Inside Loneliness

To some people being alone, well for a short while in any case, is like living in heaven – away from the constant demands of the kids, away from a thoughtless or nagging partner, away from the hustle and bustle of work or city life. Sooner or later though, reality kicks in and ironically they pine for the company and closeness of another human being.

Loneliness on the other hand, when prolonged, can be like a lingering canker, slowly eating away at your mind and your life – leaving nothing but a sad and empty shell of a person with little to live for save an existence with little meaning or purpose.

Loneliness may be chosen, but usually occurs to people unwittingly or because of unfortunate circumstances. The loss or death of a spouse or a child can lead to terrible loneliness. People can still live with other people in a house, be married and yet in their mind be totally isolated and feeling lonely or alone. They may have nothing in common with a person they live with, or they may be caring for an elderly partner who is sick, with a stroke for example, and who is unable to speak or respond.

The Need for Others

Humans are social beings and rely on each other not just for survival but for enjoyment and pleasure in life. Abraham Maslow (1987) developed in the 1950’s what is now well known as the ‘Hierarchy of Human Needs’ model. This model identified the most basic needs of people (such as food, clothing shelter, water) at the bottom of a triangle graduating upwards in the triangle with more emotional and cognitive needs leading to the highest level or apex of individual human satisfaction called ‘Self Actualisation’.

Of course other critical social, feminist and postmodernist theorists and researchers have identified broader aspects of human experience since that time; however Maslow’s model does serve to demonstrate how individual human needs require education, social support and networks. For example, an infant would simply be unable to survive without a more mature human or humans (like parents) to care and nurture it. Humans have a sophisticated language in order to communicate, and rely on one another throughout the lifespan for intimacy, support, knowledge, understanding and guidance.

The Nature of Loneliness

Loneliness, when extreme, can lead to depression and suicide if help is not provided. Loneliness is to some extent part of being a normal human being. For example, at times loneliness may be necessary for reflecting on life and aiding emotional healing in the grieving process. Many spiritual leaders have experienced intense loneliness (not just being alone) as part of growing stronger emotionally and spiritually. So loneliness is not always negative and pathological.

Loneliness is not specific to any age group or gender, so anyone in the right (or wrong) circumstances can be affected. Loneliness can be short in nature or linger on for many years. Loneliness can be bureaucratised and many lonely elder people live out their lives almost alone with no-one to talk to each and every day, even when living in aged care facilities. Many older people also live very lonely lives when living alone in populated suburbs and sparse rural or remote communities.

Loneliness can still occur for a person surrounded by many other people in their lives. People can still feel isolated and lonely despite being socially active in sport, music, business and so on.

“Paradoxically, loneliness frequently occurs in heavily populated cities; in these cities many people feel utterly alone and cut off, even when surrounded by throngs of other people. They experience a loss of identifiable community in an anonymous crowd. It is unclear whether loneliness is a condition aggravated by high population density itself, or simply part of the human condition brought on by this social milieu.” (Wikipedia on Loneliness)

Loneliness and Depression

Loneliness is a state of mind, not necessarily related to being physically isolated from other people. A person may have much more in common with some people than others and if there is a mismatch of interests, culture, language, intelligence, social skills or abilities, then that person could feel detached, alienated or marginalised and become lonely and depressed if the situation is prolonged. Severe loneliness and depression often seem to be fateful partners. Research findings indicate that social conditions can lead to people feeling lonely and depressed (Herzog & Markus, 1991).

Factors that can lead to this state include: unemployment; financial hardship; rural droughts, bushfires or floods that devastate peoples’ lives and livelihoods and isolate communities; loss of a partner or loved one; lack of self-esteem – unable or scared to make relationships with others; physical illness (e.g., HIV/AIDS, arthritis or back pain), incapacitation or debilitation; problems of ageing (strokes, dementia); mental illnesses (especially suffering from phobias, anxiety and panic attacks) or disabilities in which sufferers are discriminated against; new mothers or parents trying to cope with a demanding new baby; etc.

Loneliness, depression and suicide are often associated with one another. The statistics in Australia and elsewhere are interesting as there appears to be a degree of ambiguity between data for depression and data for suicides. It is interesting to note that women over 18 years report symptoms of depression far more than men. Yet episodes of suicide in all age groups from early adolescence are far higher in men than in women. Why is this so?

It is suggested that men do not seek medical help nearly as much as women do and therefore episodes of men who may well be depressed but not seeking help is not reported. This is especially the case in rural and remote communities where men typically avoid seeking health care interventions. It may well be that men do suffer depression as much or maybe more than women but all we can do at this stage is speculate.

Faulty Thinking and Negative Beliefs

The problem with loneliness is it can easily escalate and become a blocking stone in individual mindsets. This is a result of the strong influence that loneliness can have on individual self-esteem and motivation. Once a person feels lonely and creates a negative mindset towards certain emotions and behaviours, it can be difficult to “re-shape” them.

This is a common human trait. Most people are not proficient in developing positive and effective mindsets. They tend to aggravate negative feelings and believe “Murphy’s Law” is a dictating force in their lives. This law states that if something is likely to go wrong, it will go wrong.

Imagine an athlete that has missed a particular play in an important game and, each time a similar situation occurs, his confidence is shaken and he is unable to perform to his level. The same situation can apply to the counselling profession, where a bad experience with a certain type of client can create a barrier to the unprepared counsellor. These examples only show how thinking errors and negative patterns of thinking can affect people.

A solution to combat loneliness and depression is to work on developing positive thinking patterns, simply by recognising and acting upon the ‘natural’ thinking errors people are likely to commit to. Following are examples of common thinking errors, and how people can change them to become more mindful and better equipped to life’s challenges and potential problems:

Jumping to a conclusion without any real evidence

You ring a friend. They are abrupt. You assume they no longer like you. Could be they have a headache or are watching TV.

Think about the possible scenarios of a situation and realise that a negative perception is only one of them. Do not blame yourself for something that may not even exist.

Focusing on a detail taken out of context

Someone at work finds a minor mistake in your work. You think ‘I made a total mess of that’.

Mistakes are common but they are only a fraction of your daily life. Learn from them and move on instead of focusing on them and using as a reference for future tasks. Sometimes paying due attention to the overall result of your actions creates a more appropriate perspective of your proficiency in that situation.


A long relationship ends. You overgeneralise ‘I will never find anyone else’.

Your future is not dictated by your past actions. Although your past may increase the likelihood of some future events, you are in control of your own actions and able to change anything you set your mind to. Thus, overgeneralising is a gross mistake in predicting your future, albeit a common one.

Placing event in ‘Black & White’ categories

People are either totally for me or totally against me.

Life is anything but black and white. Einstein was right about the notion that everything is relative. Don’t fall in the trap of labeling events into limited categories. Use systemic thinking to understand a situation.

Imagining catastrophes

You look at some peeling wallpaper in your house. ‘The place is falling apart. I can’t stay here’.

Create solutions instead of contemplating problems. It’s a common tendency to think how a situation can get worse instead of acting to improve it. You will be faced with challenges on a daily basis, and how you approach them will dictate how successful you will be in solving them.

Ignoring the bright side of things

Your children complain their mash potato is lumpy. You think ‘I can’t even cook simple meals now’ ignoring that they said everything else was fine.

The most common error of all: not paying due recognition to your successful efforts. People often get stuck in their notions of how their lives went wrong simply because they are unable to focus in the positive outcomes of many situations. Every event has a positive and negative aspect – it is by focusing on the positive that we motivate ourselves to achieve more.


Loneliness can be debilitating and lead to problems such as depression, anxiety and even suicide. Indeed loneliness, depression and anxiety often go hand in hand. It is important to recognise one’s strengths and resources such as friends, relatives, skills, knowledge and so on so that they can be harnessed to overcome feelings of self doubt and negativity about oneself.