Patterns That Can Keep People Stuck In Their Loneliness
Once someone has been socially lonely for a while there are some thinking patterns and behaviors they tend to slip into that make it harder for them to get out of their isolation. Not every one will affect every lonely person, but they show up often enough. They aren't anyone's fault. People's minds just naturally, subtly slide in that direction under the circumstances. Fortunately, if you're having these issues, once you're aware of them you can change your situation by consciously acting in a different way.
Becoming ashamed of their loneliness and focusing on hiding it and saving face
If someone has few or no friends and rarely goes out they can understandably feel embarrassed and want to hide it. At its mildest this means being vague with your coworkers every now and then about what you did on the weekend, because you don't want to admit you unwillingly stayed in.
That's not so bad. The pattern can really set you back when one or both or two things happen: The first is when you start to prioritize concealing your loneliness over doing things to get out of it. For example, you don't go to events where you could meet new people, because you're afraid they'll ask you if you have any other friends, and you'll have to reveal you don't. Or you'll turn down an invitation to a party because you think everyone will figure out you have no life if you show up alone. The second is when your secretiveness about your social life starts to leak into the rest of your personality, and you start to come across as guarded and closed-off all around.
How to get out of this pattern if you're in it: The most important thing to realize is that having a slow social life is nothing to be embarrassed about. It happens to many people at one point or another in their lives. They move to a new city and don't meet anyone right away. They had a group of friends, but they dropped off one by one. They got distracted by work, school, or a serious relationship for a few years and now realize they have no one to hang out with. It doesn't mean they're flawed and unlikable, they just weren't able to meet new friends for a period of time.
A second point to know is that most people don't really care what your social life is like. No one at a drop-in badminton meet up is going to try to play sleuth and figure out how many friends you have. Even if your office colleagues have a passing hunch that you don't get up to much outside of work, they've got a thousand things that are more important for them to think about than judging you.
Practically this means you should put yourself out there by trying to meet new friends or organize plans with people you already know. If your social life comes up, which it probably won't, then be casual and matter of fact about it. Say you're looking to meet people because you're new in town, or that you'd like to freshen up your social circle because a bunch of your old buddies moved away. Wanting to make new friends doesn't brand you as lonely and pathetic. It's a normal thing that sociable people do.
This article goes into the practicalities of telling people your social life is slow at the moment.
Becoming more insecure, anxious, and sensitive to perceived failure and rejection
When lonely people do interact with others they can be more shy than usual. They're more nervous, hesitant, and risk-averse. If an interaction doesn't go according to plan they take it harder, and are quick to come to negative conclusions about themselves. They're more likely to feel uncomfortable or rejected and not want to try again going forward.
There are a few ways loneliness can lead here: 1) If you've been unhappily isolated for a while then you can start putting too much pressure on yourself in your social interactions. Talking to someone at a meet up isn't just a friendly conversation anymore. You start to see it as possibly your one chance to escape your miserable plight. 2) It's only natural that having less friends than you'd like could hurt your self-esteem. That lower self-confidence can make you more inhibited and nervous around people. 3) Simply not spending much time with others can make your social skills rusty. You can find yourself feeling shaky and unsure of yourself in situations you used to handle smoothly.
How to get out of this pattern if you're in it: Shyness, anxiety, insecurities, and lower self-esteem are all broad social problems that can't be covered in one article. There's a whole section of the site that goes into detail on the topic though. Overall, a big part of handling these mental issues is learning to recognize and deal with the unhelpful thinking that sustains them.
Becoming pessimistic and prone to giving up too quickly
Chronic loneliness can obviously make you unhappy. Feeling even a bit depressed can cause you to view your life through a more hopeless, negative filter. If you've made some attempts to make friends and they haven't panned out that can also leave you feeling discouraged. That can add up to a pessimistic attitude where you don't try very hard to get out of your loneliness because you're convinced there's no point in trying. You'll find reasons not to go events where you may meet people. If you do go, you're less enthusiastic about engaging with anyone. If you attend a class and don't meet anyone on the first day, rather than giving it a few more tries, you'll be too quick to conclude that taking classes as a way to meet people just flat out doesn't work.
How to get out of this pattern if you're in it: Learning to dispute your pessimistic thinking can help, but more than anything you just have to commit yourself to a proven process for making friends, even if you're not feeling it the whole time. You can't get past your loneliness if you're not getting out there and doing what you need to do. That means showing up at events where you can meet new friends, starting conversations, and then trying to build a relationship with whomever you seem to get along with. Once you do have some success your thinking will naturally start to shift and become more optimistic.
You need to accept things may not turn around right away. Not every event will contain people who are friend material. The sparks won't fly in every conversation. Not every person you have a pleasant chat with will want to hang out again. However, the core process is sound. People use it to make friends every day. You might need to make some tweaks along the way - maybe an acquaintance will make a suggestion on how you could introduce yourself better - but again, the basic template is solid.
Becoming negative and picky about other people
Studies have shown that lonely people evaluate others more harshly. They can come across as more unfriendly and grouchy then they intend. They may not give potential friends enough of a chance.
As always, there are a couple of explanations for why this happens: 1) As mentioned, loneliness can make people unhappy, which can cause them to view everything, including potential friends, in a more negative light. 2) As also mentioned, loneliness can make people more feel insecure, unlovable, and skeptical about their odds of turning their situation around. This can come out as protective "I'll reject people before they can reject me" or "I'll tear others down so I can feel better about myself" attitudes. 3) Some people are naturally choosier about who they want to be friends with. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, however once they become lonely their natural choosiness gets twisted by the previous two factors and becomes too harsh. 4) Some lonely people have been bullied and ostracized in the past, and have sadly become hostile and wary towards everyone, not just the jerks who picked on them.
How to get out of this pattern if you're in it: This is another case where you need to force yourself to outwardly act in a way that will eventually pay off, even if you aren't that inwardly enthused about it. When you meet people who seem like they're good match for you, consciously force yourself to give them a fair shot. Try to behave in a friendly way. Talk to them and try to forge a connection. Invite them out. Hang out with them a few times. Often you'll find yourself warming up to them if you can push through your initial picky reaction. If you give them a chance and it still doesn't work out, that's fine. It happens. At least you didn't write them off too early, before you had enough to go on to make a proper decision.
Becoming a little too good at distracting themselves from their loneliness
It's emotionally painful to be more socially isolated than you'd like. If you're lonely it only makes sense that you're not going to want to sit around and feel bad about yourself the entire time. Plus it's just human nature to want to fill your time with interesting activities, and not be bored constantly.
Many friendless people have created fun-enough, time-filling daily routines that keep them from feeling the worst of their loneliness. They have lots of TV shows, movies, video games, music, and podcasts to consume. They have absorbing solitary hobbies. They've learned how to use a few drinks or some weed to take the edge off their unwanted emotions. There's nothing inherently wrong with pastimes like video games, but they can be a problem when you use them to keep yourself barely content enough that you aren't motivated to do anything about your lack of a social life.
How to get out of this pattern if you're in it: Try to honestly look at your hobbies and substance use and ask if yourself if you're partially using them to stay busy and not have to think too much about the fact that you hardly ever have social plans. If you realize you are using them to distract yourself, try to cut down. Try to replace the time spent on them with activities that may fix your loneliness, like volunteering somewhere. Don't be afraid to feel more bored and antsy in your free time, or less satisfied with your life as a whole. Previously you were blunting these feelings, but in small doses they can push you to get out of the house, so you change your situation.
Becoming too comfortable in a social rut
This is similar to the entry above, but broader in scope. Lonely people can wind up in a stagnant middle ground where they're not thrilled with the state of their social life, but they're not horribly upset with it either. The above mentioned distractions may be one reason they're comfortable with the status quo. Their comfort can also come from getting morsels of social contact through family, school, and work interactions, and maybe a rare hang out with a friend. It's not nearly enough to make for fulfilling social life, but it keeps them going. Bigger doses of sustaining-but-not-enough-on-its-own interaction can come from a romantic partner or raising kids.
It's also possible to have a quite satisfying life in every way aside from the social element. If someone has an interesting job, a good relationship with their relatives, and lives in a vibrant, beautiful city, they may not mind as much that they don't have many friends. In the end though the loneliness is still there, and comfort bubble keeps it from being dealt with. Changing can be unpleasant before it pays off. Why rock the boat?
How to get out of this pattern if you're in it: You should try to be straight with yourself about whether you're totally happy with your life. If you're not then take steps to change it, and accept that you may have to temporarily put in some work and go through some discomfort before things get better. Realize you may need to let your life drop to a 4/10 from a 6/10 in order to build it up to an 8/10.
Glorifying the less social side of their personality
There's nothing wrong with not needing as much social contact as a typical person. The problem is some people have a low need to socialize to begin with, but still become isolated to the point where even those smaller requirements aren't being met. Rather than admitting they're unhappy and need to make some changes, they play up their less social side and try to convince themselves they don't need any human contact at all. They try to deny their loneliness and make themselves feel better by styling themselves as a romanticized self-sufficient loner.
How to get out of this pattern if you're in it: Once more, try to be honest with yourself about how happy you are with your current social life. Realize no one's saying you have to try to become a total social butterfly. Just be clear with yourself what your (lower) social needs are and try to actually meet them.
Believing that if they're worthy and likable enough other people will befriend them
This one is more of a simple misconception than a deep-seated vicious circle, though it can be just as self-sabotaging. Some lonely people don't quite know how friendships form. They mistakenly assume that they need to put themselves around people, and then, if they're deemed likable enough, everyone will take it from there and start inviting them out. When they go to events and start conversations, but no one asks them to hang out, they think something's wrong with them and get discouraged and retreat. They can feel they've been rejected, and suffer all its effects, without it actually happening.
How to get out of this problem if you're in it: Take initiative to hang out with people yourself, and realize not being invited out doesn't necessarily mean someone isn't open to being friends. Sometimes you'll meet someone you get along with and they'll make all the effort of getting your contact information and asking you to do something, but you can't count on it. People are usually pretty busy and already have social lives of their own. They're often on a kind of autopilot where they won't think of you as a potential buddy unless you get them thinking that way. Showing an interest in spending time with them lets you do that. By waiting for them to extend an invitation, and doing nothing to put yourself on the line, you may have been unwittingly implying that you weren't interested in getting to know them better.
Don't think inviting someone to do something makes you look weak, desperate, or one down either. Don't worry about who invites who to do what and what it all means. If you want to get a circle of friends together assume you have to do all the work to make it happen.
Further reading: This closely-related article goes into the fears of people who don't have any friends at the moment: