Most people have some experience with loneliness. By definition, it is a complex and usually unpleasant response to isolation. The experience of loneliness is unique to each of us in that it has no single common cause and is not necessarily about being alone. In fact, many experts agree, “it is the perception of being alone and isolated that matters the most.” Therefore, we can be surrounded by others and still feel empty, alone, and unwanted. The subtlety needed for approaching loneliness is due to the fact that some differentiation from others, some sense of separateness, may be necessary for the formation and preservation of one’s distinctive personality and identity. The problematic character of loneliness emerges when this natural and legitimate differentiation generates or facilitates a degree of insecurity, tentativeness, and paralyzing self-consciousness at which the person cannot find the confidence to navigate the territory between independence and a sense of belonging and harmony.
Our need, to belong to a group or society has deep and strong roots. In the psychology literature the concern for community, support, acceptance, membership, and related experiences to belonging has been emphasized as a fundamental need since the appearance of the work of Adler, Fromm, and Maslow. And even apart from a general theory about the problem of sociality and alienation, there is overwhelming clinical and experiential evidence of the harmful effects of loneliness on well-being. In fact, research finds that extreme loneliness is potentially more lethal than, for example, obesity. Chronic levels of loneliness have been linked to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, impacting cardiovascular health and immunity. A sense of not belonging is easily linked with a wide range of other kinds of emotional distress and reduced levels of functioning. Loneliness can manifest itself in palpably physical experiences such as exhaustion and discomfort. It is predictive of depression and a range of unhealthy behaviors that include increased alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, a high-fat diet, and sleep disturbance.
In societies where an individualistic culture prevails, the problem of loneliness may be especially acute since a person may feel that he or she is expected to be able to “go it alone” or be ruggedly self-reliant. This tends to make it hard to find a middle ground between denying the problem of loneliness, on the one hand, and rushing to pathologize it, on the other. Thus, one falls short of understanding loneliness in its fullness, complexity, and legitimacy. Different forms and aspects of the experience of loneliness--from not fitting in, to feeling like an outside or a stranger, to a more radical feeling of being forlorn, abandoned, and disconnected--have different causes and would require very different approaches for their alleviation. The reflections here only allude to certain aspects of this universal and multi-faceted phenomenon. For example, sometimes loneliness is caused by circumstances simply beyond our control. Even then, therapy can assist individuals in preventing such unavoidable and natural loneliness from becoming protracted or deteriorating into a dysfunction. Therapy would be able to help individuals work through the particular causes of their feelings of loneliness and identify a way toward greater well-being.
In the modern world of technology and social media, loneliness is more common than it was 20-30 years ago. Respondents to a polled questionnaire in 1984 reported having three close confidant(e)s. When the same questions were asked in 2004, the most common answer was zero confidant(e)s. With so many ways to connect to people, we find ourselves more disconnected emotionally from others now than in the past. The use of Facebook, for example, can exacerbate feelings of worthlessness associated with loneliness. Many people perceive their friends as happier and more successful, which contributes to an increased sense of isolation from others whose lives are seemingly happier and more fulfilled. While this may be a misperception, it is perception that is most relevant to our experience with loneliness. The feelings of loneliness are not invalid because the narrative we create is what we experience, despite knowing that users often post selectively only about their good experiences.
After all, we should not forget that loneliness is a very common human experience. It is a paradox that loneliness is something we all share to one degree or another. When we hold the insight about the near universality of loneliness in mind, we can already find ourselves partly liberated from the grip of isolation. The human condition is the interplay of delightful and sometimes problematic connectedness and hard but occasionally unavoidable separateness.
Therapy, finely attuned to the needs of the client’s situation, can help individuals work through the particular causes, symptoms, and trajectories of loneliness and assist them in finding a path to well-being through a greater connectedness with others and with themselves.