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All too often in my psychotherapy practice, I have heard gut-wrenching stories of profound and deep loneliness. My personal and professional experiences with loneliness have moved me to better understand and treat this multi-dimensional problem.
Simply defined, loneliness is a condition of relational disconnection, social awkwardness and prolonged bouts of solitude. Lonely people often struggle with anxiety and depression, which renders them insecure and pessimistic about finding desirable and compatible friendships. Poor self-esteem and an underdeveloped sense of one's worthiness, likeability and attractiveness prevent the lonely person from taking risks and venturing out into new relationships. Hence, they typically lack confidence and emotional energy to pursue new relationships or nurture existing ones. As a chronic condition, it can be emotionally and psychologically debilitating.
Contrary to what many people believe, loneliness isn't just a result of being alone or an absence of friends. It is a deeper problem that is caused by thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, imperfection and shame. Chronically lonely people are often holding onto pessimistic and bleak predictions about the prospects of finding companionship, social connections and supportive relationships.
The lonely often suffer in silence. For many, it is hidden behind a facade of normalcy. While smiling and having fun, many hide their core feelings of loneliness. For these people, loneliness is not a reflection of what is happening in their lives at any given moment, but what occurs secretively and silently within them. When around people they know, they pretend to be upbeat, positive and happy, while at the same time feeling unworthy and insecure. Since it is a shame-based experience, it is typically kept a secret.
Lonely people inadvertently put themselves in a catch-22 situation: Social opportunities seem like a heavy burden fraught with the potential of rejection or abandonment. The more you feel lonely, the more you feel inept and unworthy, the more you quit believing anyone will ever like or love you, the more you isolate. With a belief of potential rejection or abandonment, the lonely person is unable to put their best foot forward in any given social situation. Hence, loneliness feeds on itself.
Paradoxically, lonely people believe they are essentially unworthy of healthy and mutually respectful relationships with loving, affirming and mutually giving individuals. They imagine that if they were to tell someone they are lonely, it would scare them away. Therefore, they are attracted to people who, like themselves, are similarly lonely, needy and insecure. As a result, the self-fulfilling prophecy is actualized. This sad but dysfunctional dynamic is the thesis of my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us.
The causes of loneliness are varied and multi-dimensional, including social, psychological and physiological factors. The major cause of chronic loneliness is often attributed to early developmental factors such as a child's lack of attachment to their adult caregivers who only conditionally love (love with strings attached) their children. Similarly, childhood neglect, abuse and abandonment are early childhood factors that eventually manifest into adult loneliness.
Since loneliness is a deeply embedded psychological experience (condition), having enough friends can never result in feeling secure and lovable. Building up one's self-esteem and ability to love, respect and care for oneself is fundamental in solving and healing the deeper psychological conditions that create chronic loneliness.
Considering loneliness can be traced back to childhood deprivation, abuse and/or neglect, solving the problem requires professional mental health services, which will help heal and resolve these deeply embedded, and often hidden, psychological wounds. With the help of a trained therapist, treatment can serve to "re-parent" a person who spent their vulnerable youth feeling bad about themselves. Such reparative and healing work is well worth the time, effort and cost as it can help to release the vice-like grip that perpetual and fundamental loneliness has on a person.
Life is too short to waste on suffering from core loneliness. Please heed to my suggestion: Open up, take a chance and access the hidden part of you that deserves true and loving companions. Heal your childhood wounds. Learn to love yourself and eliminate loneliness from your life!
The following are 10 tips to battle and conquer loneliness:
1. Catch your inner critic's attempts to sabotage yourself. Pay attention to self-degrading thoughts like "I am too fat for anybody to want to date," "I wish I were funnier and had interesting things to say," or "People never seem to get me."
2. Replace negative self-talk with affirming messages, such as, "I am perfectly lovable just as I am," and "I welcome love, friendship and support into my life."
3. Fight the urge to isolate. Isolation validates your fears that you are not worthy of the love and support you absolutely deserve. Sometimes you have to force yourself to do exactly that which you are dreading -- like putting yourself out there.
4. Weed out the toxic relationships and create space in your life for relationships that fuel your spirit. You can't grow lovely succulent vegetables with a large patchwork of weeds.
5. Nurture your support network. Even if there is only one person to start with, you can build on it. Don't underestimate the importance of what you have to offer.
6. Expand your social network. Online social sites such as MeetUp.com are an ideal place to meet people and to explore hobbies, interests and social groups.
7. Open you self-up, take risks, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Since loneliness results in isolation, experiment by sharing aspects of yourself, including experiences, feelings, memories, dreams, desires, etc. This will help you feel more known and understood.
8. Ask for what you need. Find your voice. Tell people what you need from them to alleviate the loneliness. Friends respond to direct messages for help and support. Give it a try, you might be surprised!
9. Take action. Don't wait for an invitation. Be willing to take a risk, be proactive and invite people to share in your life, whether it is for coffee, lunch, a walk, an event or a gathering in your home.
10. Recognize the importance of being alone and enjoying solitude. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Peace, quiet, freedom, space and the opportunity to connect with your deeper self.
11. Consider therapy. Counseling is something that is healthy and proactive that can help you overcome the self-defeating behaviors that exacerbate loneliness. With the support of a therapist, you can change your thinking and relationship patterns and achieve the life you want!