If you’re reading this, chances are you know what it’s like to feel lonely. That means you know that loneliness can sometimes feel like it’ll never end, and that you can often be surrounded by friends and family and still feel cut off from the world.
In theory, the brunch you’re at is going great — nice people, good food, hilarious conversation. But you’re still feeling like you’re a thousand miles away from everyone else emotionally.
The tricky thing about feelings is that they’re different for everyone: Some people, for example, are perfectly fine having few friends, or enjoy spending a great deal of time alone. For other people, those same scenarios would create a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.
Figuring out why you feel lonely even when you’re not alone can help you feel more in tune with the people around you — and with yourself.
How Normal is it to Feel Lonely?
Rresearches show that one in five young people report feeling lonely ‘most of the time’ or ‘always’.
Loneliness can hit anyone at any time. Sometimes you might not even feel lonely for an obvious reason, and what you’re experiencing could always be connected to other things like depression or anxiety.
But it’s true that a lot of people tend to feel lonely during big life events. Maybe you’re moving house. Or your parents are getting separated. Maybe you’re going from primary school into high school. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve outgrown your friendship group, or that they’re starting to get into things that don’t really interest you.
All of these things could be making you feel lonely and lost, and you might find it hard to connect with people around you.
So just because you’re feeling lonely, it doesn’t mean that you are different or ‘weird’: in fact, it means that you have more in common with the people around you than you realise.
Reasons You Might Feel Lonely Even Though You’re Not Alone
Americans are currently facing an epidemic of loneliness. In New York City, this epidemic appears to be nearly universal despite it being one of the most densely packed and busiest cities in the nation.
It may seem strange that someone can feel lonely when surrounded by 8 million people, but, sadly, it’s all too common.
So what is going on?
How can someone feel lonely even when in the company of friends and family? And how can another, who only has a few close relationships, be fulfilled and happy while appearing to some to be alone?
The answer basically lies in how well a person is able to connect on a deep emotional level with others in an intimate and vulnerable way.
So what might prevent a person from being able to do that?
1. History of Trauma
Childhood trauma impacts an individual during their most vulnerable times of growth and development. Such experiences not only impact one’s sense of safety, but also shape a person’s perception of relationships, the trustworthiness of others, one’s sense of self and worthiness, and risk/reward ratio of being vulnerable to another.
And, when a person becomes traumatized and/or hurt repeatedly, it becomes that much more difficult to believe that people are safe or even worth getting close to.
However, one does not have to have experienced overt trauma in their life to struggle with feeling lonely in the present.
2. Poor Parental Attachment
More than anything, we learn how to connect and form bonds with others based on the bonds we’ve had with our caregivers. When there’s a disruption in the parental bond, it often becomes more difficult throughout life to feel emotionally attached to others.
If you felt dismissed, invalidated, or like your needs would not be met, then you likely expect this from others (and treat others similarly). Worse, if you were scared of a parent or saw them as threatening somehow, yet also depended on them for survival, you might find that you have an intense distrust of others or even find yourself in repeated abusive relationships.
When the parental bond resulted in an insecure attachment of sorts, there tends to be a chronic feeling that something is missing. You might spend your life trying to fulfill the needs that weren’t met as a child, and chronically become disappointed because no person can ever fill those needs once you’re an adult.
Sadly, you may even come to believe that you don’t deserve love or not even know how to be close to another human being, reinforcing a pattern of chronic isolation and loneliness.
3. You’re an Introvert
Introverts definitely can get a bad reputation for living in isolation. In reality, for a lot of introverts, socializing can simply be exhausting, especially with big groups of people or environments where there’s lots of networking.
While it can be fun to catch up on a surface level, it doesn’t necessarily make you feel closer to those around you.
Make sure you’re recharging your social meter when you need to — choosing to stay in when you’re feeling down, for example — so that you’re not running your emotional battery low.
4. Fears of Intimacy/Vulnerability
When someone gets bullied or is in a relationship that leaves one heartbroken, a message starts to form that it’s not safe to be who you are. It’s not ok to open up, love, or be vulnerable. An armor starts to form to protect against any possible future instances of pain. And, in so doing, a gap begins to grow between you and others.
Shielding yourself from pain makes sense. But, what protects against pain also prevents love from getting through. There’s no selective armor.
More distance, more gaps, and, more loneliness.
5. Trapped in a False Narrative
A history of trauma, pain and rejection can lead to a distorted and painful narrative about oneself that then shapes each new experience one has. In addition, living in a society that forces high levels of conformity and docility, most people learn from a young age that parts of their self are unacceptable, shameful, or just plain “bad.”
Further, if you believe you aren’t good enough, then you will believe, on some level, that neither are your friends. Every judgment about yourself becomes manifest 10-fold with others.
This makes it nearly impossible to connect, be vulnerable, or feel an emotional closeness with others. So long as you believe yourself and/or others to be unworthy somehow, it doesn’t matter how many people you have in your life — you will always feel alone.
6. Quality above Quantity
You can, theoretically, have a million friends, but if you don’t invest time and energy into them, it’s likely you’ll continue feeling lonely.
We are given an opportunity to build trusting and lasting relationships when quality is the focus. In order to truly feel connected to someone in a relationship you want to be able to be your most genuine self.
And, naturally, you probably can’t give your genuine self to a dozen people in the same way as you can to your two or three closest people — so try focusing on that squad to ensure those bonds are strong.
Of course, developing relationships is a two-way street: Becoming closer to a person doesn’t mean you’re dumping all of your problems on them, but that you’re developing a connection and forming a bond that is mutually beneficial.
Close friends can’t solve your problems; they can only offer support. Furthermore, it’s your job to support them when they need it, too.
7. Perfectionism, Selfies, and the Lost Phenomenon of Community
We hear a lot about technology and social media as major factors in the current loneliness epidemic. Research, however, is mixed on this.
On the one hand, yes, people are more immersed in games, phones, pictures that are cloaked in rose-colored lenses, and capturing the perfect selfie. At the same time, technology also allows for more ways to stay connected with family and friends and can actually decrease feelings of loneliness. The catch?
It seems that technology is kind of good for older adults. Yet, younger adults (18-22) fair best when they stay off their phones and computers.
People have become less empathetic, more concerned about self — love, care, improvement, image, help
— at the expense of compassion, more controlled and regimented, more standardized, less adventurous, less open to creativity, and less tolerant of ambiguity.
Community and play are seen as almost frivolous. Isolation becomes part of the norm from a very early age.
8. Networking First
This phenomenon might be particularly true for New Yorkers in that many relationships are built on what someone can do for you, rather than how much you just genuinely enjoy being around and feel close to someone.
We live in a society that values things and “success” over relationships. Relationships, then, become commodities to be acquired in the same way as a new car or the latest gadget.
Too often, people are seen as objects.
This does not bode well for emotional closeness. As such, one is never fulfilled and just needs more, more, and more.
9. Too Many Experts
We live in an interesting time wherein there is an expert for literally everything.
We are told what to eat, how to bathe, what our bodies should do and look like, how to breathe, how to poop, and how to make love. We’ve come so far from our natural instincts and ability to listen to our bodies and minds that we do not even feel connected to our own selves!
And, so, people tend to question everything. As soon as something goes wrong, or if someone else tells you something is wrong, questions start to arise about who you’re spending time with.
Others’ opinions become truth. If it’s a romantic relationship, the next one is always just a swipe away so there’s no need to stick with someone who may not fit your image, others’ expectations, what society says is “right,” etc.
Emotional connection requires being touch with, well, your emotions. And, being able to trust those emotions without anyone else telling you what you should or should not do. No one is an expert on you besides you.
10. You Have Your Guard Up
Ever feel like people don’t really know you? It’s possible that you’re surrounded by people who are not emotionally available or who aren’t looking for new friends or close relationships.
It’s also possible that you have your own guard up, and therefore aren’t sending out clear messages that you’re open for new bonds or connections.
Being genuine is one of the most important components of a healthy and sustainable relationship. When you have your guard up, you not only have challenges with authenticity, but you may also have challenges relating to what others may share with you.
Sharing yourself can be scary, but if you want to form a bond with others, it has to start somewhere.
11. Too Much Time on Social Media
No matter what narrative you’re trying to put up on your Instagram the desire to check your phone constantly often signals you want to check out of the present moment and into something else.
\In reality, we don’t know what life is like for our peers behind the computer screen (unless we’re actually, you know, there with them). Some studies also say that the lonelier a person is, the more time they’re likely to spend on social media, thus contributing to the cycle.
Social media can also give us the sense that we’re with tons of other people, but because we’re not gaining anything from a face-to-face interaction, or actively experiencing their lives with them, it can further contribute to the sense that we’re feeling isolated in a big group (even if that group is only virtual and perceived).
What can You do about Your Loneliness?
There’s no one single way to fight loneliness: if there was, everybody would be using it!
But that doesn’t mean that loneliness is impossible to beat, or that if you’re feeling it now you will be forever. Here are a few quick dot points that cover some of the ways you can start feeling more at peace with the people in your life:
- Talk to people you trust about how you feel.
- Think about your interests and hang out with like-minded people (check out your school or local community centre to see if there are any groups you might like).
- Get a pet or try pet minding.
- Refine your social media use.
- Say yes to any social invitations that might come your way.
- Practise dealing with the feeling of loneliness by validating the emotion (e.g. ‘It’s okay I feel this way’, ‘Everyone feels this way sometimes’) and talking to yourself like a friend (‘I’m here for you, this will pass).
Just because your past or your culture may influence your sense of loneliness, that does not mean it’s destiny. People can change.
You can learn to slowly let down your barriers, to trust others, to accept the parts of yourself that you’ve grown to hate, to value yourself and others regardless of what people might think, to dare to be “weak,” and to listen to your body and instincts.
We are a social species. The ability to connect is inherent in all of us, even if it might look very different for any given individual.
Turn off the computer, call a friend and ask about their day, look into someone’s eyes and smile, tell someone you love them. It’s not too late.