Loneliness is paradoxical in its crushing weight and unbearable emptiness. It dwells in our quiet solitude, and meanders in a sea of thousands. For some, loneliness is a constant companion. For others, an unexpected guest. The irony of loneliness is that we all pretend that it’s not there. But it lurks, draining, looming, wanting. And we end up lonely, together.
To get a broader insight into this topic, I reached out to my community for their perspectives. What I found was a shared vulnerability that pervades all personalities – the gregarious, the reserved, the timid, the strong, the adventurer, the artist, the talker, the joker. So, when do we experience loneliness the most? Let's delve into the different layers.
Loneliness in solitude
“Friday evenings. When you want to do an activity which really requires others to be there to enjoy better (like going to a bar). Or of course when you miss being with a specific person.”
"When I come back from work and nobody is waiting for me at home."
“Any time it feels as though ‘everybody else has somebody’ - often times like Friday nights, or Sunday nights.”
“Generally, at the end of the work week, Friday afternoon, and through the weekend until Sunday afternoon. This is most likely related to being single.”
The top layer of loneliness is the kind that we experience in solitude. We have the capacity to delight ourselves in peaceful solitude, but often we feel isolated in our own company and ache for companionship. We sit uneasily with ourselves and try everything we can to avoid being still with our thoughts. We wish we had fun things to do and people to see - like everybody else, everyone else. We scroll through social media and gawk at more exciting, beautiful and glamourous lives – forgetting that there is no place for vulnerability on social media. Our thoughts spiral, only to reach the deluded conclusion that there must be something painfully wrong with us.
Loneliness in a crowd
“It’s most acute when I’m in a crowd - in a setting where there are lots of people who aren’t on the same wavelength.”
"On my morning commute, when I face a sea of strangers glued to their phones in silence."
"When I’m in a crowded place but don’t have anyone to talk to.”
The next layer of loneliness surfaces in the presence of others, often in a crowd of strangers or acquaintances. Here we are struggling to find meaningful connection. We don’t feel acknowledged, seen or heard, and we don’t see the value in engaging or showing our true selves. We are surrounded by opportunities to connect but are unable find an anchor. We hear noise and chatter, but it all feels meaningless. We would rather be alone.
Loneliness and intimacy
“When someone takes me for granted. When I don’t feel seen or heard.”
“When I’m not hearing back from someone I want to, or it feels like they are pulling away.”
“When I’m going through something no one can truly help me with or understand how I feel even with the best intentions, like when I went through infertility.”
“When I feel abandoned, rejected, or overlooked by someone close to me. Or when I feel my partner is not fighting my corner, or not there when I most need them.”
“When I’m trying to spend quality time with someone but they scroll on social media or text other people. It makes me feel invisible.”
"You can be so lonely in the presence of family – almost like you don’t belong.”
This flavour of loneliness is hard to swallow. It’s painful and comes with it a certain degree of embarrassment, shame even. This is the kind of loneliness that dwells amongst the closest of friends and the tightest of families. It can sit wedged, cumbersomely, between two lovers. It will lie, silently, insufferably, poignantly in the most incongruous of places. It is there when words are left unspoken, and hearts do not meet.
This is the loneliness that we experience in the presence of our loved ones. When we feel the icy withdrawal of our nearest and dearest. When we speak our truth but are not heard. When we witness precious strands of intimacy disintegrating. When we feel betrayed or abandoned. When we are desperate for validation, which never comes. This stifling burden of loneliness appears when we are with someone who we are convinced is meant to understand us, to see us and appreciate us – but, painfully, they do not. A stark realisation descends: If this person can’t understand me, then who else can? In this moment, our loneliness is magnified and muddled with devastating hopelessness.
Loneliness within self
“When I’m hiding who I am, and not being honest with myself.”
“When I’m overwhelmed with life and feeling stressed.”
“When I lose confidence in myself.”
“When I walk away from my values and principles.”
"When I don't take care of myself."
Another, and the most ironic, form of loneliness, is when we create distance from our authentic selves. When we sell ourselves out and shut ourselves down. When we feel ashamed and hopeless and like a complete failure. This is when we talk ourselves down. We deny who we truly are – to please others, seek validation, or appease to societal norms of who we should be. Our authentic self is crying out to be seen and heard. But when even we shut ourselves away, what hope is there for others to see and acknowledge us? What hope is there to not feel lonely, when we are abandoning ourselves?
What do we need when we’re feeling lonely?
“Companionship. Someone I am dearly connected to. Someone to share with, laugh with and hug.”
“To feel secure in one very strong attachment, which I feel would banish loneliness. If I don’t have that, I can also dissolve the feeling of loneliness by building up things like purpose, exercise, new things.”
“A call with a loved one, meeting a close friend for a dinner/drink.”
"Reach out to help others around me."
“Someone who is calm and has a clear head who can guide without telling me what I should or shouldn’t be doing.”
Rationally, we know what we need when we are lonely is to reach out to one or two people with whom we have a close bond with. We need genuine connection and space to be vulnerable. But instead, we do this:
“Cry, overeat, feel somewhat sorry for myself. When I notice the pattern, I try to change my behaviour and then watch comedy.”
"I am very lethargic and don’t do anything and don’t leave my house all day.”
“Often lean into it quite hard and isolate myself.”
"Things to get my mind away from indulging on feeling lonely... like gardening or watching a film alone."
“Wallow in my misery.”
“Create storylines of how unloved and worthless I am.”
"Go on social media and scroll down for hours aimlessly in search for connection"
“I don’t know how to reach out and just say the words ‘I’m lonely’”
But what can we all do to burst the loneliness bubble? To move past loneliness, we first need to be able to acknowledge it, talk about it and embrace it.
What would happen if we were honest about how we were feeling when others were checking in? What if we normalised being truthful about how we feel? What if saying 'I'm lonely' doesn’t come with a trail of negative assumptions and a dash of humiliation? There is plenty of great literature on what we need to do to find connection – essentially: we need purpose, we need community, we need close friends, we need intimacy. We need to put in the work. But before even attempting all that, we need to start with just being honest – with our friends, our family, our partner, our community and, most importantly, with ourselves.
How are you feeling today?