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What it's Like to Have Chronic Loneliness

How having trouble connecting with others can feel like never-ending isolation.

by Jennifer Garam
Dec 7 2016, 3:00pm

Photo: Lukasz Wierzbowski

"People would be surprised by how alone you feel," my therapist said during a recent session. And she's right. On the surface, I'm outgoing, social, and friendly. I'll strike up conversations with strangers on line at Starbucks, run into people I know up and down the streets of my Brooklyn neighborhood, and am the consummate partygoer—bubbly and armed with impeccably delivered anecdotes that sometimes make my fellow guests laugh-spit their beer. I can win over even the most reserved, surly person, and I joke that there's only a short list of people I've ever come across who are immune to my charms.

And yet, I spend a lot of time feeling deeply alone. I have many acquaintances but only a few people who I consider close friends, and they tend to be somewhat unavailable, busy New Yorkers. They'll take days or even weeks to return a phone call or text, be challenging to make plans with, and sometimes fall out of touch altogether for long periods of time.

As upsetting and dissatisfying as this can be, I understand where they're coming from: I, too, am hard to pin down for plans, sometimes take a while to return a call, and when I'm feeling depressed, stressed out, anxious, or overwhelmed, can fall out of touch. And of course, when friends in my immediate circle are busy or unresponsive, I could widen my circle and try to get in touch with others, but I generally don't.

I go through phases where I make a concerted effort to reach out to people and schedule plans, but regardless of how may actions I take, it often feels like being in a state of loneliness and isolation is my default setting that I keep getting pulled back to. I have nurturing and fulfilling moments of connection here and there but they don't seem to stick, and overall I wind up feeling like there's a barrier between me and everyone else that I just can't break through.

At first glance, being lonely might not seem like a big deal. But I also have depression, and ongoing loneliness, especially when mixed with my depression, hurts. While I've never attempted suicide, I've had several bouts of suicidal ideation through the years. Many factors contributed to me feeling so deeply despairing, but loneliness played a big part—had I felt more able to truly connect to others, the pain I was experiencing in those moments might have been easier to bear.

Loneliness isn't always easy to see; just because someone appears be outgoing and social on the outside doesn't mean that they're not privately struggling with loneliness. Terri Girvin, a bartender who lives in New York City, is surrounded by people at her job, but still frequently feels lonely. "I'm very friendly and engaging and involved in life. All those things are true, and I spend a lot of time by myself feeling concerned of that always being the case," she says.

Having to be "on" at work, she crashes on her days off, and as a result spends more time alone than she'd like to. Wiped out from late nights and a lot of surface-level conversations on the job, she craves deeper connections, but also needs time alone to recharge. Since socializing and making small talk feels like an extension of her job, she'll often opt out.

Girvin blames her schedule for her loneliness, but also admits that perhaps on some level she chose to be a bartender because it perpetuates these feelings of isolation. "It's a convenient job for me to have to justify feeling separate," she says. Growing up in a family of all boys, Girvin recalls feeling like an outsider as a kid, and wonders if she's recreating that childhood dynamic in her adult life.

Although she wants to feel less alone, she doesn't know how to go about it. "I feel out of step with the rest of society, and I'm not sure… how to rectify that," she says.

As isolating as loneliness feels, it's such a universal experience now that the New York Times even called it an epidemic. Similarly, a recent interview with loneliness researcher John Cacioppo of University of Chicago reported that loneliness is on the rise, with studies finding that while 11-20 percent of Americans said they felt lonely in the 1970s and 1980s, that figure was as high as 40-45 percent in 2010. Marc Katz,a rabbi and author of The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort, says that loneliness is pervasive in our society, and its effects can be devastating. "[Chronic loneliness] is a deep, underlying hunger to be seen that's sometimes insatiable and very painful," he says.

All loneliness isn't the same, and there's an important distinction between the two different types. "State loneliness" is temporary, and tied to an external circumstance like being by yourself on a rainy day, explains Sean Seepersad, adjunct professor of human development and family studies at University of Connecticut and president and CEO of the Web of Loneliness Institute, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to loneliness awareness-building, research, intervention, and support. It's easily remedied, by calling a friend, for example.

And then there's chronic, or "trait loneliness," which is internal to the person. "They've experienced it over a number of years, it's hard to get rid of, and it's typically caused by things they are doing and traits they have that tend to make it difficult for them to either create or maintain intimate relationships with others," Seepersad says.

While we often hear that the antidote to feeling lonely is to make plans, it's more complicated than that. Not just any contact will ease these feelings. In fact, socializing can often exacerbate loneliness. Sometimes after going out with friend or in a group, I'll come home and feel even more lonely than usual. Like Girvin, I, too, can feel like I have to be "on" around others, or I put up a wall as a self-protective strategy to avoid getting hurt, so social plans wind up reminding me how hard it is for me to connect with people beyond a surface level. This then discourages me from making plans, since that only seems to intensify how alone I feel.

This is because, as Katz told me, the actual antidote to loneliness is not merely being around people, but being truly "seen" and appreciated for who you really are. So he says that being surrounded by people at a party who have the potential to really see you and in doing so alleviate your loneliness—but don't—can be incredibly painful. And if you have difficulty connecting with others, Seepersad says, being in a room full of people is not necessarily going to make you feel any less alone. Quality is more important than quantity when it comes to friendships, so Seepersad asserts that the key to moving out of loneliness is forming bonds that are deep, honest, and intimate, even if it's just with a few people.

There are no quick fixes for loneliness, but Katz says there are tools that can help you cope with it, and over time, hopefully diminish its frequency. Some kind of connection to higher power or something bigger than yourself, a sense of purpose or mission in your life, and cultivating a loving relationship with yourself and enjoying your own company can all serve to comfort you during times of loneliness. "All of that's scaffolding to help you, but at the end of the day, part of why you're lonely is you need other people," he says. "[These things] will help you until you can finally be in a place where you're surrounded by people who see you for you."

Katz also says that we often have a more pessimistic view of others than they deserve, fearing that if we reach out to them, especially during our times of struggle, they'll be annoyed by us and we'll feel rejected. But these stories we tell ourselves about others usually aren't true, and most people will respond more positively than we imagine. In the rare instances when they don't, Katz says that probably has more to do with them—something they're going through, or their own limitations with vulnerability and intimacy—and you shouldn't take it personally and let that stop you from reaching out to others in the future.

In my experience Katz is right: the times I have pushed through my resistance to broach the subject with a friend and tell them that it hurts my feelings when they're unresponsive to my calls, texts, or attempts to get together, they've almost always apologized and explained what's been going on in their life to cause them to be so out of touch.

"It takes a lot of courage to truly reach out in such a way that you're going to be seen by other people, but it's imperative that we do it," Katz says. For him, one of the highest levels of friendship involves connecting through brokenness. "The people I've shown my brokenness to and seen their brokenness are inevitably the people who are my best friends," he says. "And it's a very hard thing to do, but we can use our loneliness as a way to connect."