By David Joel Miller.
Loneliness is worse at transition points.
It’s common for people to feel lonely at certain times in their lives. The feeling of loneliness can have survival value. One person, by themselves, is in a dangerous situation. A group of people together can protect each other. In limited amounts, loneliness can motivate you to seek out others and create new supportive relationships.
Sometimes loneliness becomes excessive and can result in feelings of rejection, isolation, and distrust. High levels of loneliness can damage your physical and emotional health, harm your relationships, and result in self-harm, or abusing substances.
The effects of loneliness intensify when you have fewer supportive relationships. Knowing when loneliness is likely to strike can help you to understand that this is a normal part of life rather than something wrong with you.
If you are feeling especially lonely right now, reach out to others and work on improving your support systems. If loneliness has gotten you in its grasp, consider getting some professional help to get you through this time. Here are some of the times in life you are likely to feel lonely and what that loneliness is trying to tell you.
When you don’t feel you belong, you get lonely.
People used to know where they “belonged.” Historically individuals were connected to groups and locations in ways that told them where they belonged and where they didn’t belong. Over the last hundred years, most of these connections have weakened to the point that people no longer can tell you where they belong.
For most of human history, people lived in small groups. First, there were small bands, then larger tribes. Over time humans progressed to building dwellings and being parts of families. Next people belonged to a particular city or state. The group you lived in might have been loving, or it might have been harsh and cruel. Either way, you were likely to feel that where you were was where you belonged. People who grow up in a rural community or a small town typically put down roots. No matter where you go afterward you can feel anchored to your “hometown.”
People used to be able to define themselves by their social role. Men, when asked to describe themselves, would tell you what they did for a living. They were farmers, fishermen, shopkeepers, or they worked in the factory or mine. Women used to define themselves as wives or mothers. Over the last hundred years or so women moved into the workplace. Certain occupations became traditional “women’s work.” When asked who she was, a working woman was likely to cite a handful of common women’s jobs. She might have been a teacher, a nurse, or a cashier in a retail store. The work role person a person “belongs in” is more fluid today.
Most people used to be affiliated with a group. Church or religious memberships were the norms. There was a time in America when you ask someone about their religious affiliation they would give you the name of a particular denomination. They would say they were Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and so on. They likely attended functions at the church even if they didn’t fully believe that church’s doctrine. Membership in occupational groups, like a grange or union was much more common in the past. So was membership in social and fraternal organizations.
In this new millennium, most group affiliations have weakened. People move frequently. Most people must change their career multiple times in their life. Women have moved into jobs that were once exclusively done by men, and in a few areas, men moved into traditionally female occupations. Church membership has declined. Today most people describe themselves as “spiritual rather than religious” or as simply “Christian” rather than as a member of a specific denomination.
Along with church membership, participation in fraternal and social groups has declined. Even union membership has become more fluid. Many of the newer jobs are not unionized and as people move from job to job they may move from union to union. Rather than being able to define yourself by the groups you belong to, today people must define themselves by the things they have. As you move through life, your changing experiences are likely to trigger feelings of loneliness.
When you are a teenager, you are likely to experience loneliness.
Part of being a teenager is moving through changes in relationships. During these years, teens make the shift from being part of the family to becoming a separate, individual person. Loneliness can drive you to find out who you are as a separate individual. During these years, the relationship between you and your parents or caregivers needs to transform from being close and affectionate to being a more separate adult relationship. You will need to make your first step to overcoming loneliness by finding out who you are as a person.
The teen years are a time when being accepted is important. Teens want to be liked and be a part of a group. Some kids become part of the “in” popular group. Others may become “stoners” or “nerds and geeks.” Increasingly teens find it hard to fit in anywhere. This lack of belonging has resulted in increasing depression and anxiety.
Those who don’t find the group to belong to may become lonely, isolated and develop significant emotional problems. As difficult as this stage is for some teen’s learning to cope with changing social relationships as a part of the growing up process. The hard thing to understand for many as they pass through this stage is not to take it personally. Not being a part of the group doesn’t mean there something wrong with you.
During your teenage and early 20 something years, it’s important to learn the skills to make and to maintain relationships. One of the biggest hazards of being lonely at this point in your life is that you will rush into a romantic, sexual, relationship to avoid feeling lonely. The most important developmental task during this stage in your life is not finding a life partner but learning to tell the difference between the potentially good partners and the bad ones.
When you live alone, loneliness tries to move in.
One of life’s challenges is learning that when you are alone, you do not have to be lonely. Most people tried to avoid the loneliness beast by staying constantly busy. You’re either going to school or working. First, you are a part of a family. If you go away to school, you probably have roommates. Many people move rapidly into romantic relationships. Some of the clients I’ve worked with moved in with a partner after the first or second date. A few of these relationships succeed. Most do not.
At some point in your life are likely to find yourself living alone. The minute you’re sitting there in an empty house or apartment loneliness moves in. If you can learn to be your own best friend, to be happy and content when you’re all alone, there won’t be room for loneliness in your life. People who manage to achieve a good balance between the time they spend with others and the time they spend with themselves are more likely to create a contented life, free from the presence of the loneliness beast.
When you are unemployed, loneliness comes calling.
What you do gives your life meaning and purpose. When you are young, you go to school. When you get older, most people must work. All those activities involve interacting with other people. The day you wake up and don’t have anywhere to go, you are likely to experience loneliness. Whether you have left your job voluntarily, resigned, been fired or watched the workplace close not having some purpose can leave you feeling depressed and lonely. The cure for this loneliness is to get out there and find another job.
When you are sick or disabled, you may be lonely.
People with a significant disability or those faced with a serious illness spend a lot of time alone. The most difficult part of this experience can be the emptiness of the time you must be alone. During these life transitions, it’s important to stay as active and engaged as possible. Newer technologies have made staying connected easier than ever. But staying connected requires effort on your part.
When you become an older adult, you spend more time alone.
Time alone does not have to equal loneliness. Developing the skill of being comfortable when you are by yourself can ease this life transition. As you age, it becomes harder to maintain connections with other people. For some people, the retirement years are active ones. For other people, the exit from work leads to isolation and loneliness. Families move away, and friends pass away. Overcoming loneliness in later life requires effort to maintain your friendships and social connections.
Now that you know the times that loneliness may come calling, what efforts will you make to keep him out of your life?
Read more about the causes and cures for loneliness.
David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.) Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.
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