Symptoms, Causes and Effects of Loneliness

According to Murphy and Kupschik (1992), loneliness is defined as a state in which a person describes experiencing an overwhelming sense of inner emptiness and social isolation. It is, therefore, an emotional state. Loneliness is more than a person feeling that they want to be able to connect on a social level with others – but rather it is a perceived sense of disconnection, rejection and alienation.

The lonely client may find it difficult or even impossible to have any form of meaningful human contact. Lonely clients often experience a subjective sense of inner emptiness combined with feelings of separation and/ or isolation from the world.

Sometimes people feel lonely because they believe they are different from others or they believe people are indifferent to them. Loneliness and being alone are not the same. For example, a client can be in a group with others and still feel lonely; whereas, they can be alone by themselves and not necessarily feel lonely (Aspel, 2001).

A client may describe their experience of loneliness as that they don’t feel good enough to have friends let alone have many; feeling insignificant and unimportant when involved in interpersonal and social interactions and relying upon others to make them feel worthy  (Loneliness, 2007). Clients can sometimes also suffer because of a faulty belief about themselves; for example, “If I am alone, then something must be wrong with me”.

There can also be symptoms relating to the client’s lack of self-love. Some clients may have also internalised the false view that to be happy is to be surrounded by others at all times, regardless of how they may feel in their presence or how they make a client feel (Loneliness, 2007).

If a client can learn to be intimate with themselves, then they will experience lower levels of loneliness. This could involve the counsellor assisting and supporting the client to face the negative, deficient parts of themselves, as well as teaching them to focus on the positive parts of their self. Rejection from their family during their upbringing could allow clients’ loneliness to manifest into a mild form of depression (Hartog, 1980).

Counselling therapy often involves encouraging the client to face and integrate their rejected parts and experiences (Loneliness, 2007). Counselling therapy and other mutually accepting relationships can offer an appropriate solution to loneliness, as clients are allowed to explore their vulnerabilities. According to Peplau and Perlman (1998), the stress associated with life today can tend to make a client more vulnerable and weak to experience loneliness. A lonely client often has difficulty with coping with change.

As a result loneliness can occur and be magnified when certain life or transitional changes occur for them – for example, changes in employment, job role or capacity, relationships; intimate and social, and general social isolation induced by everyone being too busy with not enough time to engage and interact with others. Social exclusion can also be a result of how we live today, contributing to loneliness.

Negative attitudes towards certain client groups such as single parents, and those who are long-term unemployed or those who have mental health problems, can increase a client’s sense of isolation. They may come to feel that the loneliness, which has been caused by their circumstances, is somehow their fault (Monstakes, 1996).

A client who seems to be constantly surrounded by people may still feel desperately lonely. Most lonely clients that a counsellor will work with in the counselling process are usually able to function in that they are often able to hold down a job, be in a significant relationship and juggle responsibilities.  However, they still feel an overwhelming sense of internal emptiness.

Warwick (2006) suggests that loneliness gives a client the awareness that they are deficient at and in relationships. A further complication of this is that without social and interpersonal contact with others a client will only have a surge in their feelings of isolation, resulting in them retracting from participating in social transactions to a point where they feel they do not need to interact with others, hence becoming alone.

All of which are symptoms if the client’s loneliness has a negative impact on their self-worth and self-esteem, which could limit or impair their ability to function. These feelings begin to have a negative effect on their emotional well-being and functioning capacity (Murphy, 1992).

According to Rotenberg and Hymel (1999), there is a distinct difference between loneliness and the condition of chronic loneliness. Chronic loneliness can be an indicator of social maladjustment and/ or dysfunction. For example, chronic loneliness in children can result in social incompetence and socially inappropriate behaviours such as bullying, academic failure, feeling different all of which lead to a child becoming more lonely and isolated by their peers. All of which has the implication to impact on a child’s health social development psychological, emotional and physical well-being (Rotenberg et al, 1999).

In adults, loneliness has been found to be a major antecedent of depression and alcoholism. It appears at an increasing rate to be the associated cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up (Rotenberg et al, 1999). For example, heart disease, stroke, obesity, mental illness, etc.

Being lonely can exacerbate client’s feelings of misrepresentation, abandonment, rejection, depression, insecurity and anxiety both internally and when with others externally (Spengler, 1999). Prolonged experience of these feelings can eventually prevent a client from being able to obtain and maintain healthy, functioning relationship patterns and lifestyles over their life. Low self-esteem can often be identified as a trigger social withdrawal which has been identified as a precursor to the experience of loneliness (Rotenberg and Hymel, 1999).

Loneliness can be:

  • Situational – bought on by a change in circumstances, such as moving to a new environment.
  • Developmental – the need for intimacy coupled with the need for time by yourself is a process that develops throughout the lifespan.
  • Internal – which is unrelated to the external situation or age-and-stage, it is often seen in client’s with low self-esteem and vulnerability, probably stemming from their early years.

(Counselling, 2007)

Loneliness and solitude

A process of separation from significant begins at birth and, subsequently, feeling alone can be a healthy, required human emotion and, choosing to be alone for a period of solitude can be enriching for a person (Hartog et al, 1980).

According to Rouber (1998), there are times throughout everyone’s life where loneliness will exist.  However, this does not have to be a negative experience of isolation but rather it could occur through choice, within our own control or circumstance. Loneliness in this context is more about having time alone or being by ourselves which can be enjoyed as a positive, relaxing and pleasurable experience of ‘time out’.

Solitude on the other hand is an emotional state of intentionally being on our own, away from others by choice. Loneliness can often be seen different to solitude in that it is solitude not under the client’s perceived control.

In our busy culture, with its focus on being with others, aloneness and solitude seem to be defined as the same thing and they are thought in a negative way. For many people, the word lonely conjures up images of an isolated figure. Loneliness can be made more intense by what a client depending on how they perceive it. Subsequently, there are misconceptions about loneliness as described below:

“Loneliness is a sign of personal weakness.” “There’s something wrong with me and I must be different if I’m lonely. I should be able to go out and have fun.” “None of my friends seem to feel the way I do.”

(Counselling loneliness, 2006)

These misconceptions regarding loneliness are based on the premise that loneliness results from a defect in personality. Research suggests that clients who think of loneliness as a defect tend to have the following difficulties:

  • Difficulty in social risk taking, in being able to assert themselves to make contact with others, in being able to talk freely and comfortably about themselves and finding topics of discussion, partaking in activities with others and are generally anxious at being judged by others
  • They are less able to self-disclose and be spontaneous or responsive to others in communication, often have a general distrust of others which allows them to sabotage interpersonal transactions before they occur.

(Counselling loneliness, 2006)

Symptoms of loneliness

Loneliness is an overwhelming feeling. However, as discussed earlier, it is in some part normal and is often healthy for clients to experience a degree of loneliness such as having alone time. Loneliness becomes complicated when a client has the innate need or desire to base their self-worth solely on their ability to interact socially rather than realise there needs to be a balance between time with others respecting their opinion – and becoming assertive and connecting with our values and self-worth in a strong way rather than allowing others to determine it (Aspel, 2001).

Further, Aspel (2001) states that being comfortable with loneliness is a balancing act, a see-sawing between the search for intimacy and an acceptance of isolation that continues throughout the lifespan. However smoothly this rite of passage from birth to adulthood goes, there will be times in a client’s life when this process of growing up, of becoming separate selves (identity), is difficult; and at times a client will experience feelings of abandonment, unloved, insecurity, in other words, they will feel lonely.

Lonely clients often describe feeling depressed, angry, afraid, and misunderstood. They are generally critical of themselves, overly sensitive or self-pitying, and they may become critical of others. When these feelings happen, lonely clients can begin to do things to perpetuate their loneliness. Some clients, for example, become discouraged, lose their sense of desire and motivation to get involved in new situations, and isolate themselves from people and activities all together on purpose.

Other clients deal with loneliness by becoming too quickly involved and committed to people and activities without understanding or evaluating the consequences of their involvement. They will later find themselves in unsatisfying relationships or over-committed to work or extracurricular activities (Counselling loneliness, 2006). This can also serve as a way a client compensates for their loneliness initially by immersing themselves in work or social activities.

The counsellor can observe and look for the symptoms of loneliness in order to develop a plan that will assist the client to resolve the feelings of and associated with loneliness. A lonely client may present having experienced some or all of the following:

They feel unappreciated They feel that no one wants to understand them They feel they cannot connect to others They feel they are different from others They feel they will always be rejected They sometimes feel sad and empty They feel like a victim.

(Counselling loneliness, 2006)

In summary, a client can feel lonely:

  • When they are alone and they perceive that they have no control of this
  • When they do not feel part of a social circle
  • When there is no one with whom to share their feelings and experiences
  • When they feel disconnected and alienated from their surroundings.

(Counselling loneliness, 2006)

Loneliness can make a client feel:

  • Disrespected and useless
  • Socially incompetent and isolated
  • Convinced that there is something wrong with them (this may also be observed as an indulgence in “victim mentality”)
  • Self-conscious
  • Angry and untrusting of others.

(Warwick, 2006)

In summary, experiencing these feelings can be a consequence of low self-esteem and self-worth which results in the lonely client becoming reluctant to pursue social relationships, which escalates their sense of loneliness.

Causes of loneliness

Like any other emotion, loneliness can be complex. This can be due to the way in which the loneliness evolves. For example, loneliness may be the cause of a client’s unhappiness or it may be a result of the client going through a change i.e. relocating houses, results in the clients not being able to see their friends as often etc.

Change and personal, intrinsic factors are the biggest causes of loneliness. If a person is predisposed to being resistant to change or not being able to cope with it then the result will at some point be loneliness. Further, if the change is not within the client’s control then loneliness is more likely to occur as well i.e. if there is a relationship breakdown and they are not the one ending it then this change is out of their control, and in some ways a clients will feel that the change is forced upon them which can result in their experience being one sided, painful and negative.

It is also expected that a client will feel vulnerable and lonely after the loss of a significant other. This is part of the normal grief process. However, if the client’s grief becomes complicated then the counsellor needs to be aware and acknowledge that the client will need to work through their grief first to enable their feelings of loneliness to abate as their grief does.

In contrast, clients who disclose that they get a lot of attention can also describe feeling lonely. This is because they believe that they are only valued by others because of something they possess i.e. status, material possessions, lifestyle or money which, if they lost, would mean they were worthless.   This is due to a faulty or negative belief system.

Loneliness can be exacerbated by a psychological problem or mental illness. For example, a client who is suffering from depression may commence to retreat from their life and that withdrawal can exacerbate their feelings and perceptions of loneliness (Peplau, 1998).

A lack of social interaction during childhood and adolescence, or the absence of meaningful role models can also be causes for adult loneliness. Combined with loneliness being a symptom of another social or psychological problem i.e. chronic depression or anxiety. Loneliness can also represent a dysfunction of communication. Assisting a client to learn how to cope with changes in life patterns is an essential part in a client overcoming loneliness (Rouber, 1998).

Clients who are predisposed to being anxious, depressed or experiencing addictive behaviour will also have low self-esteem and feelings guilt and worthlessness. Especially, the thought of having to be social and meet new people are a common experience in the lonely client.

Thinking of themselves as being ‘different’ to others can often make a client feel lonely i.e. culture, race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, etc. The counsellor needs to be aware of such differences when approached to counsel the lonely client.

Effects of loneliness

Clients who feel lonely report poor sleep and eating patterns and subsequently have diminished body restorative processes. This then impacts on the client’s ability to function normally and can make them more susceptible to illness or becoming sick from stress. Loneliness can be seen to also have a negative impact on a client’s learning and memory capacity (Weiss, 1973).

Social withdrawal is a significant consequence of a client becoming lonely. This can be unknown to the client as they progressively retreat and remove themselves form social situations as a result of not feeling that they are able to contribute (due to a poor or underdeveloped level of self-understanding, self-esteem and confidence).

Social isolation is another consequence resulting from loneliness. This means that clients experiencing loneliness no longer feel comfortable or confident to socialise with others. They may blame others for not calling or contacting them but a lonely person loses their ability to connect and interact with others resulting in isolation.

A diminishing level of social competence can also be an effect of loneliness. Social competence refers to a client’s ability to communicate confidently, competently and assertively with others. Their interpersonal transactions are reciprocal, validated and appropriate. The only client loses their ability to apply effective communication skills and withdraws themselves from social contact and situations therefore, becoming reclusive and passive.

In our follow-up article we’ll explore various counselling strategies for dealing with the lonely client.


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