Researchers say these are the symptoms to notice.
The truth is that many of us slip through life, fully adrift and unaware that we’re not really connected to anyone at all. We have friends, we have colleagues, we talk, we text, we tweet.
But actually, we’re deeply lonely.
Here are the six most common habits of truly lonely people. If you notice yourself showing any of these, it may be time to check in with yourself and reevaluate what you need to do to form connections.
1. You’re Always Surrounded by People
Have you ever been at a party, literally surrounded by your friends, but you feel like you’re completely alone?
Loneliness is one of those things where even if you don’t know the cause, you feel the effects. You might not realize you’re deeply lonely, but you still are grasping for anything to make you feel a little less alone. This tends to manifest itself in trying to be around people as much as possible.
The problem is that it’s probably already too late. You’re already struggling to make connections, so surrounding yourself with noise and distraction is like a bandaid on a bullet wound at this point. Shallow connections aren’t going to do anything to truly solve your loneliness.
If you’re noticing yourself doing this, the first step is to realize why — and see what happens when you stop. What fills your head when you try to exist for five minutes without any conversation? What do you turn to?
2. You’re Obsessed with Acquiring Stuff
If you don’t have important connections with people in your life, your brain scrambles to find the next best thing: stuff. Many deeply lonely people fill the void of their relationships with cars, phones, gun collections.
Experts call this “material possession love” — when you realize you’re missing something, but you missed the mark on what.
If you notice you have collections, or the highlight of your week is when your Amazon purchases arrive, that’s a solid sign you’re lonely.
The best way to mitigate this habit is to slowly begin incorporating deeper social connections. It’s hard, honestly, to reach out when you’re lonely because your energy levels are already drained just from being socially depleted. Start small, and start with something that you know you can look forward to — a 20 minute phone call while you take a walk, a socially distant beer with a friend, or a Netflix party date watching a movie you love, are all great places to start.
3. You’re Exhausted by the Effort of Reaching Out
Maybe you realize you need to reach out to people, but even the idea just fills you with exhaustion.
Loneliness is a compounding problem. The more chronically lonely you are, the less energy you have, the harder it is to form and maintain meaningful connections, making you even lonelier in a never-ending downwards spiral.
This means that it takes a big jolt to break the cycle. The good news is you don’t have to do this alone. If you can tell a friend or family member you’re struggling, often they’ll be able to meet you more than halfway. It can feel daunting to reach out for help, but you can’t rely on your support network if they don’t know you need them. Don’t rely on them magically noticing — reach out.
4. You’re Always Online and Connected
One of the hallmarks of loneliness is a desire to patch that perceived gap, often using social media. The problem is social media is like Splenda water for hummingbirds — they drink because it’s sweet, but not only does it not do anything for them, they don’t realize it’s actively harmful. You can like and comment and message, all without realizing that this interaction isn’t what you truly crave, and that research shows limiting social media would actually make you feel less lonely.
At my loneliest, I stayed up until midnight most nights scrolling on Twitter, checking my email, refreshing my notifications every chance I could to try to get that quick rush of dopamine that meant someone had connected with me in any shallow, meaningless way.
I dreaded the moment I’d have to turn off my screens to go to bed, alone with my thoughts until I could fall asleep. When I tried to stop, the loss of all social interaction was a shock to my system.
The best strategy to counter this habit is not to go cold turkey, but rather to find healthy replacements. I can’t replace all my time online, but I found that as I spent more time painting, I wanted to spend less time scrolling. This didn’t help me feel less lonely, but it did help me identify the fact that I was lonely in the first place. Without social media filling the interaction gap, reality became clear.
5. You’re Easily Stressed Out by Minor Incidents
Maybe you can count on one hand the number of stressful experiences you’ve had in the past month. And maybe you’re starting to stress out just thinking about how much stress you’ve felt this week, let alone this month.
Your lonely mind is on high alert for social threats.
Researchers found that when you’re lonely, already anxious and starved for connections, you’re primed to think of minor incidents as much more stress-inducing than they actually are. “…[L]oneliness promotes short-term self-preservation, including an increased implicit vigilance for social, in contrast to nonsocial, threats,” reported Capiocco et al in their 2013 study.
The best way to identify this habit is to step back and view your reactions in contrast to the source. Are you reacting in a proportional way? If you find yourself overthinking and overanalyzing comments, events and interactions, it may be a sign you’re lonely.
6. You Have a Reputation for Being Aloof
Many people think of lonely individuals as clingy, needy folks desperate for any human interaction. The fact is that when you’re lonely, you actually start acting “overly defensive and come across to others as detached, aloof, or even hostile,” according to Guy Winch, clinical psychologist researcher.
It’s self-perpetuating behavior: you feel lonely, so you lash out, but without realizing it. Then you’re sad and confused when people start drifting away from you, making you feel lonelier.
It’s hard to realize you’re being standoffish unless it’s pointed out to you, so the simplest strategy to spot this is simply by seeing how you feel others are treating you. Do you feel like nobody’s responding to your attempts to connect? If so, it’s probably because you’re reacting in an aloof manner without even realizing it.
Loneliness is a self-perpetuating and miserable state to be in, exacerbated by the fact that frequently, you don’t even realize you’re lonely.
Especially if you have all the trappings of an active social life — a loose group of friends, 100 likes on your social media post, an invite to the next gathering—
it can be nearly impossible to realize that the reason you’re seeking so much attention, the reason you push people away and can’t seem to fall asleep at night is because actually, you’re lonely.
Because of that, you’re more likely to recognize your loneliness not through feeling lonely, but by identifying the symptoms.
Once you know what to look for, it’s obvious: you have a fear of being alone; you have an unhealthy attraction to acquiring material goods, social interactions leave you exhausted; your stress levels are through the roof; you can’t put your phone down; and nobody seems to realize you’re hurting but you. The good news is once you’ve noticed any of these habits, you can begin to work on fixing them. Loneliness is a tough condition to beat, but it’s worth the effort.