The precautions the world is taking to manage the spread of Covid-19 are teaching us all a great deal about what it really means to be socially isolated. Being isolated, in turn, is bringing loneliness to the surface for many people in our society. While Covid-19 has certainly become a daily hot topic, loneliness is not.
Loneliness is a feeling that comes up when there is a gap between the social connections we have and the social connections we need. It is important to distinguish this concept from isolation, which has to do with the number of people in our surroundings. While being socially isolated does not necessarily mean a person is lonely, it can certainly be a catalyst for it, especially when isolation is not our choice.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General for the United States, explains that there are three types of loneliness that we all have the potential to feel:
- Emotional loneliness: when we are longing for a partner or friend who is a close confidant and who we have an affectionate, trusting relationship with.
- Social loneliness: when we long for quality friendships for companionship and support.
- Collective loneliness: when we are yearning for a community of like-minded people with whom we share a sense of purpose and interests.
If we have unmet needs in any or all of these categories, we will feel a sense of loneliness. While this may be especially prevalent during this current time of social isolation, loneliness is always present.
A person who has a close relationship with their spouse could feel a strong sense of loneliness if they do not have close friends or a community of like-minded people. This does not mean that their relationship with their spouse is unsatisfying; it means the person has unmet social needs that their spouse is not meant to or able to fill.
A person with close, supportive friends and who is a caregiver for their loving spouse who has dementia could feel lonely because of the changing emotional connection they have with their spouse. They might also feel lonely if their friends do not understand what their experience is like and if they are not connected with other caregivers who they can relate to.
Loneliness can be a difficult feeling to identify and acknowledge. This is in part because loneliness is a concept that is not clearly understood and in part because of the stigma associated with this.
So many of us feel lonely and conclude that something must be wrong with us for feeling this way. We look around and think “no one else seems to be feeling this or talking about this, so what is it about me that makes me feel this way?” We become locked inside of ourselves, becoming less and less available for connecting with others the more we focus on trying to overcome these feelings on our own. We might even try to seek out connections with others that we hope will validate us and prove that we are happy even though we feel loneliness lurking beneath the surface. Unfortunately, this only serves to perpetuate the loneliness spiral since we are much less likely to seek out genuine connection with others when we do not feel secure in our sense of self-worth.
The truth is, nothing is wrong with you for feeling lonely. It is a normal part of being human. Loneliness is not an indicator that something is wrong with you, but rather that you have unmet needs.
We are biologically wired to be social and connected. Acknowledging our feelings takes courage when we fear that what we feel might make us look weak because it is not how we should feel. It requires us to feel vulnerable and scared and tell our truth anyway. Being vulnerable in this way is so uncomfortable that loneliness is often swept under the rug and has become known as a silent epidemic.
It is time for a shift in our understanding of how we define self-worth because doing things the way we think we should is keeping us on track to feel lonely. The antidote for loneliness is actually found in shared vulnerability – talking to others who understand you and your experience in a meaningful way. While it can be scary to wholeheartedly acknowledge our emotional experience out loud, it is also the key to feeling seen and heard for who we are in our relationships and healing the pain of loneliness.
If you are experiencing loneliness, it is time to take stock of the people and relationships in your life and think about what areas you may have unmet needs in. Loneliness has been linked with many serious physical and mental health conditions and the impact it could have our overall lifespan has been found to be equal to that of smoking 15 cigarettes per day (HRSA, 2020). Our social needs are important to our overall health in a similar way to sleep, nutrition and exercise.
If you feel able to talk with a trusted friend or family member about how you are feeling, this is a place to start. You can always call your health care provider such as a family doctor to learn about supports available. Additionally, you can also check our Baycrest website.