Loneliness: What is it, benefits and drawbacks, types, and how to beat it
Is loneliness good? Loneliness is part of the human condition. Everybody’s ever felt lonely before. The feeling of loneliness can be very negative for our physical and mental health. However, learning to be alone and enjoying your own company can be very beneficial. It can help us get to know ourselves and grow as people. Discover here a useful guide: what is loneliness, why we are afraid to be alone, the different types of loneliness and what to do to beat it.
What is Loneliness? Concept and definition
Feeling that we are alone is one of the worst feelings we can have. Loneliness is one of the great enemies of happiness. To be happy, we need to create intimate bonds with other people. We need to have someone to trust, we need to have a sense of belonging and have people to rely on. Having strong relationships (which doesn’t mean many relationships) is one of the key aspects of being happy.
Two main types of isolation could be distinguished as Loneliness and Solitude. The first would refer to the feeling of anguish in the absence of real or perceived social contact. The second term would refer to the need to distance oneself from others from time to time.
Being alone can be good for you. The problem is when we feel lonely, when we perceive a lack of social support or when we believe that we have no one to count on because it can become social isolation.
Therefore, we could define loneliness as a debilitating psychological condition due to the real or perceived absence of satisfactory social relations. People with loneliness show deep feelings of emptiness, worthlessness and other depressive symptoms.
Is loneliness good?
As we have previously mentioned, there would be two types of isolation. Here we will talk about solitude as a way to describe not being accompanied but without the feeling of anguish for not being in a social relationship. This is a kind of positive and necessary isolation.
It is true that we are social species and we need others, but to be good with others we must first be good with ourselves.
Solitude and introspection
Spending time on our own gives us space to think. It helps us to get to know yourself, to connect with ourselves, and it is essential for our personal growth.
Many people are not able to spend time alone. This great dependence on others, in addition to being a sign of psychological difficulties, does not allow us to be happy. We can’t depend on others to be happy, this is never effective. We must be responsible for our own happiness.
Solitude allows us to know what we want to do with our lives, what our goals are, what we like, what we don’t like, what we need.
Solitude and creativity
Spending time alone can be key to developing creative ideas. This is because when we are alone we can let our minds wander more freely, we are better able to listen to ourselves.
There is a term called “incubation” that intervenes in creative projects and ideas. It consists of taking a moment away from our work, and let our consciousness (with no action on our part) deepen our mind and knowledge to make unconscious connections. This is only possible in solitude while performing tasks that don’t require much cognitive effort, such as mechanical tasks.
Why do we feel lonely?
This study found we feel much more alone now than before. It is paradoxical when we can enjoy social media, social networks that allow us to be in touch with others.
Our society has changed. Now we seek instant happiness. We don’t spend time on social relationships, we don’t invest in them. We live from our image in those social networks but we don’t really contact people.
Older people are more at risk for loneliness. The death of a spouse, retirement, the fact that children form their own families, causes older people to spend a lot of time alone.
Loneliness even when you are with someone
Feeling alone even when we have people around us is a kind of subjective loneliness.
To feel lonely even if we are not alone is related to the quality and intimacy of these relationships, not to the quantity of them. Maybe it’s because you don’t have the right contact with others that you need.
On many occasions, this is brought on by ourselves. It is not that we are guilty, but that we have self-limiting thoughts and false beliefs. “They don’t ask me how I am,””they don’t call me on the phone,””they don’t propose plans.” Even though that may be true, we can’t leave the responsibility to others. Call people make plans, approach others and they will more likely repay you by approaching you.
Types of loneliness
Within this negative solitude, we can differentiate several types of solitude.
Emotional loneliness appears as a result of the loss of a bond with another person. It may be due to the death of a partner or the breakup of a relationship.
Social loneliness refers to the absence of a network of social relationships of which he feels he belongs.
Subjective and objective loneliness
Subjective loneliness refers to the fact that, despite being accompanied, we feel lonely, as can happen in couple relationships.
Loneliness in a relationship is an indicator that the relationship is not going well. In these cases, we need to consider the causes of these feelings, improve communication in the couple and learn what we need from each other.
Refers to any outside observer who can appreciate that a person is really lonely and isolated.
This type of loneliness refers to the fact that after a period of psychological distress, people manage to cope with the loss and recover. It’s a sort of transient loneliness.
Loneliness as an adaptive mechanism
Feelings of loneliness are generally successful in helping people reconnect and eliminating feelings of social isolation. They serve as a form of warning or alarm that something is not as it should be, there is something to change.
It is more stable and is usually the result of people’s difficulties in establishing satisfactory social relationships over the years.
We can say that solitude is necessary but when it crosses to loneliness it is a warning that something is not going well and that it is necessary to reconnect with people. However, if it is not properly managed, we may become stuck in that feeling and fail to get out of there, making it more difficult to solve that problem.
Thoughts and phrases common on loneliness
When we feel alone, a series of thoughts, reflections or verbalizations can appear that increase and perpetuate feelings of loneliness. These thoughts are often irrational and that is why these beliefs must be dismantled. Cognitive restructuring can be an effective technique for these cases.
“People don’t care about me, I’m boring.”
One of the most recurring thoughts of loneliness is the belief that you “can’t interest people because you are a boring person” Do you really know what people think? Did you ask them? Do you have objective evidence that this is real?
In case several people have told you that you’re boring, is it the most terrible thing that can happen to you? I’m sure you’ve put up with a lot more difficult things in your life than someone thinking you’re boring.
What’s the use of telling you that no one is interested in you? It just makes you feel bad and doesn’t help you feel less lonely or contact people.
It’s hard to seem boring to everyone, just as it’s hard for everyone to like you. You’re very likely to strike someone as interesting.
“Nobody cares about me.”
One of the most recurrent phrases of loneliness is believing that others “don’t care about you”. Ask yourself if it’s true that your family and friends don’t care about you. They haven’t been with you when you told them you were having a hard time? What evidence is there that this statement is true?
Sometimes, it seems like others don’t care about you because they don’t know you’re suffering. In order for them to know, you need to share how you feel. You can’t expect people to guess, or constantly ask you how you are. Everyone has their own lives and their own troubles, and they can’t keep an eye on you all the time.
Thinking that they don’t care about you doesn’t make it easier to connect with others, just the opposite. It makes you isolate yourself and get angry with people close to you.
“You can’t trust others.”
Another of the most recurrent thoughts of loneliness is to believe that “You can’t trust others”. You may not be able to trust everyone, and some people are more reliable than others, but you can’t generalize. There are good people out there to trust. It doesn’t help us to think that we can’t trust anyone, it doesn’t help us to feel less alone.
“When I find a partner, I won’t be lonely.”
Another common phrase in loneliness is believing that when “I find a partner, I will stop feeling lonely”. Having a partner is no guarantee that you will not feel lonely. In fact, one can feel very lonely even when there are many people around us. Loneliness does not depend on who we have next to us but on ourselves. We may have a partner but if we don’t form a bond of trust and affection the loneliness will still be there.
Furthermore, thinking that having a partner is going to be an antidote to our loneliness is going to make us look desperate and hold on to the first person who listens to us, this can turn to dependency and toxic relationships.
“It’s better to do things with others.”
Another recurring thought of loneliness is often the belief that “It’s better to do things with others”. It can certainly be more fun to share activities with others. It’s natural to prefer doing things with people we love. But doing things on your own is not a negative thing, even certain things can be more rewarding. If we’ve never done anything alone, it can be scary at first, but then it becomes a positive experience.
To think that it is better to do things with someone else only paralyzes you. It keeps you from doing the things you like to do. If you like going to the movies but no one can or doesn’t want to see that movie, do not let anything stop you.
“If I go by myself, I’ll just look like a loser.”
“If I go by myself, I will look a loser”. Few people think that someone who goes alone for a walk, dinner, a movie or any other activity is a loser. Many people see it, in fact, as something admirable. It takes courage to dare to do those things alone. Remember we can’t stop doing something that we feel like doing because of what others think. We will never please everyone, and pretending to do so is an impossible task.
Also, thinking that you may seem like a loser for doing something alone just lowers your self-esteem and make you feel more miserable.
“It’s terrible to be alone.”
Another thought or phrase of loneliness that people who feel lonely are repeating is “It’s terrible to be alone”. Many times it’s more fun to be accompanied, however, there are far worse things than being alone. To think that it is “terrible” is a way of catastrophizing and doesn’t help us to feel less alone, on the contrary, it makes us more unhappy.
Who tends to suffer from loneliness?
We can all suffer from loneliness, without exception, but there are certain characteristics or events that increase the probability of suffering it.
- Our personality characteristics. People who struggle with bonding and relationships are more likely to experience loneliness more often, such as introverted, shy, or anxious people.
- People with low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness and unloved, are unlikely to get close to other people. The problem is that social contact increases self-esteem, and the less contact you have with people the more and more self-esteem you lose. This gives rise to a very undesirable vicious circle.
- Low social skills. People with low social skills also have difficulty creating and maintaining social networks.
- Socio-demographic characteristics. Young people, along with older people, have higher levels of loneliness. The absence of a partner, family difficulties and the loss of loved ones make it easier for us to feel alone.
Loneliness: Why are we afraid to be alone?
Why are we afraid of loneliness? It seems that in our society it’s frowned upon to be alone. Sometimes the family pushes you to find a partner or get married. People who go out to dinner alone, go to the movies alone or travel alone are usually the exception, however, more and more people are doing this.
It is true that we need the other people, but a certain amount of loneliness is also necessary. As we have said before, we need to spend time with ourselves.
We are afraid to be alone because we feel vulnerable and abandoned. We may think that we need others, that others complete us and have to take care of us. You may think that you alone are not enough, that you are not able to do certain things and need others to do them for you. Maybe you think that lonely people are weird. We may feel lonely because we have a lot of love to give and there is no one by our side, or that person rejects your affection.
However, none of this is true. We are rarely really alone, we may have distanced ourselves from our friends or family, but we can always get that love back. Each of us has enough resources to make our own decisions and pursue our goals. We don’t need anyone to do anything for us. It is true that we can rely on our loved ones, but not depend on them.
If we take full responsibility for ourselves, valuing ourselves, listening to ourselves, taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually, we are less likely to fear being alone.
Consequences of loneliness
Loneliness can have very negative consequences for our physical and mental health, as this study describes. The perception of social isolation or loneliness increases vigilance towards potential hazards and heightens feelings of vulnerability, while at the same time increasing the desire to reconnect with others. Hypervigilance towards social threats alters the psychological processes that influence the functioning of the organism, diminishes the quality of sleep and increases the likelihood of illness and death.
Discover what loneliness means for Baya Vose in the following video.
Psychological Consequences of Loneliness
- Feeling lonely can easily lead to depression.
- Influences cognitive impairment and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Cognifit has programs to prevent early cognitive impairment that have shown to be effective.
- It causes a reduction in participation in social activities, leisure, and exercise. It has to do with “destructive” habits: overeating, alcohol consumption, tobacco, etc.
- Increases stress due to lack of emotional support.
Physiological Consequences of Loneliness
- Increases blood pressure
- It has direct effects on the immune and cardiovascular systems, which implies an increased risk of disease and increases the risk of death.
- Chronic loneliness is associated with mortality from cardiovascular problems. Recently it has been discovered that even a short period of time of loneliness poses a health risk.
- May cause worsening of tumor consequences.
- Health can affect loneliness. Having a disease can increase feelings of loneliness.
What can be done to fight loneliness?
Connect with others: either if we don’t really have friends or people close to us, or if the bond has cooled down, get closer to others. Worry about the others, ask how they are doing, how they’ve been over the weekend or holidays, ask what their plans are. Don’t be afraid to take the first step. If you have difficulty maintaining relationships or find it difficult to make friends, improve your social skills and communication skills.
Reflect on your thoughts: What do you think about loneliness? What thoughts do you have when you’re alone? Reflect on their objectivity, usefulness and analyze them.
Connect with yourself: Learn to be more aware of your emotions, thoughts, needs, desires, goals. Mindfulness meditation can be a great help.
Don’t see loneliness as a negative thing: There’s nothing wrong with spending time alone. As we have said, it is something you need to connect with yourself and it can bring you a lot of satisfaction.
Stay away from victimizing: There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t fall victim to “why does this happen to me?” Ask yourself what you can learn from this, and what you can do to stop feeling like this. Take the step and connect with others, open your relationships, interact with other people, leave isolation behind.
Do not seek immediate relief from loneliness: Wanting to quickly relieve feelings of loneliness facilitates undesirable and risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, drugs, eating, sex or compulsive shopping. In this way we try to escape the feeling of loneliness, but it is much more effective and healthy to face it. In addition, these activities only produce short-term relief, making us feel worse afterwards.
This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Psicóloga General Sanitaria, experta en terapia sexual y de pareja. Ayudo a mejorar la calidad de vida de las personas mediante terapia psicológica y la comunicación a través de la red.