The shadow of loneliness in a world full of people

We all feel lonely sometimes. It is a common human experience that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Famous psychoanalysts and philosophers have written at length about this all too human condition and, yet, as a society, we are quick to adore the extroverts, and faster still to judge the introverted and the lonely.


Feeling lonely and alone are not exactly the same, even if the terms are often used interchangeably. Feeling alone refers to physical isolation or being without the company of others. Aloneness is an objective state that tends to be transient and does not necessarily imply sadness or isolation.

We can be alone and quite content, and we can feel lonely even when we are surrounded by people.

Loneliness, on the other hand, refers to the feeling of sadness or isolation that arises when we feel disconnected from others or ourselves. It is a subjective condition that arises from a perceived lack of social connection or emotional support.

We experience loneliness not just in our minds, but in our bodies as well; it has an embodied nature. Our bodies are always in relation to the world around us and, when we feel lonely, we experience a sense of disconnection from that world. Loneliness is not just a psychological state, but a bodily one as well.

Whether loneliness is experienced as a fleeting feeling or a chronic condition, it can have a significant impact on our mental and physical well-being. It is not a mental illness, but prolonged loneliness can lead to isolation, sadness and sleeping problems, which can lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress and even suicide.

Covid-19 worsened societal loneliness. Many of us feel lonelier today than before the pandemic struck. Young and old alike were forced to avoid their loved ones and colleagues, study, and work from home, spending prolonged periods alone and disconnected from physical human contact.

There is no unique cause of loneliness, more often it is a confluence of many factors including life transitions and social isolation such as moving to a new area or country, a breakup or divorce, starting university or a new job, retirement and losing work contacts. Other factors can include loss and bereavement, a lack of meaningful relationships, low self-esteem, and mental health issues.

Is there a silver lining in loneliness?

Loneliness is not just a source of despair and suffering but also an opportunity for self-reflection and creative potential. Many philosophers, including Nietzsche, have argued that individuals who are able to embrace their solitude can tap into a deeper, stronger sense of self and creative self-expression. Spending time alone provides the space and quiet for the mind to wander and for new ideas to emerge. It allows individuals to confront and explore their innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Easier said than done of course when you feel isolated from yourself and the people around you. This condition does not reverse itself by simply getting out of the house more. It takes time and we are all different. But here are some ideas that you may find helpful or that may trigger something that is beneficial to you.

Try not to compare yourself to others, take this process at your own pace. Avoid social media, which can make you feel isolated. Always keep in mind that the amazing online lives you are watching are usually highly curated versions of reality. We are all a little guilty of this on social media, so remember that the outside portrayal does not reflect the lived inside.

Look after yourself. So, sleep well, eat well, and do physical activity. Avoid drugs and alcohol. Spend time outside every day and try to spend time with animals.
Make new connections with people. Perhaps you can join a class or maybe you can volunteer? If that sounds intimidating, perhaps start with an online community - just because you do not meet people face to face does not mean they cannot provide a community and sense of belonging. Online connections can form a good basis before tackling offline relationships.

Perhaps you know lots of people, but you do not feel close to them. They do not pay you a lot of attention. Could you try to open up just a little to one of them? Why not tell them what that is like? When you open up, others will open up to you. Take it slowly, especially if you have felt lonely for a long time. It can be terrifying to meet new people and suddenly having to open up can feel overwhelming.

You could also start talking therapy to explore and manage the feelings and thoughts that keep you apart from others. It will also allow you to get to know yourself better and to be known by another. If you suffer from social anxiety, therapy can offer you tools to cope.

Whatever you do next, it is important to remember that while we humans need a balance of solitude and social connection, also try to recognise when your loneliness is becoming unhealthy or unsustainable.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SW7
Written by Ondine Smulders, Existential Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor, UKCP
London SW7

I am a multilingual UKCP-psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and executive coach based in London. Twenty+ years in investment banking and think-tanks gave me first-hand experience of the highly competitive nature of these environments, and a keen interest in work-life balance issues and issues of loneliness, isolation, and belonging.

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