The vicious circle of loneliness

If you have (had) to deal with (long-term) feelings of loneliness, then you know that it is very difficult solve that situation. The negative tension between need and satisfaction, the feeling of being “walled up in glass” as loneliness expert Olivia Laing described it, can feel very oppressive.

Why is it so difficult to deal with feelings of loneliness? According to psychologist Guy Winch this is because “once loneliness sets in, it triggers a set of psychological reactions that can lead us to inadvertently perpetuate our situation and even to make it worse.”

Yes, he’s basically saying that your own behavior is bringing about the very thing you seek to avoid. And according to Olivia Laing, in the worst case scenario it takes you into “a vicious circle” in which you become “increasingly isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.” Getting out of that vicious circle is not easy.

There are (at least) three pitfalls that perpetuate the situation. The first is that you develop a (too) high standard that the connections you desire must meet.

“The chronically lonely have much higher expectations of interpersonal relationships than do not-lonely people,” Lars Svendsen notes. “They entertain higher demands, both for themselves and for others, in social interactions.”

As a result, there is a risk that you will not see meaningful connections – or opportunities for them – or that you will reject them because they do not meet your expectations.

“The chronically lonely have much higher expectations of interpersonal relationships than do not-lonely people.”

Lars Svendsen

The second pitfall is that you develop negative expectations, which make you look too much for signals that indicate that a contact is not meeting the requirements.

“When we are lonely, the social expectations and snap judgments we create are generally pessimistic,” social neuroscientist John Cacioppo says. “Loneliness makes us constantly on guard, prepared for the disappointment and rejection we are sure will come. As a result, we miss opportunities to make social connections.”

Loneliness thus becomes a kind of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Psychologist Guy Winch also sees that danger: “Because we don’t expect our social interactions to be positive, we make fewer efforts to seek them out and we are less responsive to them when they occur.”

The third pitfall is that you develop a negative self-image. If you feel lonely (for a long time), you will judge both yourself and other people more negatively, you will become too focused on the differences between yourself and others, and you will assume the worst about how others feel about you.

As a result, you feel less safe in social situations, you act more reserved and you are more focused on signals that indicate disapproval or rejection. Not infrequently this leads to social avoidance strategies. Loneliness, Guy Winch observes, thus leads to “cycles of self-protection and avoidance that cause us to create self-fulfilling prophecies and to inadvertently push away the very people we hope to engage.”

Svendsen describes the irony of this aptly: “In many cases, it will be correct to say: you are not lonely because you are alone, you are alone because you are lonely.”