Loneliness evokes a painful image of someone living alone who has no one to count on. It feels awkward, if not unnerving, to notice the lonely people among us. We often avoid the ones we know who are lonelier than we are, and they hide from us as well.
Even during a pandemic when we are socially distanced, we hide our loneliness from others, and sometimes, even from ourselves.
If we take an honest look at why we’ve avoided lonely people in our own lives, we might find a few unsettling reasons. We remember our uncomfortable encounters with certain people that caused us to see loneliness as abhorrent, shameful, or embarrassing. We may have muddled through depressing experiences with someone’s overwhelming loneliness, making a judgment call at some point to pull away as graciously as possible.
Ironically, we might have distanced ourselves from lonely people in times of social distancing during COVID-19. Perhaps we observed a friend, colleague, or relative who seemed to have fallen off the deep end, posting weird conspiracy nonsense on social media or acting strangely on Zoom calls. We might have detached from certain needy types because we have too much on our plates during this pandemic and election year. We don’t have the wherewithal to try harder to check in with them. Indeed, it’s getting late in 2020 and we just don’t have any more to give.
But complicating our pandemic-related attitudes about loneliness is the old baggage of social stigma and stereotypes about lonely people. These biases can also wreak havoc with our own kindness towards ourselves when we feel lonely or isolated. We need to be careful not to allow this internalized stigma to make us feel worse. We can turn to our self-compassion to befriend our loneliness, but that requires our honesty about some long-held, ruthless stereotypes.
I’ve gathered a list of 10 common and off-putting stereotypes about lonely people that can interfere with our self-compassion when we are lonely:
10 Myths About Lonely People (That Make It Hard to Admit Our Loneliness)
- They are needy and will latch on to you. (You don’t know what you’re getting into.)
- They are downers.
- They are awkward and lack social skills.
- There must be a reason why they are always alone.
- They talk only about themselves (or their pets).
- They are no fun and lack a sense of humor.
- They are fragile and overly sensitive to what you think of them.
- They should be talking to a therapist (instead of to you).
- They are weird and a bit creepy.
- They envy your social life and loved ones.
If any one of these stereotypes has a hold on us, we might project this bias onto ourselves at vulnerable times. Do we harshly see ourselves as needy or no fun to be with? Do we feel like a Debbie Downer today so we cancel a Zoom call? Do we sound too fragile on the phone? The social stigma surrounding loneliness makes us feel even lonelier—and isolates us even more. If we feel this bad about being lonely, we disqualify ourselves from trying to help others who may be more vulnerable than we are.
What can we do to move beyond this stigma and these painful stereotypes?
First of all, I would like to offer a few facts about lonely people to help bust through the stereotypes.
Facts About Lonely People That Do Not Fit the Stereotypes
- Loneliness is pervasive and increasing. Nearly half of the people in the U.S. admit that they feel lonely at least some of the time (Cigna survey of 20,00 adults, 2018).
- People who have no friends to count on are all around us. In 1985, one out of 15 people reported they had no friends to turn to. In 2014, three times more (one out of five people) reported they have no friends to confide in. (National Science Foundation Report, 2014)
- Older people are not the loneliest. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, with studies encompassing 3.4 million people, reported that loneliness shows up the most in adolescents and young adults, but peaks again in the oldest of adults.
- Married people can be lonely if their relationships are unsatisfying. Of partners over age 50 who are in unfulfilling relationships, 48% report being lonely.
- Lonely people tend to hide their loneliness while offline. Millennials report relying more on social media when they feel lonely, staying at home. (“Social Media Use and Perceived Isolation Among Young Adults in the US,” Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2017.)
- Half of the people in the US say they don’t have meaningful conversations often enough (Cigna survey, 2018).
- Nearly half of women over 50 (46%) report feeling disturbed when someone picks up their phone while they are talking in person. (Pew Research Center study of 3,042 Americans, 2015).
- One in three people report that COVID-19 has increased their loneliness (Social Pro Study, April 2020).
- One out of four Americans lives alone, according to the US Census Bureau. (Health Resources and Services Administration, January 2019).
Given the prevalence of loneliness, admitting we're lonely might feel more acceptable. We can say it out loud to someone we trust, or write about it, possibly to share later. We can identify with songs, paintings, or characters in movies that beautifully express what we feel. Certainly, the pandemic has given us a good excuse to admit the loneliness that has spread into our lives. When we face our loneliness, we can learn what our feelings are asking us to do and take constructive action. Problem-solving with someone we trust about living with loneliness or how to build community might be mutually beneficial and can strengthen our resolve. We can be attuned to one another’s loneliness, and even befriend it in ourselves.
I know when I've been able to befriend my loneliness, even if only briefly or fleetingly on a dreary day. My favorite quote by Andy Rooney reminds me of my befriending moments. “If you smile when you are alone, then you really mean it.” One thing for sure — and Andy is right — if I smiled only once on a sad, lonely day, then I should treasure whatever it was that snapped me out of my funk.
Being lonely is nothing to be ashamed of. We might even find comforting pockets of peace and quiet if we can reckon fairly with the harsh stereotypes that make us judgmental. We can embrace our loneliness with humility and little acts of kindness. And because we all face these cruel stereotypes amid the inner demons in our minds, hopefully, we will have more compassion for ourselves and for others. Better still, we might have a bit more to give to those less fortunate than we are.