What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is unhappy solitude: being socially apart from other people at a time when we want to feel included and feeling emotionally isolated, having no one with whom to share our inner thoughts, fears and dreams. It is possible to be lonely even if we are surrounded by people.

  Loneliness is an important life issue to tackle. People that are lonely have poorer physical health. It is well known that sick people recover more quickly when they have someone to care for and care about them (even if it is a pet). Being lonely and not having satisfactory relationships also adversely affects our mental health. It damages our self-esteem (the way we think and feel about ourselves), our self-confidence (we may give up trying to make friends or relate to others believing that there is no point as it never works out), and it can cause depression. Feeling lonely together with the experience of social isolation can make existing depression worse. Having someone to talk to, to share the ups and downs of our day and to have fun with is vitally important to feeling included and valued.

Types of loneliness
Emotional loneliness is about not having satisfying intimate friendships: not having someone to care about you or listen to your troubles. (Or it may be that you are looking for someone special with whom to share your life.) An emotionally lonely person may have a few friends, but the friendships are lacking in some way: perhaps feelings aren't shared or understood. When this happens you can feel empty, abandoned, worried and frightened.

  Social loneliness is when you don't have friends to do things with or be with and you feel bored and marginalized, not being involved in what's going on. If, for example, you move to a new area or work shifts or work unsociable hours you may feel socially isolated.

  Some people socially isolate themselves because they have too many rules about with whom they should mix. For example, if you believe that you should only talk to people of the same race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, class etc. as you then you are limiting the number of possible social contacts you can make. You limit them further by avoiding people with disabilities, that don't look attractive, who aren't popular, are too old, too young, too thin, too fat... Ask yourself if you have done this and, if so, ask yourself why you have written these people off as possible friends and if your reasons are valid. How would you feel if someone told you that you didn't fit into their ideas of the type of person they should befriend?

  Loneliness can be acute and temporary such as when a young person starts university and doesn't know anyone else: it takes time to get to know people and make new friends. Suddenly you are thrown into an unfamiliar world where you have no social support: it is a little like starting school for the first time except you don't (as a rule) go home at the end of the day. Also, you are expected to act more independently, making your own decisions and finding your own company and entertainment. You are completely responsible for yourself, possibly for the first time in your life.

  Exacerbating your loneliness is the physical distance from existing friends and family and the emotional distance created by the fact that your friends are also doing new things or are doing similar things as before but without you, and that your new experiences may be hard to explain or describe to those left behind. Leaving home is a very vulnerable time and it is common to feel homesick and for you to increase your contact with parents and friends through writing, emailing and phoning.

  You may make new friends quickly from your halls of residence, but these are initially very casual and may not last as they are friendships born out of desperation and fear. You may have latched on to whatever person or group of people that have accepted you, regardless of likes and dislikes or of personality.

  In time you (and they) will meet other students through lectures and will establish some sort of rapport with them, making you feel sufficiently secure to drop some of the early acquaintances in favour of others. These newer friendships are more likely to last as they are based on areas of commonality rather than clutching at the first person who also needs a crutch.

  Even then, however, your loneliness may not be completely dispelled. New friendships cannot satisfy to the same level as old friends from home and at the same time those friendships left behind become shakier as they also move on to new friends and experiences.

  Patience, understanding and acceptance of the fact that new friendships take time to nurture will help you cope. (If loneliness continues, other strategies need to be put into place as suggested elsewhere in the book.) When a large group of people are all away from home for the first time, they are all starting at the same point and are all keen to make new friends, so it is easier than when you are the only one.

  Going to a new area to start a new job can also be very daunting. It is more difficult to make friends when everyone else is secure in their own friendship groups and may not welcome someone they see as an interloper. However, if you make overtures of friendship towards other people, they will generally accept you joining them, for example, for a drink after work or for a night out.

  There is a tendency for it to be easier for men to join an established friendship group or clique (where all the members know and socialize with each other). Their groups tend to be looser and more flexible than women's cliques where they can often 'close ranks' and not accept anyone new.

  Loneliness can be long-term and is more of a problem since a chronically lonely person is unhappy for a protracted period of time increasing the risk of depression and suicide. Long-term loneliness prevents us from going out and doing positive things with our lives. We are more likely to remain at home doing something passive like reading, watching television, playing on the computer, spending time on the Internet and sleeping more than we need. We might turn to shopping, eating, alcohol or drugs to dull the emotional pain of loneliness and to help us sleep.

  Some people try to prove to themselves and others that they are 'doing all right' by becoming very busy. This might be with hobbies, exercise or voluntary work. Or they may become workaholics. They may try to assuage their loneliness by joining chat rooms.

It is possible to overcome loneliness by changing your perspectives and making friends. For help, read Overcoming Loneliness and Making Friends (Sheldon Press, £7.99, by Márianna Csóti). To know how to successfully interact with other people, read How to be a People Person (Right Way Books, Constable & Robinson, £6.99, by Márianna Csóti).