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Why Loneliness Is a Trap and How to Break Free

How loneliness impacts our perceptions and behaviors in self-defeating ways

Loneliness is a personal and subjective experience, one which is defined not by the quantity of our relationships but by their subjective quality. Not all lonely people live in isolation. A person might have many friends around them or live with a partner, yet still feel the deep ache of emotional or social isolation (read Are You Married but Lonely here).

For some of us, loneliness begins gradually. One friend moves away, another has a child, a third works a seventy hour work week, and before we know it the social circle that had sustained us in the past ceases to exist and we find ourselves spending most of our weekends alone. For others, loneliness is a result of life transitions such as leaving for college, enlisting in the military, losing a partner to death or divorce, starting a new job, retiring and losing the daily company of collegues and associates, or moving to a new town or country.

How Loneliness Entraps Us

Loneliness fosters a self-defeating psychology that makes it difficult to escape its clutches. Complicating matters, lonely people are likely to encounter a variety of societal responses that marginalize them even further. The longer our loneliness lasts, that more challenging it can be to break the mindsets and judgments (both ours and others’) that contribute to maintaining our isolation. Specifically:

1. Loneliness impacts our perceptions such that we are likely to view our existing relationships more negatively and pessimistically. We assume people aren’t interested in our company and that if we reach out to them they will reject us and turn us down. As a result we take little initiative and find excuses to turn down invitations when we do get them.

2. Our negativity and reluctance to give our friends the benefit of the doubt creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which our own reactions and avoidance pushes them away even further. Because we remain blind to our part in creating the distance, we see their withdrawal as confirmation of our fears and become even more convinced they no longer care about us.

3. Loneliness is very visible to others who are likely to label us as less interesting and less appealing as social prospects. This stigma, combined with the negativity and suspicion we might project in social situations makes it challenging for us to establish new social and romantic connections.

4. Loneliness is contagious. Studies of social networks found that over time, lonely people ‘infect’ those around them such that they too become pushed to the periphery of their social networks (read more about loneliness and contagion here). As a result, our remaining friends and social contacts might provide diminishing opportunities for social connection.

5. The more socially and emotionally isolated we are the more our social skills and relationship ‘muscles’ tend to atrophy. Skill sets often weaken when unused and our ability to connect and relate can easily get rusty after a period of isolation. If things go badly when we try to use these ‘muscles’ we don’t attribute the failure or rejection to our skill sets being rusty but see it as further evidence of our fundamental undesirability.

How to Break Free of Loneliness

In order to emerge from our loneliness we have to do several things, all of which involve taking a leap of faith in one form or another.

1. Take initiative. If you’re socially isolated, consider volunteering, doing community service, or an activity you enjoy, as these are good ways to meet people. In addition, try going through your phone and email address books as well as your Facebook and other social media contacts and make a list of people you haven’t seen or spoken to for a while. Don’t psych yourself out and tell yourself they’re not interested. Instead:

2. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Once you’ve compiled your list of friends and acquaintances, reach out to one of them each day. Yes, they might not have been in touch for a while or returned your phone call from two months earlier but give them the benefit of the doubt. Invite them to have coffee, a drink, or even a catch-up on the phone and you’ll be surprised by how many of them will happily make plans—especially if you remember to:

3. Approach people with optimism. It’s perfectly normal to fear rejection, but you have to get yourself in the right frame of mind when you contact people so the vibe you put out is positive and inviting (rather than overly cautious and uninviting). Getting into a positive head-space is also important when you contact people on line. Emoticons can be very useful. “How have you been? :)” is much more appealing than “Haven’t heard from you in two months, wanna get together?”

The bottom line is that you have to recognize your loneliness for what it is—a trap that requires effort, bravery, and a leap of faith to escape. Freedom will be sweet once you do.

Hear about my own experiences with loneliness on my TED talk here:

For more techniques for overcoming loneliness check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

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