Loneliness is a horrible, empty feeling that gnaws at your gut.
Ironically, you can be surrounded by other people and still feel lonely. That’s because loneliness is actually a state of mind, not the state of being alone.
What makes us feel lonely isn’t the fact that there are no people around, but that we can’t connect with those people in the intimate, emotional way that we crave.
How loneliness affects our health
Loneliness can have a huge impact on our physical and mental health.
People who are lonely are at higher risk for depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease, stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, poor decision-making, and even the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
John Cacioppo, co-author of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection in an interview with U.S. News and World Report explains:
“Lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who are not lonely. Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing us to premature aging.”
In other words, loneliness is serious.
Why introverts can be susceptible to a loneliness loop
We’ve all fallen prey to loneliness at times, whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert. Sadly, there’s even some scientific evidence that loneliness is genetic.
But it’s possible for us introverts to get stuck in a cycle of loneliness, writes Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.
This “loneliness loop” can happen because staying home alone is often our default. We might find it hard to muster up the energy to hang out with people, especially after a long day of work or classes.
Plus, we don’t like superficial socializing:
“We desire and require deep connections and would rather be lonely alone than in a crowd,” Dembling writes in a Psychology Today blog post. “But realistically, those deep connections are not easy to find, and if we get caught short and our only choice is superficial socializing or nothing, we can get lonely.”
If we’re always staying home, our self-image might erode, which will make us want to stay home even more, Dembling writes.
We may even get to the point where we become anxious just at the thought of going out and being around people. But if we keep saying no to our friends, eventually they’ll quit inviting us out.
We end up in a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
Introverts and the problem of feeling misunderstood
Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote, “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.”
We introverts have complex, rich — and private — inner lives. Our inner world is the most authentic part of who we are, yet we often find it difficult to share it with other people.
Perhaps we find it hard to put our abstract thoughts and feelings into words, or maybe we just don’t feel comfortable enough with most people to open up.
When we can’t connect authentically with others, we’re left feeling misunderstood, which is horribly lonely.
What to do about loneliness
What we really should do is plant seeds of intimacy.
This might mean not waiting for other people to come to you. When your energy levels are at their peak, extend a few social invitations to people who you find interesting, Chung writes.
Even if they say no this time, they’re more likely to say yes in the future.
“Be open,” Chung writes. “You can be very open and still be introverted. In this case, openness refers to being in a space of non-judgment, letting go of how your ideal friend ‘should’ look, and opening your eyes to the special people who are already in your life.”
When you’re with those people, reach into yourself and share from that hidden, inner world of yours — even if it’s messy, and even if it’s just a little bit. Sharing your authentic, true thoughts and feelings will go a long way toward building the intimacy you crave.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick route to building strong, satisfying relationships. But if we’re willing to invest time and effort, we can better protect ourselves from the painful bite of loneliness.
Image credit: Marta Bevacqua (Deviant Art)