As human beings, we are social creatures who depend on each other to meet our needs for connection, support and companionship. Yet for many, this need goes unmet; about half of all Americans report feeling lonely, according to information from the American Psychological Association.
“Loneliness is the feeling of not being connected to others or to society, and people even report feeling lonely in the context of being with family and friends or even their children,” says Christina Burnett, Director of Clinical Services at Harbor Oaks Hospital, a New Baltimore-based treatment center for those struggling with addiction, psychiatric and behavioral disorders.
Some people can feel this loneliness their entire lives, which can contribute to a higher level of anxiety or depression, Burnett says.
But where does loneliness come from, and how can someone who feels lonely achieve more satisfying relationships with others? Here, Burnett sheds some light.
Not feeling connected
Loneliness can stem from aloneness — a term to describe a feeling of disconnection with oneself, Burnett says. “Aloneness is similar to a lack of self-awareness, or not knowing yourself very well,” she explains.
In the context of the pandemic, for example, we have found ourselves forced away from the hustle and bustle of daily life — which often involves interacting with other people. “For parents, even that 10-minute chit-chat with other parents while picking their children up from school or activities was part of your routine and part of your daily life,” Burnett says. “That routine becomes how you identify with yourself. Take that away, and what are you left with? For some of us, not very much.”
In this void, we can develop separate feelings of loneliness. “In the busyness of everyday life, we aren’t spending time getting to know each other on a deeper level, and overall, that can bring about a sense of disconnection,” Burnett explains. “Now we are home, with little to distract us, and we are stuck with each other and ourselves. We have been forced into more self-evaluation than most of us are used to — and more than a lot of us are comfortable with.”
When this realization hits, it can hit hard. “Some might experience their self-esteem suffer or they might ask what’s wrong with me? You may discover that your child has a crush on someone that you were completely unaware of and you may then tell yourself you’re a terrible mom,” Burnett explains. We may recognize that without hobbies or interests, we have time we’re struggling to fill.
Some of us may begin to wonder who we even are. “If we allow those thoughts to perpetuate, they can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, worthlessness and irritability,” she says.
You can overcome loneliness
Self-awareness is the first step, Burnett says.
“If you find yourself staring at your spouse with nothing to say, be honest about it. Mindfulness tells us to recognize this is where we are and that’s OK. We have a tendency to try to jump directly to a solution, so just recognize where you are,” she says. By learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, we increase our stress tolerance or overall ability to be uncomfortable.
And, as an added bonus, we become better at self-exploration. “Take your time to think about how you want to change the situation,” Burnett offers.
If you’re looking to connect to your spouse or children, start by asking questions, but steer clear of “How was your day?” (Right now, all our days are rough, Burnett says.) Instead, ask where you picture your life in 10 years, or what dreams you have. Encourage them to ask questions of their own.
If you’re hoping to learn more about yourself, journal for five minutes each day. List your likes and dislikes and your favorite color. “This gets your brain in the habit of thinking about diverse things and that leads to more self-awareness, and eventually to action,” she says. Pretty soon, you will begin to recognize that you do have interests and there are ways to pursue hobbies that help you enjoy those interests more deeply.
Seek out the crisis helpline in your county, which can connect you to online support groups.
“As (COVID) regulations continue to lift, there will be more opportunities for meeting new people or reconnecting with old friends. Try Meetup.com, where there are groups for everyone and every interest,” Burnett says. “Take a leap. Being part of a group can help you feel more connected to the world. We all want to belong.”
Learn more about Harbor Oaks Hospital at harboroaks.com.