For more than twenty years, Anja Machielse has been researching loneliness and social isolation in different layers of society. According to the professor of Humanism and Social Resilience, loneliness is a concept that everyone knows and uses. “Loneliness manifests itself differently in everyone. But there is one big common denominator: a feeling of lack and lack of connection. An annoying feeling that you would prefer to get rid of as quickly as possible.”
Although it is often thought that especially the elderly are lonely, according to Machielse this exists in all layers of society. “It peaks in young people, adolescents and the elderly, but let’s not forget anyone in between. Someone who has been divorced, who has just been fired, who is a caregiver or who is a single parent: in fact anyone who has less opportunity for social contacts – even if only temporarily – can start to feel lonely.”
In addition, it is good to know that loneliness does not mean that you are unhappy all your life or that you always feel terribly alone. “It regularly happens that people are comfortable in their own skin and have sufficient social contacts, but that at times they still feel the need for more connection.”
Finding the Cause
The perfect solution for loneliness? Unfortunately it doesn’t exist. However, you can go through a number of steps yourself to feel less alone and more understood. It is above all important to first find out the cause of your feelings. “You’re missing something. But what exactly are you missing? And why? What do you really want? Those are questions you can ask yourself to find out what you need.”
“Maybe you’ve been looking for something that doesn’t really make you happy for a long time. You don’t feel comfortable in the group of friends or the dream job you had in mind turns out not to be as great as you thought. Be realistic and honest with yourself,” says Machielse, who indicates that you can only work on a solution after you know why you feel lonely. “If you can’t figure out the cause yourself? See if someone else can help you with that.”
Seeking help sounds easier said than done – which is why there are various organizations and foundations that are happy to support you. “Especially if someone feels lonely for a long time, the threshold to seek help can become higher and higher. It is difficult to just talk about it,” says Machielse.
Where one institution offers the possibility of a listening ear or psychological help, the other organization organizes low-threshold meetings with others. “Volunteers play a major role in this. But also think of a student advisor, company doctor at school, general practitioner or someone from home care. Effective help is closer than you think.”
Not everyone succeeds in getting out of social isolation on their own. It is nice to know that you are not alone in this. “People like to help. Talk to others about your feelings. Would you rather not let someone in your immediate environment know? Take a look at one of the many volunteer projects, such as buddy projects or Luisterlijn. Sometimes just sharing your story can be a huge relief. Especially with a stranger.”
Make it negotiable
According to Machielse, it is unnecessary to think that your feelings don’t matter, that those negative feelings will pass on their own or that it’s ‘not too bad’. “Everyone feels alone sometimes and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Get to work with it. And if it doesn’t quite work out yourself, speak up. This way you give other people the opportunity to help you.”
Loneliness is often invisible, and therefore difficult to spot as an outsider. “However bad, you have to take the first step yourself. Find someone in your area who you trust and discuss your concerns with them. As an outsider, on the other hand, when you feel that someone is not feeling so well, it is important to open a conversation and ask how things are going.”
“Avoid questions like, ‘Do you feel alone?’ or “Are you okay?”. These are tough questions that already imply that someone is not going to be well. Keep it light and ask, for example, if that person has done anything fun. Start about the weather or give a compliment Say something neutral or positive, so that someone feels comfortable. Then you can always go in depth afterwards,” says Machielse.
Stay in contact
No matter how bad you feel, stay in touch with others and be careful not to withdraw completely. “The further you get from social life, the harder it is to eventually reconnect with people. At first, distancing seems like the safest and best way to deal with loneliness, but that puts you in a negative spiral that is difficult to get out of.”
Loneliness can bring feelings of rejection, disappointment, and shame. “You can get the idea that you are not good enough or that people think you are weird. That is not good for your self-confidence. But try to get over that shame and even though it may be difficult; find other people if necessary what you feel comfortable with.”
By staying in touch with others, you practice your social skills. If you don’t, you’re amplifying the problem, according to Machielse. “Maintaining your social skills is crucial. Keep trying, no matter how difficult that sounds. There are always ways. It’s an illusion that you’re not good enough or that no one wants to talk to you. You just don’t have the right person yet meet.”
Find like-minded people
To make it easier to find new contacts, Machielse has one last tip. “Just going somewhere to see if you happen to have a click with someone is difficult. Especially if you don’t feel comfortable with social contact. So visit a place where you know for sure that there are people with the same interests or hobbies as you.”
Think of a sports association, hobby club or reading group. “You are guaranteed to have a topic of conversation, so starting and maintaining a conversation is a lot easier. You have the same interest in something in advance. That automatically creates a bond. Who knows, it may even result in beautiful friendships and you see each other regularly. “
Extra tip for bystanders
Loneliness can happen to anyone, including people you don’t expect. “Colleagues at work, for example. What do you actually know about their private lives? Maybe someone is hiding everything. Be alert and aware of the fact that everyone can deal with loneliness. People can have a wide circle of friends and at the same time feel very feeling alone. Don’t make assumptions and ask how someone is doing more often, even if they don’t give the impression that something is wrong.”
More tips on how to help yourself or someone else? Take a look at the website of One against loneliness: an initiative of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.
This article was commissioned by the national government and falls outside the editorial responsibility of RTL Nieuws.