How does loneliness feel?

Loneliness is the emotional response to the desire for, and lack of, meaningful connections with other people. But, you might ask, how does it actually feel? There is no clear answer to that; emotions are by definition extremely individual, so different people will experience loneliness in different ways, it won’t feel the same for everyone.

That said, ask a group of people who feel lonely to describe their emotions and chances are their replies will be more or less like this: First they will probably tell you they feel sad. Loneliness is primarily a sense of sadness.

And then they may tell you they feel detached, isolated, alienated, misunderstood, rejected, hurt, disconnected, worried, insecure, vulnerable, anxious, ashamed, ostracized, helpless, hopeless, trapped, desperate… Some may even feel angry or resentful.

What this wide range of emotions comes down to, is that people who feel lonely, feel left out. They don’t feel accepted. They don’t feel loved. They feel, like loneliness expert Olivia Laing puts it, that they are “not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance.”

What makes loneliness so painful is not being alone, but the feeling that no one cares.

The social standard of having many friends and an active social life reinforces that feeling. If you spend your evenings and weekends alone at home, you may get the impression that everyone is socializing all the time – except for you. Even though this does not match reality, it hurts because you feel you don’t belong, and having a sense of belonging is a very human need.

That’s why the idea that everybody else finds themselves surrounded by loved ones is so painful for the lonely person. I think Olivia Laing put it very well when she said that “it feels like being hungry while everyone around you is readying for a feast. It hurts.”

The world is partying and you haven’t been invited. What makes loneliness so painful is not being alone, but the feeling that no one cares.

Since loneliness is the result of an unfulfilled need, it is by definition accompanied by a desire. A desire for meaningful connections, the wish to overcome the mental distance between yourself and others.

Feeling lonely comes with a strong need for what’s lacking: acceptance, connection, companionship, intimacy, feeling heard and understood. And although all this requires the physical presence of other people, it is not enough. Because even surrounded by people, the lonely person may feel locked up and shut out.

Olivia Laing calls this “internal isolation.” I think she described it very well when she said: “I was often feeling like I was walled up in glass, that I could see out all too clearly but lacked the ability to free myself or to make the kind of contact I desired.”