interests and values.
If you are lonely, here are some things to avoid:
- Isolating yourself or escaping into endless sleeping
- Watching television excessively or surfing the Internet for hours
- Overindulging in food, alcohol, or drugs to numb the pain
Here are some positive ways to deal with loneliness:
- Seek out people. If you are lonely due to a situational factor (recent divorce, job loss, or a move to a new community) realize that your feelings are transient. Give yourself some grieving time, and then seek out people who are in a similar situation. Find a support group, or join a community center, health club, theatre group, or religious organization where you can meet other people and share something in common. Explore chat rooms and websites for singles, divorced people, single parents, folks in recovery from substance abuse, and others who might be prone to loneliness.
- Build social skills. If you are chronically lonely because you are shy or do not relate easily to other people, brush up on your conversational or social skills. Force yourself to engage others in conversation. (Remember, people love to talk about themselves, so ask plenty of questions.) And go places where there will be people to talk with. Join a singles organization and get involved. If your loneliness has led to serious depression, see your doctor or seek therapy.
- Be active. Participate in activities that you love. It is hard to be lonely when you are smashing a tennis ball back and forth or soaring down a ski slope. It is also likely that you will meet people who enjoy the same kinds of things you do. Ditto for volunteer work.