Social Loneliness: Surrounded By Others, Yet Still Feeling Lonely

Despite my experience with social loneliness and wanting to avoid crowds, I discovered that instead of running away, I needed to do the opposite.
Black And White Collage Of Crowd Of Butterflies With Single Butterfly Standing Out In Full Color

As someone who has had the privilege of leading a nomadic lifestyle for my whole life, I am accustomed to leaving friends, family,  jobs, and social networks to start all over again in a brand new place. 

While this lifestyle may seem very glamorous — and it really is, at times — there remains a side to it that I rarely speak about.

Losing relationships as I struggle to build new ones always brings with it an aching, invisible grief and a deep sense of loneliness.

I would normally isolate myself by avoiding activities, gatherings, events…anything that I didn’t have to attend in the company of unfamiliar crowds.

As it turns out, I wasn’t doing myself any favors.

In this article, we’ll talk about:

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing series The Roots Of Loneliness Project: Unearthing Why We Feel Alone, the first-of-its-kind directory that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and 80+ types that we might experience over the course of our lives.

Click the link to find resources and information on virtually any form of loneliness you may be personally experiencing.

What Is Social Loneliness And How Does It Differ From Social Isolation?

Studies show that indulging in feelings of loneliness can lead to lower levels of trust in others while creating higher levels of anxiety at the same time.

When combined, both elements can make it incredibly difficult to make friends and build relationships.

Indulging in my self-imposed social isolation left me entirely unable to foster connections with the people around me.

What Is The Difference Between Social Loneliness And Social Isolation?

Social loneliness describes a perceived lack of desired connection with others that can occur even when sharing physical proximity.

In contrast, social isolation describes the external state of being physically alone, i.e., not being with others for varying reasons both in and out of your control.

My experience with loneliness is not uncommon, nor is it unique.

According to a study by YouGov, millennials were found to be the loneliest generation.

A BBC survey revealed that a staggering 40% of people between the ages of 16-24 reported feeling lonely often or very often.

The Roots Of Loneliness Project’s survey conducted during the early days of the pandemic also found similar results in millennials.

This particular loneliness is something that people over the age of 50 often remember feeling during the same chapter in their lives, so it isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination.

Loneliness tends to emerge during certain stages of life, being notably common toward the end of one’s 20s, mid 50s, and late 80s.

Beyond my age and personal experience with it, there are many reasons why social loneliness occurs.

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, loneliness seems to occur in tandem with changes in a person’s life circumstances.

Reasons for social isolation and loneliness may include:

One’s inherent personality traits can also make an individual more prone to feeling lonely.

In addition, people may struggle with finding the right community to join.

What I’ve learned from my own life-long experience with social loneliness is this:

The best response when feeling lonely in a crowd is not to run away from it — but to instead do the opposite.

It sounds counterintuitive, I know.

Read on and I’ll share some helpful tips on how to handle social loneliness.

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How To Deal With Feeling Lonely While Surrounded By People

As someone who has felt lonely among many different crowds around the world, I discovered a few things that helped me to deal with it.

  • First, understand that it is perfectly normal to feel lonely in a crowd of people. 

After college, I lived in New York City for a year and was surrounded by people as soon as I left my apartment.

I was employed at a law firm near bustling Times Square, where everything from getting on the train, crossing the street, grabbing a sandwich, or riding the elevator meant navigating through hordes of bodies.

From my desk in an open cubicle, I watched people constantly on the move throughout the office — lawyers, paralegals, mailroom staff, and secretaries.

Even so, I often felt very lonely in this busy workplace environment.

Although more than a hundred people worked in that company, only three of them became friends who I was saddened to leave when I said goodbye one year later.

While it is normal to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people, remember that a crowd is made up of individuals — and at least one of them is a kindred spirit that likely has the potential to become a friend.

Sometimes your best efforts won’t bear fruit and that’s okay — it has happened to me many times, too. It’s important to keep trying.

The process of remaining among a group of people allowed me to practice being present instead of running away.

It also enabled me to assess which crowds I wanted to be part of — and why.

For instance, I began exploring social events that were focused on my interests in art, theater, dance, and politics.

I found great joy in those experiences — and found kinship with other people.

  • Second, learn to accept some amount of loneliness in your life.

As a young person, I always felt like it was somehow “wrong” for me to feel intensely lonely when I always had people around me.

Loneliness can be a natural response to the changes in our lives and it doesn’t necessarily need to be shut away. In fact, it can be something worth embracing.

When you’re struggling with loneliness for an extended period of time, however, you should take steps to address the reasons why.

  • Third, cultivate meaningful relationships in real life.

I used to wish that I had “forever” connections with people — I’d imagine being someone who remained in one place all her life, surrounded by lifelong friends from beginning to end.

But I have since learned why I grew so attached to my old friends and felt lonely without them in every new place I lived.

According to a study done across the UK, the United States, and Japan, the one common denominator found to be the cause for loneliness is the lack of meaningful connections with others.

This fact was echoed by loneliness expert, Dr. Holt. Lunstad, when I spoke to her a while back.

To feel meaningfully connected to another person requires a lot of work and time. I make sure to regularly speak with my friends and family, even if it’s just over the phone, to keep that connection alive.

If you don’t have such relationships yet, don’t worry. Just remember that trust and intimacy take time, which means that you’ll need to be open-minded and patient.

It also means that you shouldn’t self-isolate and avoid others the way I used to.

Some self-isolation is okay and it can even be rejuvenating when it is spent in wholesome solitude.

When isolation turns into a habit, however, it is just a way to avoid the pain of discomfort, awkwardness, and everything that comes with turning a stranger into an acquaintance — and potentially a friend.

The good news is that new friendships can be formed at any stage of life.

We just need to put ourselves out there.

  • Fourth, invite creativity into your life.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I had a job where no one talked to each other — exactly like what I experienced in New York — and I hated being alone in my cubicle.

This time around, I decided that I wasn’t going to wait on others to build the connections I desired.

Instead, I chose to connect with my own creative pursuits.

I began writing a screenplay for a story I wanted to tell and took online courses to learn how to do it.

Focusing on my newfound passion filled me with excitement and helped me to feel more confident in myself and my skills, and it made me believe that I could meet others who shared similar interests.

I later joined a community of improvisers and enjoyed some of the best laughs I’d had in a very long time.

Because we were each forced to be in the present moment together, we began bonding before we even knew each other’s names, something that does not usually happen in the real world.

I found myself making a film with a bunch of strangers just a few months later — an endeavor that I had only dreamed of doing.

As they were combined over time, all of the little steps I took while exploring my creativity helped me to free myself from a recurring cycle of distrust and anxiety.

While I still feel social loneliness acutely sometimes, my well of creativity has become a refuge and a source of inspiration that always walks beside me.

Bottom Line:

Social loneliness can lead to self-imposed isolation, and while it sounds counterintuitive, you can overcome it by putting yourself out there and facing the crowd head-on.

It’s important to remember that all of our friends were strangers once.

If you want to make meaningful connections with others, seeking those with similar interests, engaging with old friends, and exploring your creativity are great places to start.

Every journey begins with a single step.