The three sides of being alone: understanding solitude, social isolation and loneliness

Solitude, social isolation and loneliness are interrelated but distinct experiences. Being aware of the differences is vital to building your understanding of your own social wellbeing. Equally, it can help you better support people in your life experiencing the negative aspects of being alone.

"In solitude the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself." - Laurence Sterne

Solitude is underpinned by choice. It is an intentional decision to spend time alone. Many find the practice of solitude to be positive. It provides space for contemplation and creativity. Without distractions, there’s room for reflection which can help cultivate self awareness. Creating space in your life for a bit of solitude may be difficult at first. Noisy thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming and make the experience far from pleasant. However, as with many things, it requires practice. Small, consistent actions will help build your confidence and enjoyment of spending time in solitude.

We were not meant to live in isolation. We were meant to live in community, to help and support one another through life's challenges." - Barack Obama

Social isolation refers to a tangible lack of social connections. In the majority of cases it is imposed on people. It can be driven by major life transitions, health challenges or mobility issues. These changes can limit opportunities to interact with people regularly. Individuals have different levels of tolerance for social isolation. Yet, in most cases, once it becomes a persistent state, research shows,  it has significant negative consequences for mental and physical health. If circumstances have limited opportunity for social connection, try proactively setting aside 15mins a day to reach out to friends and family via text or calls to stay in touch. Online communities and interest groups can also offer new avenues for finding connection. Experiencing social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness.

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts,” Olivia Laing

Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It stems from a perceived mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships we have, and those we want. It is a natural emotion that we all encounter and is usually temporary.

Loneliness can go hand in hand with social isolation. However, folks can also experience loneliness when surrounded by people. Like social isolation, loneliness has also been shown to have significant negative impacts on mental and physical health.

We all experience loneliness differently, but there models which can help you contextualise how you feel. In his book Together, Dr Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, shares a model with 3 dimensions - intimate, relational and collective. He explains that intimate loneliness arises when individuals feel they are lacking close confidantes. Someone with whom you share deep bonds and who’ll be there for you in times of need. Relational loneliness is linked to a perceived disconnection from a supportive friendship network. Whilst collective loneliness refers to feelings of dislocation from a broader community of people with a shared sense of purpose and interests.

Recognising which dimension of loneliness you are facing can help you figure out a starting point for getting more of the connection you need in your life. Experiment and piece together a list of things that help you feel a bit better. It will be a very useful tool you can return to again and again when you feel the initial fog of loneliness creeping in. If you’re experiencing a persistent state of loneliness and it is interfering with your daily life, consider talking to a therapist or counsellor. They can provide additional support to figure out the underlying causes and support you to develop a plan to address them.

Although isolation, solitude and loneliness are often used interchangeably in conversation, they aren't the same thing! A more nuanced understanding of the language we use to talk about being alone is key. Both to improve our understanding of our own individual experiences and support those in our communities more effectively. 


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