Loneliness is a real condition that affects one out of every five Americans. It is a debilitating experience that makes its victims feel unworthy, misunderstood, and unseen. Most of us think the fix is to simply surround ourselves with people, but for for anyone who suffers from loneliness, you know all too well it isn’t as simple as that.
A new study has revealed that the feeling of being isolated—at least emotionally—is not just a symptom of depression. It’s an actual disease. Lonely people feel lonely even when they are surrounded by people. I know because I spent years being lonely. I thought it was a side effect of my depression, but even when I overcame it, the loneliness lingered. I began my own research and eventually discovered that loneliness is much more than a symptom of some other malady.
According to John Cacioppo (a pioneer in the field of social neuroscience and an expert on loneliness), “One can be quite happy being alone. Loneliness, however, is another story. It’s that feeling that you can be walking down a crowded street or have thousands of Facebook [friends] and Twitter followers, yet you still feel there is no one to relate to or turn to in times of need. Loneliness, essentially, can overtake you even when—and perhaps especially when—you’re not physically alone.”
In order to truly understand loneliness, we have to study it like the epidemic it is. People who suffer from loneliness feel unseen, unheard, and unappreciated. But it doesn't just go away when you focus on the problem. The most important thing to do is validate the feelings of a lonely person. Showing up consistently as a friend is the best thing you can do.
But there are certain things you should never say to someone who suffers from loneliness—some of which you might think could actually make a positive impact. Here are a few of the most dangerous statements, and why they might make things worse rather than better.
1. You just need to go out more and meet more people.
People who suffer from loneliness are not lonely because they don’t know enough people. Some of the most well-known, popular people around are lonely. The fix isn’t more people. It’s people who care. Rather than suggest they meet more people, let this person know you are safe and can be counted on. That makes all the difference.
2. You just need more confidence.
Lonely people are often insecure. And loneliness exacerbates the sense of isolation, creating a vicious cycle. Often, unhealed fears from the past are the cause of present insecurity and feelings of isolation. But even confident people can feel lonely. Think of the most popular person you know. It may seem glamorous to have so much attention. But sometimes that person suffers inside. Don't assume someone is feeling good just because they seem to have it together.
3. You’ll stop being lonely when you meet “your other half.”
Assuming someone is lonely because they don't have a partner undermines the real reasons they might be lonely. Many of us assume single people are lonely, but loneliness is just as likely to strike people in partnerships. In truth, loneliness has little do to do with other people. Spend quality time with the people in your life who may be lonely. Ask them to open up about their lives. Many lonely people feel like they can’t share their truth with others, so giving them a safe place to be vulnerable is key.
4. You should join a meet-up group or do more of what you love.
According to the study referenced above, “The lonely brain has a suppressed neural response to positive stimuli. Positive images and events don’t register in the lonely brain as they do in the non-lonely brain. The idea of social contact with friends or family, for instance, sparks distinct activity in the brains of most people, while the response in the lonely brain is diminished.” Instead of assuming the fix is to do more fun things, just recognize that the pain they feel is real and valid.
Whatever the original cause of loneliness, the best we can do is be patient, understanding, and unfailingly kind. If you or someone you know is suffering from loneliness, reach out for help.
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