The Roots of Loneliness
“I hardly have any friends. I’m spending my days in my room and on the computer. I know that’s not great but it beats being lonely.”
“I have some acquaintances but nobody close to me. Other people seem to have people to call up to do things. I don’t. What’s wrong with me?”
“I can’t find people who seem like they might be good friends to have. How can I find people I can connect with?”
“Why can’t I find a relationship? People tell me I’m attractive. I know lots of people on a surface level. But I don’t have friends like other people do, I guess.”
“I find it hard to talk to people. I only have one friend and I’ve known her since kindergarten. Meeting new people just doesn’t work for me.”
If you recognize yourself in any of those statements, you’re not alone. In a world full of people, there are many who can’t seem to find friends or make relationships that last.
There are dozens of websites that offer helpful hints for how to find friends. Most have the same kinds of suggestions: volunteer. Join a book club, team, club, gym. Get involved in local politics. Act interested in others. Smile. Get a dog. Anyone with a computer can find 25 tips for finding friendships or the 10 top ways to meet your soul mate. So how come folks are still out there who are alone and lonely?
I suspect there are root reasons that defeat the best tip list. Unless we get to the root of the matter, a person who tries those tips is setting him or herself up to fail yet again. And we all know that failure only breeds more of the same.
6 Reasons Smart People Stay Lonely
- Genuine social phobia
Social phobia isn’t shyness. Shy people generally find other shy people to hang out with or are happy to be the quieter member of a group. People with social phobia, on the other hand, have an irrational belief that when they are with other people they are being judged and judged negatively at that. They don’t seek out social activities because they believe that they will embarrass themselves or be criticized by others. Staying away from people is a way of staying away from that fear. Sadly, that tactic only makes things worse. A person who seldom engages with others becomes less and less confident that they even know how.
- Depression and negativity
“Good morning,” I say brightly to one of my students. “Yeah. I guess,” she replies in a monotone. I watch with concern as she slumps toward the back of the room and slouches into a chair. Other students avoid her. As a teacher and psychologist, I’m concerned and won’t give up on her. But I’m betting her peers are less and less interested in trying. Sure enough: When I talk to her later she is convinced that no one likes her and that she’s in the wrong school. She doesn’t understand that she radiates a cloud of funk that makes it hard for others to want to be engaged with her. Even though she’s smart and has a quick and ironic wit, she’s a downer from the first attempt at a friendly greeting. I gently suggest that maybe she is genuinely depressed and that making an appointment at our mental health center would be a good idea. I know (and I suspect she knows) that if she goes to another school, she’s going to take her depression – and her isolation – with her.
- Burned too many times
Sometimes people have had a series of experiences that have left them discouraged and beaten down. The kid who was pegged in high school as a loser just can’t get beyond the feeling that a loser is who she’ll always be. The guy who was always picked last for the team and who was the butt of middle school jokes can’t find the inner strength to try again. Their self-esteem has been shaken to the core. At this point, when approaching new people they are like the salesman who starts his pitch with, “You wouldn’t want to buy this, would you? – Didn’t think so.” To folks like these, trying to join one of those clubs or teams is to make themselves vulnerable yet again. Some try out the virtual world and create an idealized persona to present in a virtual reality. Others withdraw from people altogether. Both tactics have a limited shelf-life. At some point, the virtual friend or lover wants to meet – raising all the self-esteem issues yet again. At some point the loneliness of isolating becomes unbearable.
- Highly sensitive temperament
Some people’s temperament is just more sensitive than others. Easily moved by beauty and easily touched by human kindness, they are just as easily hurt and confused when someone is thoughtless or tactless or unable to give them enough time or attention. They take too many things far too personally. When a colleague says they are too busy to meet for coffee, they take it as a personal rejection. When an office-mate is brusque, they are wounded for days. Highly sensitive people are like a lobster without a shell, exquisitely vulnerable to the rough and tumble of ordinary interactions. It’s no wonder they want to stay wherever they feel safe.
- Lack of social skills
Some people just never learned how to initiate contact with new people. Others are great with a “meet and greet” but have no idea how to do the maintenance part of keeping friends. Maybe they grew up in families who avoided other people. Perhaps they lived so far out of town that they could rarely participate in school activities. Perhaps they had overly critical parents who put down every attempt they made to work or play with others. Or maybe they came from the kind of family where family is everything and no one saw the need to include others in their world. Whatever the original cause while growing up, the result is an adult who feels awkward around others and who doesn’t have a clue about the give and take that makes the social world go ‘round.
- Unrealistic expectations
Related to all or some of the above is the person who has unrealistic expectations for involvement. Once they’ve befriended someone, they expect to be called often, to spend regular time together, and to share in their lives in a big way. The truth is that some people can accommodate but most people can’t. Life for most people these days is complicated. People are working harder and have less free time. Balancing family and a job and perhaps a second job leaves people stressed and tired. They simply don’t have the time or energy to be responding to ten texts and a couple of phone calls plus meeting after work every day or going to the mall every weekend. They especially can’t oblige if they have other friendships they are also trying to maintain. People who can’t tolerate the limits of what someone, even a very friendly someone, can do are people who are highly sensitive or lack social skills (see above). When their new friend can’t be friends on the terms they want, they feel burned yet again, may get depressed, and decide it isn’t worth it to try – thereby helping create the very social problems they want so desperately to overcome.
If You Are Lonelier Than You Want to Be
If you are lonelier than you want to be and recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, joining a club or volunteering at a local non-profit probably isn’t going to up your friend count unless you take steps toward solving the root issue. You need to start with you.
Therapy can mitigate social phobia or depression. People who are highly sensitive can learn skills to manage their own feelings and to be more tolerant of others’ responses. Individual therapy can help you recover from old hurts and develop self-esteem so you will have the courage to try again. Group therapy can help you master social skills you didn’t learn while growing up and become more at peace with the limits of what others can do. Online support groups can provide the opportunity to learn from others who have the same difficulties. And a little “bibliotherapy” (reading self-help books) sometimes is just the thing if you need new ways to think about confronting difficulties with relationships. By focusing on developing your self-esteem and your social adeptness, you will be much more likely to succeed when you set out to try those 50 ways to make friends.
Photo by Ghetu Daniel, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2015). The Roots of Loneliness. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 29, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-roots-of-loneliness/