A recent study saying that loneliness and social isolation are a major health hazard is no surprise to millions of people who are alone and lonely. Not having the fundamental human experience of connectedness is painful and even dangerous, especially if you are older.
Being old can make you more susceptible to loneliness than younger people. Also, you are more likely to believe you have no options – you feel that you have less time to explore your loneliness, and less likelihood of solving it.
When you admit you are lonely, advice like “join groups,” “volunteer” or “take up a hobby” come thick and fast from family, friends and advisors – but that only makes you feel inadequate and guilty that you haven’t tried hard enough.
To address loneliness – and its attendant condition, depression – you will have to look deeper and venture below the surface of the underlying problem. There lie your thoughts and beliefs about life.
Psychologists refer to this as maladaptive thoughts, which are buried deep within us, but strongly affect our behavior and ability to function.
A branch of psychological thought, cognitive therapy, teaches us to examine these thought patterns, and bring them to the light of day. Once revealed, we can explore the way we think, and try to change these damaging beliefs. Here are some examples of the negative self-talk attached to each belief:
When people believe they are defective, this reflects a general, usually unexpressed sense, that one is flawed, incompetent or inferior:
Ex. 1 “There’s something wrong with me.”
Ex. 2 “Everybody is doing better than me.”
Those who believe they are unlovable think they do not belong and question whether or not they deserve love:
Ex. 1 “Nobody can love me.”
Ex. 2 “I’m bound to be rejected.”
The belief of abandonment prompts people to assume they will lose anyone with whom they form an emotional attachment:
Ex. 1 “I am uninteresting and people will leave me because of it.”
Ex. 2 “I’m bound to be rejected, abandoned and alone.”
When people believe they are helpless or powerless they assume they lack control and cannot handle anything effectively or independently:
Ex. 1 “I’m a loser.”
Ex. 2 “I am trapped and can’t escape.”
Some people develop the core belief of entitlement to compensate for feeling defective or socially undesirable. This can lead to making unreasonable demands that others meet your needs:
Ex. 1 “If I don’t excel, I’m inferior and worthless.”
Ex. 2 “People don’t understand me (I am special/brilliant, but they don’t see it.)”
Excessive sacrifice of your own needs in the service of others may be the result of feeling guilty. Thus you try to compensate by putting the needs of others ahead of your own:
Ex. 1 “I’m only worthwhile if I’m helping other people.”
Ex. 2 “I am the only one who can/will do this.”
All of these are irrational and false beliefs, rooted in your childhood and passed on by parents or caregivers. They may originate in experiences you had as a younger person, or they may be part of your emotional make-up.
For some of us, these extreme maladaptive beliefs are so strongly embedded in our minds, that we can’t see the underlying untruths. Because they are largely unconscious, the constant stream of damaging messages is hidden from us and difficult to recognize and change.
Most people will need to work with a psychologist to help them recognize and change their destructive thought patterns. But not everyone can afford the time or money to work with a professional.
Reading books and studying the techniques offered in this article can be helpful in uncovering some of the causes of your loneliness.
Listening to your self-talk and recognizing how your negative thinking relates to your beliefs is an important first step. As you change your negative statements to positive self-talk, you may find your beliefs about yourself slowly change.
Working with these strategies, especially if you have the guidance of a counselor or psychologist, will help you realize that you are not a passive victim. You can change your thoughts and behaviors, and in doing this, change your circumstances.
As you delve deeper into the powerful practice of cognitive therapy, you might be interested in learning about other distortions in thinking, such as future telling and catastrophizing. They may seem far-fetched, but are actually common thought patterns.
For older people loneliness can prove to be unsolvable without intervention or guided self-examination. As an older person, your loneliness might be more entrenched, complicated by the loss of a loved one, by living alone, or by the presence of health and mobility problems.
Yet being older can bring you some advantages. You have more wisdom and insight, you can see the long road, and once you are introduced to some of the strategies of cognitive therapy, you are less likely to be defensive and sabotage your own or your counselor’s efforts to help you change.
Once you have experienced some success – and developed the habit of changing your negative thoughts – your underlying beliefs will change as well. You will come closer to your ultimate goal – being a happier, more connected and less lonely person.
How do you deal the times when you feel a little lonely? If you ever feel extremely lonely, would you try taking care of it yourself or would you rather trust a professional? What do you think are the keys to overcoming loneliness? Please join the conversation below!