How to Deal With Chronic Loneliness -illustration of a girl in read wearing a jumper and pants, she'seated on a red planet starin
Illustration: Djanlissa Pringeld
mental health

How to Fix Your Crushing Sense of Chronic Loneliness

Everyone deserves to feel connected on their own terms.

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Emma, 22, has been lonely for most of her life. “For a long time, I was very sad about having no friends,” she says. “I was also angry with myself for years. I thought I was stupid. I didn't understand why everyone managed to make friends but me.”


Ironically, Emma – who asked to remain anonymous – isn't alone in this. Research shows that 47 percent of adults in England experienced some degree of loneliness in 2022. But if feeling alone every once in a while is pretty normal, chronic loneliness can have a huge and very shitty effect on your life, self-worth and overall wellbeing. So what can you do about it?

Karin Bruijnesteijn, a counsellor at the Dutch mental health platform MIND Korrelatie, and Kyra Haerkens from Join Us, a programme for young people with loneliness, helped us come up with a few tips.

1. Understand what loneliness is

Loneliness isn’t necessarily about having few friends or not having enough time to hang out with your pals. You can also feel it while surrounded by people, Bruijnesteijn says. The first kind of loneliness is known as social loneliness – the second is called emotional loneliness. Distinctions aside, the two types also easily and often intertwine.

Emotional loneliness is more complex than social loneliness and can arise for a variety of reasons like, for instance, when you lack meaning in life. “I regularly meet young people who don't feel connected to themselves because they don't really know who they are,” Bruijnesteijn said. "What do you think is important? What do you want in your life? These major identity questions can bring up feelings of loneliness.”


2. Identify the cause

You shouldn’t just figure out the kind of loneliness you’re dealing with, but also where it comes from. “Sometimes very practical things that can make you feel lonely, such as moving or breaking up with someone,” Bruijnesteijn explains. Not having enough money or time for social activities can also make you feel lonely. “We also see young people with a physical disability who have a hard time participating in some activities, which makes them feel excluded,” Haerkens adds. 

But if loneliness comes from within, dissecting its root causes can be more of a challenge. For instance, “you may have trouble making contacts because you’re insecure or find it hard to listen to people,” Bruijnesteijn suggests. “Or maybe you’ve never been taught how to be a good friend.” Mental health issues or neurodiverse conditions like depression, anxiety or ADHD could be behind difficulties in making or maintaining social bonds.

Many of the young people who seek counsel at Join Us have terrible self-image, which affects the way they experience friendship. “They sometimes imagine the most negative scenarios, like: 'Everyone will laugh at me if I say something’,” Haerkens explains. “This has a paralysing effect. We help young people identify these thoughts and turn them into positives.”


3. Reflect on your own priorities

If you have enough friends but still feel lonely, it’s not a bad idea to take a look at yourself. Do you ever invite people to do things, or do you always wait for them? How much do you invest in your own friendships? 

Ask yourself what exactly you expect from a friendship. Some people need a packed schedule to feel alive, while others just want to have coffee and a catch-up once a month. “Accept who you are, don’t try to fight it,” Bruijnesteijn advises.

4. Talk about it

Often, the only way to overcome feelings of loneliness is to open up about it. Feeling heard and understood by friends, family or even a therapist will automatically decrease your feelings of loneliness and help you realise you are not the only one who feels this way. “Seeking contact instead of shutting yourself off is important,” Haerkens says.

Emma has been in therapy at Join Us ever since 2020 to help with her loneliness. Even as a child, she always had few friends, but would often meet with them after school. Things got more worse for her in high school, when her loneliness landed her in bad situations with men who took advantage of her vulnerability. Therapy helped her cope with being on her own.

Today, Emma sometimes feels lonely, but things have changed. “I live with my boyfriend, but he’s been in Switzerland for six months, so I’m often alone,” she explains. “I miss him, but I don't feel chronic and daily loneliness anymore.” Feelings of loneliness do occasionally come up, but Emma has learned to recognise them and open up about it with the people in her life, which has also helped.  


5. Work on your social skills

Haerkens explains that many young people at Join Us struggle with social skills like starting a conversation. If you want to practise, it’s best to keep things simple at first. “Have a quick chat with someone now and then, without necessarily expecting anything from that conversation,” Bruijnesteijn suggests.

Emma has also realised she sometimes likes to take the first step with a potential new friend. “I have a new job where I met someone and thought: ‘I’d like to meet up with her outside work,’” she says. “We did, and it was very chill. I won't call her a friend right now, but it's nice.”

6. Take it easy

“Opening up can make you feel very vulnerable, especially if you’ve experienced rejection before,” Haerkens says. Some attempts will always be unsuccessful - that's perfectly normal, she adds: “Sometimes you’re just planting a seed, which later will have room to grow.”

Bruijnesteijn recommends showing interest in someone you like by asking questions during conversations: “Giving someone your genuine attention, however small, will create a sense of connection,” she explains. Many a beautiful friendship, after all, has bloomed by bonding over a common interest. Maybe it’s eardrum-piercing techno music; maybe it’s model trains. Just don’t fake it: If you’re too focused on making a certain impression or forcing a connection, your overture will come off wrong: “That doesn’t give the friendship space to flourish,” Bruijnesteijn says, “and building friendships takes time." 


7. The power of groups

Haerkens also works in group sessions, where people help each other develop social skills, as well as how to express feelings in a healthy way and read other people. Emma learned a lot during these sessions: “I noticed that I should pay a bit more attention to timing,” she remembers. “Sometimes, I make sarcastic jokes, but it's not always clear that I don't mean it. I also learnt that in larger groups, I tend to disappear. I’m better at one-to-one conversations. Emma’s boyfriend is very social, which helps. “He sometimes invites people over to the house,” she says. “It's nice to just invite someone for a drink now and then, it doesn't have to be a big deal.”

8. Do things you like

According to Haerkens, one of the keys to beating loneliness is to keep doing what makes you happy. You like to sing? See if you can join a local choir. You like nature? Join a wildlife group. “If you do what you like, you’ll meet like-minded people,” Bruijnesteijn says. “It's a win-win situation.” Emma, for instance, met her boyfriend and most of her current friends at the scouts.

Even if your favourite activity isn’t compatible with making friends, doing things you like on your own does help loneliness. “Go see a nice movie by yourself,” Emma recommends. “The other people at the cinema won't necessarily become your friends, but for me, being among people helped lessen my deep sense of loneliness for a while.”

9. Remember there’s nothing wrong with you 

Finally, it’s important not to fuel your own suffering by being hard on yourself, especially if things aren’t going well for you. “Keep doing fun things, make sure you get enough sleep, and keep moving,” Bruijnesteijn says encouragingly. “If you stay kind to yourself, it’ll become easier to connect with people naturally.”

Haerkens stresses that loneliness is something you should never be ashamed of. No matter how perfect the lives of others looks on social media or in real life, loneliness is a perfectly normal, human feeling. “Everyone,” Bruijnesteijn says, “feels it.”