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Lonely, but not alone? Experts explain how our feelings relate to experience

  • By Ashley Laderer
  • September 23, 2022

What is loneliness?

Although the dictionary defines “lonely” as “being without company” or “cut off from others,” loneliness is much more complex and something that can’t necessarily be put into just a few words. Not to mention, these definitions don’t account for feeling lonely when you’re not alone. 

“Loneliness is a feeling of being alone –– not necessarily an action of being alone,” says Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC, a Florida-based therapist with Grow Therapy. This is why loneliness can strike even when you’re with a significant other, your family, or in a crowd. Loneliness is also often associated with negative feelings of self-worth and increased self-doubt, Oliva-Garcia says. 

Certain life events may trigger loneliness, too. “It can come on by different factors such as a move to another location far from family and friends, a loss due to grief because of a death of a partner or family or from physical and emotional disorders,” says Oliva-Garcia.

Whether or not you feel lonely comes down to your own personal perception of current circumstance and any related emotions. According to psychological research on loneliness, the phenomenon occurs when there’s “a discrepancy between an individual’s preferred and actual social relations.” That’s why even when you’re with other people, if the company or your interactions aren’t living up to your preferred needs, you’ll feel lonely. 

Essentially, you’re having interactions with other people, but maybe they aren’t meaningful interactions, or you aren’t feeling genuinely connected to them, which leaves you feeling empty and lonely. On the flip side, it’s possible to spend time alone without feeling lonely. Therefore, being alone doesn’t equate to feeling lonely, and being with others doesn’t necessarily equate to feeling not lonely. 

When it comes down to it, loneliness usually means feeling disconnected, and in turn, feeling dissatisfied with this disconnection, says Anna Russo, LCSW, an Illinois-based therapist with Grow Therapy. Oftentimes, there’s also a feeling of helplessness when it comes to loneliness, and there may also be physical manifestations of loneliness, like fatigue, fidgeting, or muscle tension, she says.

Why you may feel lonely when you’re not alone

Many people feel lonely when they’re not alone. Oftentimes, an individual’s history, background, or current life circumstances will play a part in dictating if they feel lonely when they aren’t alone –– whether they’re with friends, family, or a partner. Here are eight reasons you might feel lonely when you’re not alone.

Mental Health Conditions, Illnesses, or Disabilities

“Mental disorders such as major depressive disorder, anxieties, and many physical and medical issues can bring about feelings of loneliness that being around other people doesn’t necessarily fix,” Oliva-Garcia says. “Many emotional problems and stress can’t be erased by [having] others around.” This can lead to loneliness regardless of whether or not you’re with people.

Additionally, dealing with any disability, illness, or mental health condition can make it hard to open up to other people due to the fear of being vulnerable or fear of not being understood. You may also worry about being a burden or a “Debbie Downer.” Even when with loved ones, if you’re holding in your true emotions and fears, this can cause you to feel disconnected and in turn, lonely.  

The same goes for coping with any difficult physical transitions throughout life, such as:

  • Puberty
  • Pregnancy
  • Parenthood
  • Menopause
  • Aging

Having a History of Trauma

If you’ve suffered from past trauma, it’s possible that your brain is trying to protect you from getting hurt again, which leads to trouble connecting with or trusting others. This can be caused by any type of trauma or accumulation of traumas. For example, maybe you were continuously bullied in school, or had a poor parental attachment, leading to the development of an insecure attachment style. These situations can cause you to put walls up and have difficulty forming deep, healthy relationships.  

Fear of Intimacy or Vulnerability

A history of “past hurts” can contribute to fears of intimacy or vulnerability, Oliva-Garcia says. If you’ve experienced intimate situations where you were vulnerable and then ended up getting hurt, this can lead to avoidance of similar situations to protect yourself from getting hurt again. However, by protecting yourself from getting hurt and avoiding vulnerability, it’s likely that your relationships remain surface-level and don’t provide the love and deep connections that you really need. 

Being Trapped in a False Narrative

Whether the narrative comes from society as a whole or a smaller community, being trapped in a false narrative can make you feel like you’re living life “wrong,” which can feel very isolating. For example, Russo says society paints a picture where most people are happy, outgoing, and have lots of friends –– even though this isn’t the reality for many people. You try to maintain this image but end up feeling more lonely because this isn’t your reality either. Or, another example is being part of a certain religious community that may tell you to behave a certain way. You act to the community’s liking, but because you aren’t being your true self, you feel a disconnect. Another scenario is if you’re naturally an introvert and need time alone to recharge and feel depleted by being in big groups, this can cause loneliness.

Social Media Pressure

Social media is an illusion. It’s a highlight reel. Users tend to post the good moments in their life, but not the bad ones, so it seems like things are always going great for them. When using social media, especially if you’re constantly scrolling, you might be bombarded by images of people smiling and hanging out with groups of friends, family, or significant others. After seeing these images, you fall into a comparison trap, thinking that everyone else has more friends than you do and believing everyone’s having a better time than you are, resulting in loneliness. 

Having Too Many Relationships But Not Enough Close Relationships

Even if you have many friends, if they’re just surface-level friendships, there’s a lack of true connection, Russo says. You may be spreading yourself thin or putting on a “mask” acting happy, which can lead to feeling exhausted after social interactions instead of connected and fulfilled. This is common if you’re focusing on quantity over quality, such as if you’re more inclined to network and make small talk or discuss work instead of building real social relationships where you can discuss more vulnerable topics. You may crave closeness, but if your friends don’t know the real you, or you feel like you can’t talk to them about your emotions and life experiences, you might end up feeling even more lonely when you spend time with them. 

Insecurity and Perfectionism 

If you feel insecure, or like you need to be perfect all the time, this can be another culprit that causes you to put on a “mask” pretending to be someone you’re not. When the focus is on your flaws (whether “real” or perceived) or being perfect, this pulls you out of the moment and stops you from being vulnerable. This results in a lack of honest connections in your relationships, and in turn, loneliness.

Being Part of a Marginalized Group

Although society has been making moves in the right direction, there are still plenty of underlying prejudices that can lead to discrimination. Understandably so, dealing with social biases such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia may cause someone to feel unsafe and alone, especially if they aren’t with people who are in the same shoes as them or who are active allies. 

What Can I Do When I’m Feeling Lonely? 

Luckily, there are plenty of things to do to cope with loneliness. Here are eight ways to deal with feeling lonely.  

  1. Acknowledge the loneliness and identify the cause or causes  
  2. Get vulnerable and open up about your loneliness to friends and family
  3. Make concrete plans with loved ones who you feel genuinely connected to
  4. Value quality over quantity when it comes to relationships
  5. Join local Facebook groups or use Meetup.com to find local events 
  6. Volunteer with community organizations you’re passionate about
  7. Use self-care techniques like self-compassion, mindfulness, and meditation
  8. Limit social media use

What Should I Do When My Loneliness Gets Bad?

Seeing a therapist is a great way to learn to cope with loneliness. A therapist can help delve into the causes of why you’re feeling lonely, such as an underlying mental health condition, trauma, or fear of intimacy. They can assist in identifying any related emotions and suggest coping strategies that can help. 

Emergency options outside of therapy are available if your loneliness is causing you to  experience a mental health crisis or have suicidal thoughts. In these cases, it’s crucial to reach out for immediate help, which can be life-saving. Two options are the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (call or text 988) and the Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to 741741). Both services are free, confidential, and available 24/7.

Since everyone is affected by feelings of loneliness to some degree, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not alone while experiencing the feeling. However, it does take active effort to make changes to cope with loneliness and move towards feeling more connected. 
If you want to seek the help of a therapist to cope with loneliness or any other mental health struggles, you can search here through our community of in-network, qualified therapists and psychiatrists, or call our team at 1(786)244-7690 to book a virtual session today.

Reviewed by:

Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC

Isbell Oliva-Garcia is a Licensed Mental Health Clinician with 20 years of experience in helping adults with mental health issues and disorders to include depression, anxiety, and issues during difficult life transitions. She counsels individuals through grief due to a loss, clients experiencing divorce, empty nest, and loss of jobs and/or change of careers. Transitions can be difficult and when we get stuck, she helps with psychological therapies using Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Solution Focused techniques to help my clients move from stuck to thriving individuals.

Book a session with Isbell Oliva-Garcia LMHC