No one wants to feel lonely. And yet, every single person does. Loneliness, along with anxiety, is one of the most basic realities of being human. Facing your loneliness takes courage. And, it’s important to understand different types of loneliness, so that you can get on the right path toward meaningful connection.
Even before the pandemic, doctors identified a loneliness epidemic sweeping this country. For example, nearly half of Americans report feeling lonely or a sense of emptiness in their relationships. Loneliness doesn’t just impact emotional health. Social isolation can be as damaging to your physical health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. (For more on this research, read here.)
The truth is: loneliness itself is not your enemy. It’s an important signal to notice. It has valuable information for you. You don’t want to let it get too big, but you also don’t want to pretend it’s not there. Instead, learn to understand your loneliness so that you can lead yourself through it wisely.
2 Types of Loneliness
Here are 2 types of loneliness I’ll focus on today: 1.) Situational Loneliness and 2.) Chronic Loneliness. Most of us experience both of these types of loneliness from time to time, but they each need different remedies.
1.) Situational Loneliness
As a young adult, I moved from coast to coast, uprooting and replanting in 6 different cities within 10 years. Over time, all of the change took its toll. I struggled with a type of loneliness for years that I didn’t understand. Having grown up with close-knit community, I didn’t yet know that it takes a long time to make an old friend.
Situational loneliness is one of the types of loneliness that strikes you as a result of a unique change in circumstances. For example, it frequently shows up when you move. It also shows up after the loss of a loved one. When someone passes away or a relationship is disrupted, it is normal to feel lonely for that person. Finally, situational loneliness can occur as a result of an illness, a work situation, or our current pandemic. It can show up in any situation when you are forced into a period of isolation for a time.
If you’re lonely because you’re missing a loved one—a friend who lives far away, a parent who passed away, or a loving community you had to leave—you KNOW what authentic connection feels like. That’s part of what hurts. You’re missing something you’ve had.
Take heart. Loneliness is a beautiful aspect of your humanity. It reminds you of the ones you’ve loved. And, it can also signal your need for ongoing connection. You can honor the reality of the good things you’ve had AND take steps toward establishing new and meaningful connections.
Here are a few ways to care for yourself if you are experiencing one of the types of loneliness called situational loneliness:
- Structure your time.
When loneliness gets big, it can keep you from doing the very thing that is needed—reaching out for connection. The trick is to keep your loneliness contained so that it doesn’t get too big and hijack your best efforts. In this case, structure is your friend. Schedule daily or weekly check-ins with other people or groups. Pay attention to the loneliest days (weekends, evenings, morning?) And, be intentional about planning ahead. Then schedule 1 thing during that day that you *know* will be life giving. It could be a phone call with a long-distance friend, or an appointment with a counselor. But make sure you build in at least 1 activity to give you a boost during those times you’ll need it most.
- Take a risk.
When you’re lonely, you can’t give in to it. You have to try new things. Try taking a virtual class, or volunteering. Check out a church group. . . or a hiking club. I can’t begin to tell you all the things I tried when I moved to a new city all by myself. Honestly? Some of those things left me feeling Lonelier afterward. And that’s part of the risk. But each week, commit to trying 1 new thing to reach out for connection, knowing they won’t all be a “win.” Then, follow the bread crumbs that start to emerge. You never know when one of those little crumbs will lead you to a new friend or loved one.
- Resist the urge to compare.
There’s nothing like history to cement two hearts together. But that doesn’t mean you won’t develop that kind of history with the new people you’re getting to know. There’s no hierarchy when it comes to love. Your efforts to forge new community will bear fruit—it’ll just look and taste a little different than what you knew before. Both can be deeply important to you.
- Communicate on behalf of your loneliness.
Many people don’t want to admit they are lonely. They worry it might make them seem weak or needy. But, communicating on behalf of your loneliness is a key step toward healthy connection. It is important to let the people in your life know what you are going through. Believe it or not, people don’t always get it. They need a gentle reminder that your experience is different. So, communicate about your loneliness wisely.
Notice the difference between two ways of communicating below:
No one cares about me. I’m completely alone on this planet.
I’m going through a season of change. I wanted you to know that it can feel lonely at times.
In the first case, you are speaking from the experience of loneliness. It may represent what you are feeling, but it can also be overwhelming for a loved one to take in.
In the second case, you are speaking on behalf of the loneliness. You are aware of it, and you are advocating for yourself authentically.If they’re worth the time, they’ll appreciate your healthy vulnerability and you’ll have forged a deeper connection.
- Find ways to stay connected with the past.
Don’t live in the past. But don’t shut it out. Let it take on a new form. Set up regular opportunities to remember the loved one you’ve lost. If you’ve moved, work to establish new rhythms with old friends and support networks. Different people do “distance relationships” in different ways. Some people who live far away are great at calling or texting every week. Others aren’t, and it doesn’t mean they don’t care. Learn what each of your valued distance relationship needs to survive, and then let it take on that new form.
2.) Chronic Loneliness
If you’re lonely often, and you’ve struggled to sustain connections over time, then it may be that you’re experiencing a second type of loneliness, often called chronic loneliness, or emotional loneliness. This type of loneliness is often related to childhood wounds or systemic trauma. Neglect, abuse, or any form of trauma can leave you feeling alone deep inside, even when you forge healthy relationships as an adult. You can also experience a sense of disconnect from yourself or from God. You might feel lonely, even when surrounded by others who love you.
In some cases, you might have learned to relate to others from protective parts of yourself, instead of from your God-made core. These parts of you that perform, produce, or please to win the affections of others have good intentions. And, they’ve likely helped you survive past harm. But you’ll experience more of the love and connection you desire by helping those parts of you to soften a bit and trust that the real you is worth knowing. Often, this journey toward healing wounds and connecting more deeply to your God-given core starts with a counselor.
Here are a few ways to care for yourself if you are experiencing one of the types of loneliness called chronic loneliness:
- Ask for help.
The paradox of loneliness is that we need connection to others on our journey toward meaningful relationships. If the idea of emotional loneliness is new to you, consider working through a healing process with your loneliness, such as the one we write about in Boundaries for Your Soul. It also may be important to explore with a counselor or in a support group. That counselor or support group can provide an anchor for you as you learn how to establish the relationships you desire. If you’re unsure of how to find support, you can find several ideas here.
- Be gentle with yourself.
Your loneliness isn’t your fault. It may be that you were brought up in an enmeshed or toxic family, that you struggled to connect with your peers, or were part of a marginalized group. Instead of beating yourself up for your loneliness, extend compassion toward that part of you that still carries that pain. It’s a cue that some part of you maybe never felt seen, heard, or accepted. Remember, awareness is the first step toward healing. You were designed for connection—it makes sense that this lonely part of you is showing up to get your attention.
- Get curious about your loneliness.
Seek to understand more about yourself and your relationship to loneliness. For example, you might ask yourself these questions:
When do I feel less lonely?
When do I feel more lonely?
What’s an early memory of loneliness?
What’s an early memory of feeling seen and connected?
Don’t censor yourself as you become more aware. Just notice. Your answers might be surprising to you. As Dallas Willard said, “Understanding is the basis of care.”
- Invite God into your loneliness.
As you gently engage the various types of loneliness, you are connecting more authentically with yourself. Invite God into that process, too. He may not take your loneliness away, but he will enter in to your experience with compassion and care. He will give you wisdom on how to say “Yes” to the meaningful connections you were made for.
Each step that you take toward facing your loneliness is a step toward yourself, toward God, and toward others. Never forget that you have a God who is for you:
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing.
For further reading:
Entry found on Alison’s blog: https://www.alisoncookphd.com/