An Epidemic of Loneliness

There's no shortage of people in the world. So why are so many so lonely?

Posted May 11, 2018

Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash
Source: Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

Many people all over the world express feeling a tremendous loneliness. Frieda Fromm Reichmann defines loneliness as the want of intimacy, and it has long been recognized as a serious and painful issue. Mother Teresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody.”

Loneliness is a worldwide problem. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general recently wrote "The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart—in the workplace and in society." It seems to me that we are seeing that on a daily basis.

Loneliness has been connected to suicide, alienation issues,  depression, and other mental health disorders as well as physical health concerns. Having an intimate relationship with another person is so important to mental wellness that researchers have recommended that mental health clinicians treat loneliness directly and on its own, not as a component of treatment for other disorders (e.g. Heinrich and Guilone, 2006). Radically Open DBT (RO DBT), developed by Dr. Tom Lynch focuses on connections with others as a key mechanism of change and addresses the issues that lead to loneliness.

If you suffer from loneliness, you may believe that you are different from others in some way and perhaps unlikable. Perhaps you have difficulty connecting with others, don’t know why, and have given up trying. Understanding the reasons for your problem is important to know. 

Your difficulty making connections with others could arise from the way you approach relationships. When you fear rejection, or have other reasons to fear getting to know other people, you may not be capable of the vulnerability and openness required for connecting with others. You may not understand how to share at a level that fits the relationship and the context. You may mask your true opinions and thoughts. When you hide who you are, it may seem as if you are creating safety, but you are actually be behaving in ways that lead others to not want to get to know you. One of the keys to building relationships is being open about who you are, which builds trust, and that builds connections (Lynch, in press). 

You may not even be aware of how you hide who you are. There are many ways to not be open and authentic with others. 

Consider how you answer questions. Do you give an answer? Do you give an answer that is clear? Or do you hedge or talk around the question?  Do you give vague answers so you can say you were misunderstood if someone reacts negatively to the answer?  Answering questions honestly and openly is a way of letting others know who you are. (Of course, context is important. There are some situations where expressing your opinion openly may not be desirable or effective, such as expressing your thoughts about a boss who you don't respect.)

Part of being honest and open is expressing yourself in direct ways. Instead of hinting that you would like help with something, that you don't want to do an activity, or that you would like to be invited to an event, you state it clearly and kindly. That's part of being open and vulnerable and letting others know who you are. Direct communication is also expressing your likes and dislikes directly and asking directly when you have a question for someone.

Do you smile and agree with what others say as a way of avoiding conflict?  People will notice that you aren't being genuine. Expressing your true opinion in kind ways will help build relationships. Maybe you have someone in your life who doesn't always say what you want to hear, but you know you can trust the person to tell you the truth. That trust creates safety and connection even though you may not like what your friend says at times. 

Do you share your true feelings and emotions? Sharing hurt, annoyance, and pain are part of building relationships. When you share difficult, authentic emotions, you build trust and connection. There is a balance though. If you share only difficult emotions, or if you share only happiness, the imbalance will interfere with building friendships.

Being mindful of relationships also means that you know the responsibility for how you feel and how you live your life is yours. It isn't the responsibility of anyone else. When you put that responsibility on others, you are likely to be disappointed as they will likely pull away.

Dealing with loneliness can be complicated. It is a significant issue that needs to be addressed specifically, particularly for those who have an over-controlled personality style. Forming connections to others can be key to alleviating chronic depression. There is only one type of therapy that focuses on decreasing loneliness as a core component of treatment, and that is Radically Open DBT, developed by Dr. Tom Lynch. If you want to learn more about learning how to reconnect and rejoin the tribe, see