What does "loneliness" feel like?
June 12, 2012 9:10 PM   Subscribe

How does one know that they are feeling "lonely" vs "alone"? Have you encountered both and can you share how you overcame these feelings, if at all?

This is silly but I just realized that I really don't know what it means (or entails) when people say that they are lonely. Is it uneasiness? An ache of some sort? Similar to depression?

And if you felt either alone or lonely at some point in your life, I'd love to hear how you identified the problem precisely (the subtle differences, if any) and the strategies you used to overcome these feelings.
posted by xm to Human Relations (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
And if you felt either alone or lonely at some point in your life, I'd love to hear how you identified the problem precisely (the subtle differences, if any)

I'm a little confused by this, as I don't think the differences are all that subtle.

I've been lonely before... by which I mean I have felt a need for more or closer social contact. This may occur when I'm alone or not (see below).

I've felt alone before... by which I mean there were no other people near (whether physically, or mentally) me. This may occur when I'm lonely or not (see below).


Lonely and alone: stuck in the middle of nowhere, by myself, and unhappy about it.
Lonely and not alone: in a group of people with whom I do not identify, feeling the urge to be with people I know and like. Say, I'm in a group of people where I don't share a language with the group.
Alone and not lonely: by myself, and happy with it.
posted by pompomtom at 9:26 PM on June 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

sometimes i'm surrounded by people, and yet feel very lonely. It's usually a feeling of being disconnected from those around me.

other times i'm all by myself, but feel not lonely- but very connected to what matters, and I feel like if I wanted to connect to someone who matters I could.

when I struggled with loneliness, I was once told that it was curable. that the only difference between being lonely and not being lonely was whether I felt that I had people in my life. sometimes you can feel that you do or do not have people in your life irrespective of the actual reality. i worked to recognize that i now have people in my life who support me, even though i may have sometimes felt otherwise due to having been through phases of my life when i didn't have people who support me. this exercise was very helpful for me.
posted by saraindc at 9:27 PM on June 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Feeling lonely, for me, is marked by some combination of sadness, yearning, and neediness or dissatisfaction -- an unmet desire to connect with someone (whether someone specific or anyone in general). This can happen while being alone or in the presence of someone.

Being alone without loneliness is simply a sense of solitude, of being present with myself minus that combination of sadness/yearning/neediness. Sometimes I find solitude actively enjoyable, and sometimes I find it more of a neutral state, but it's rarely unpleasant.

In other words, lonely is a (painful) emotion. Alone is a state of being.
posted by scody at 10:54 PM on June 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

There is also the phrase "I feel alone" or "I feel so alone". That phrase has a slightly different connotation than "I'm lonely." It focuses less on the emotional desire for companionship and more on the unpleasant realization by the speaker that he must handle a difficult situation without help or understanding from others.
posted by the jam at 11:31 PM on June 12, 2012

Loneliness for me feels like overwhelming boredom, or a cloak of tremendous despair, felt mostly in the company of people I don't particularly want to be around.

However, I have often been alone and not at all felt lonely.

I have found not being around people who make me feel like that helps - ultimately, I would rather be alone than lonely.
posted by mleigh at 11:36 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Lonely" means you are unhappy about "alone".

Pretty much that simple.
posted by Decani at 11:59 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have learned the difference between lonely and alone. I was married for almost 20 years and always felt lonely, missing a closeness, a connection, a feeling of importance and value. I left my husband last year, I haven't dated much and am quite alone. I am thrilled with the difference in how I feel. My mantra, for the time being, is "alone is so much better than lonely"
posted by jennstra at 12:33 AM on June 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Lonely" means you are unhappy about "alone".

You don't have to be alone to feel lonely.
posted by missmagenta at 12:50 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Being 'alone' gives me energy.
Feeling 'lonely' takes my energy.
I choose to be alone.
I find myself lonely.

They're the key distinctions for me.
posted by MT at 3:13 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a line in the movie Heat where Pacino's character says "I am alone...I am not lonely."

I think its perfectly possible to be the former without being the latter, although I also think most people find this hard (extroverts probably to a greater extent than introverts). I think its just as possible to be lonely, regardless of whether you're alone (no one around), or not (surrounded by people). Doesn't matter what kind of people - could be strangers in a bar, or your own family in the kitchen. Kind of depends on the circumstances.

In my experience, alone is a lot better than lonely, but as I said, for many the former may precipitate the latter, so take necessary care.

And if you felt either alone or lonely at some point in your life, I'd love to hear how you identified the problem precisely (the subtle differences, if any) and the strategies you used to overcome these feelings.

I think the first part of your question is pretty straight forward and you probably have it answered pretty quick from the responses above. I think the second part is a completely different animal - perhaps indicative of lots of other questions that may be below the surface, so you'll have to dwell on them a bit.

I don't think there is typically a problem to be identified with being alone - unless it is some sort of acute aloneness (i.e. you live in the middle of some forsaken tundra). This is pretty easily addressed - you go to where people are. Maybe you need more specificity - you go to where the kind of people you want to be around are. Problem solved.

Feeling lonely and identifying that problem precisely - much easier said than done. I have been there, and when I was there, I was not alone - I was surrounded by people. I found that no matter how hard, how often, or what methods I tried, I couldn't get around that loneliness. So I made a decision to move somewhere that I would be distinctly more alone. This forced me to deal with my loneliness for what it was, without the distractions of being not-alone - if that makes any sense.

I think you have to own your loneliness and realize what deeper issues you have that might be causing it. In my case it was some deep-seated belief that I could not be complete without another person in my life. I needed to get past that, and even after I was much more alone, this still took a lot of time - years, really. Maybe its not that hard for everyone, and I'm sure not everyone has the same deeper issues to identify and deal with.

In the end I realized that being lonely is just as fine and OK and (should be) free from stigma as being alone (hint - it's not, externally, but it can be, internally). And that was when I could make a conscious decision to no longer be lonely. But not everyone needs to do that. It is perfectly OK to be neither, either, or both - no matter what society may impress upon you.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:06 AM on June 13, 2012

I've lived alone in an apartment for the past two years for the first time in my adult life (after marriage, house, kids, post-marriage relationship) and I can honestly say I am happy to get home at the end of the day. It's nice to be alone.

When my marriage was in tatters, the loneliest feeling in the world was pulling up to my dream house, knowing there was no comfort there.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:59 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Decani and Scodi both have it spot on.

Being alone might be seen as a neutral, state of being. Being lonely is when emotions, feelings, etc get involved.

I have often been alone, and identify as such, for a goodly portion of my life. I don't have a massive circle of friends, don't really mix with co-workers after work (though in work hours we're all fine) and, you know what, really don't mind at all.

I prefer my own company at times. I value being able to have "space" to think, to contemplate, etc.

To note - this hasn't stopped me having a wonderful marriage to a great woman and two kids I think the world of. Its just that, at times, I like to have a bit of space - even if it is for a short time out in the garden or whatever.

You can be alone in the midst of people, and that's not a bad thing either. You're conscious of it, know it and content with it.

Being lonely - well, that's another thing entirely...
posted by chris88 at 7:35 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think this poem by William Carlos Williams will knock you out of lonely, though it may not help with alone:

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,-

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
posted by Ventre Mou at 12:58 PM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

« Older What to Expect When You May or May Not Become...   |   Through the looking glass, to the yellow brick... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.