Loneliness is big news right now, and the news isn’t good.
A recent survey by Lifeline in Australia revealed that 60 per cent of people say they often feel lonely, and more than 80 per cent think that as a society they’re getting lonelier.
To be lonely isn’t simply about being isolated; many people choose to be on their own and are perfectly happy. Loneliness is a subjective state in which you feel socially and emotionally disconnected from those around you.
Indeed, it’s possible and extremely common to feel lonely in a marriage or a relationship, or among a large group. And it doesn’t discriminate: loneliness can strike at any stage in your life.
We spoke to two experts – clinical psychologist Dr Michelle Lim, a founding member of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, and Alan Woodward, executive director of Lifeline Research Foundation – about how you can break free of feeling lonely.
It might feel counter-intuitive to admit to yourself that you’re lonely – that will only make it real, and therefore more hurtful, right? But, says Lim, the first helpful step you can take is to face what you’re feeling and to understand it’s perfectly normal.
“Humans have a fundamental need to belong,” she explains.
“Feeling lonely is a biological signal, much like hunger or thirst, that you need to connect with other people. It is not a sign of weakness, or that you’re an unlikeable person; it just means that you are experiencing social pain, and recognising that you need to do something to change that.”
In a world of highly curated social media feeds, everyone experiences an occasional bout of FOMO.
But when you’re lonely, you can end up feeling like everyone else has it all – loving spouses, beautiful children, exciting friends – while you’ve been left behind.
“It’s a very natural thing for us as humans to compare our lives to others,” says Woodward.
“But to envy what somebody else has is only going to result in unhappiness. If you catch yourself doing it, try to step back a moment and have a clear idea around what life you want to lead, what social activities and interactions you want to have. Then follow that vision rather than trying to work to others’ vision.”
It’s an all-too-easy leap to make: I’m lonely, therefore I must be unlikeable. Try to resist going down that road because, if you start believing that, you’re likely to project those feelings onto others.
“Remember everyone feels lonely and rejected by others at some point in their lives,” Lim says.
“Some of us are just better at finding evidence to prove otherwise. It is important to disconnect from negative self-talk and change your behaviours to connecting with others and give things a go.”
This isn’t to suggest that you’re lonely because you have mental health issues. But it’s important to figure out whether your lack of contact with others is entirely situational (you’ve just moved to a new city; you’re newly single; you’ve started working from home) or if there’s something stopping you from making meaningful connections with others.
"Often someone who’s lonely also has a high level of social anxiety, so you avoid actively reaching out,” says Lim.
“You need to identify whether this is the case, because if it makes you uncomfortable to be around others, that’s something you’ll need to address with a counsellor or a mental health professional.”
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