Everyone has experienced loneliness. Yet, each person seems to think their experience is unique, which ironically seems to isolate us further. We might consider loneliness as a matter of perception. It is a state of distress or discomfort that you create when you perceive a gap between your desires for social connection and your actual experiences.
Some feelings of loneliness can be abated simply by engaging in social activities. Maybe it’s just a matter of finding someone to talk to or joining a social group. But the loneliness that people experience, chronically and over a long period, is often a result of a complex set of factors. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, isolated, and unwanted. Lonely people often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people. Loneliness is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, you feel alone and isolated. In this way, loneliness is a state of mind.
Simply put, we create loneliness through our thinking, and lonely thinking perpetuates loneliness. Clear and compassionate self-awareness can help break the cycle. By strengthening your relationship with yourself and perceiving yourself with honesty and caring, you can shed light on what you might be doing to maintain an uncomfortable state of loneliness. Research finds that three main areas of our thinking and behavior link strongly to loneliness, yet are changeable.
1. Your inner dialogue
A meta-analysis study compared four of the most common treatments for loneliness: improving social skills, enhancing social support, increasing social interaction opportunities, and addressing faulty patterns of thought caused by chronic loneliness. The results showed that changing thought patterns was the most effective. Making individuals aware of their automatic negative thoughts about others, and social interactions more generally, and encouraging open awareness of these negative thoughts so that they can consider that these thoughts might be true is a crucial ingredient to reducing loneliness.
Attend to your thoughts and check-in to see if your negative inner dialogue about your life and others’ lives is accurate. Are you isolating yourself more? Do you feel unworthy of friendship? When you observe negative thoughts that come up, practice the principle of mindfulness: keep your attention in the present, be open and curious and adopt a kind intention toward yourself and those you are thinking about at the moment. Consider that these thoughts helped you stay safe earlier in your life—but now are keeping you from having new, positive experiences.
2. Your nonverbal signals
Lonely people often give off nonverbal cues and social behavior that actually contribute to their state of loneliness. Some researchers hypothesize that loneliness is maintained by faulty processing of the social signals—such as smiles and eye contact—that are key to positive social interactions. One consequence of this impaired social cue processing may be a failure to mimic other people’s facial expressions automatically. Social mimicry is a phenomenon that occurs naturally during most interactions, in which we automatically, and often unconsciously, mimic the emotional expressions of others when engaged in face-to-face conversation.
In the recent article on the link between loneliness and smiling, I summarized the findings from a small study designed to determine if lonely people picked up on the social cues and automatically mimicked them. Lonely people were able to recognize and understand emotional expressions just as well as the non-lonely participants. The researchers verified that the lonely group could, in fact, deliberately mimic smiles and frowns when explicitly asked, but they could not mimic other people’s smiles automatically. This inability to mimic a smile automatically might send an antisocial signal to others, unintentionally undermining attempts for social contact.
Other research shows that smiling at oneself in the mirror has positive effects. Try using the mirror to explore how your face looks when you feel lonely and experiment with smiling at yourself. It could create a positive and compassionate shift in awareness. Self-awareness and self-compassion are essential in transforming loneliness.
3. Your expectations about relationships
Our expectations about others can maintain a sense of aloneness. We hope that a special person will come along, who’ll be the solution to our loneliness, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Take a closer look at your past relationships to determine patterns. Do you typically feel lonely as soon as the novelty of a new relationship wears off? Do you feel that once you get to know someone, they seem less interesting? Change the question from: “Why I am lonely?” to “What is it in myself that’s creating this dynamic?”
A counterintuitive solution for loneliness is not necessarily to surround yourself with people. Find solitary activities that replenish you, such as going for a walk in the woods. Build tolerance for being alone by practicing meditation, especially mirror meditation, and other mindful activities. These will increase your self-awareness and comfort with your aloneness so that you don’t feel the need to avoid being alone. By compassionately confronting yourself, you’ll build awareness of what comes up for you when alone, then you can build tolerance and self-acceptance. From there, you can create relationships based on mutuality rather than a desperation to avoid loneliness.
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com
Image courtesy of Caroline Veronez.