Telling People You're Socially Lonely
Some people are lonely, whether from a lack of social relationships or sufficiently satisfying ones, and wonder if they should tell anyone. If you're lonely, here are some reasons you may have for wanting to let someone know:
- It's human nature to want to tell at least a few people what's going on in your life, good and bad.
- If you tell the right person they may be accepting and understanding, and make you feel supported.
- Loneliness can create feelings of shame and an urge to keep it secret. Telling people fights that.
- It might practically help your social life. An acquaintance may not know you've been feeling bored and isolated, but once they do they may offer something to help you meet people.
On the other hand, here are some worries you might have about revealing your loneliness:
- You fear people will judge and look down on you for not having enough friends.
- You worry if you tell someone they'll feel burdened and obligated to help you, even though they may not want to take that on. You're concerned they'll start inviting you to things out of pity, or start to see you as some needy wretch who's going to glom onto them if they show you the slightest kindness.
- You may also worry, "What if they assume I'm trying to guilt them into hanging out with me?"
Below I'll share my thoughts on whether you should tell people you're lonely or not. There's overlap, but I think it's a slightly different situation than telling people who have no friends. Having no friends is a piece of information about the current size of your social circle. If you tell someone, you could do it in an emotionally heavy way, but might just as easily drop that fact about yourself in a neutral, offhand manner, like, "I just moved to town, so I don't have any friends here yet. I'm not too bothered about it for now, but it would be nice to meet some people sooner rather than later." Loneliness is an unpleasant mental state. If you tell someone, that element of emotional heaviness is usually there. I think that changes how you have to approach things.
Considerations About Telling People You're Lonely
Rather than give blanket suggestions, here are some things to keep in mind when deciding to tell any particular person, so you can make a decision on a case-by-case basis.
Who are you telling, and are they likely to get it?
Do you want to tell a close family member? A casual acquaintance? A co-worker? Someone you just met at a party? Your hairdresser? A member of a weekly drop-in support group? A therapist?
It's obviously not a fun feeling to have, but there isn't anything intrinsically wrong or shameful about being lonely. Lots of people can find themselves in a period where there's not enough going on in their social life. At the same time, loneliness is a personal problem, and not everyone gets it when you tell them about a struggle you're going through. That goes for loneliness, or opening up to someone that you're dealing with PTSD, a rocky marriage, an addiction, you name it.
You can never be totally sure, but if the person you want to tell about your loneliness is fairly likely to understand, then that's one more reason to let them know. If they probably won't get it, and respond in an insensitive or unsupportive way, then think about whether there's a more appropriate person you can talk to.
Again, I'm speaking from a practical perspective. It's okay to be lonely. If someone wrongly judges you for it, you may be able to handle their opinion just fine. But at the same time, being pointlessly misunderstood isn't going to help you get what you want, so why not avoid that if it's not too much trouble?
What would your energy be like if you told someone you were feeling lonely?
Would you be able to tell someone in a matter-of-fact way, and come across as neutral or calm at that moment? Or is your loneliness bad enough that you'd be noticeably dejected, discouraged, frustrated, or pessimistic as you explained it?
If you'd be visibly unhappy that's okay. If you don't have enough satisfying personal connections in your life, being upset about it is a totally valid reaction. It's just that if you're clearly in a rough spot when you tell someone, you're asking for more emotional work from them. It's the same as if you shared any distressing mood with another person, like depression, anxiety, or anger.
There's nothing inherently bad about feeling a tough emotion, but you should give some thought as to whether the person you want to tell about it is up for the task. Are they the best choice to seek support from? Someone like a close family member, a therapist, or a support group member can likely handle it and respond in a helpful way. A co-worker, casual acquaintance, or stranger is more of a crapshoot
What's the context you want to tell someone in?
Is it a quick conversation during a fifteen-minute work break? Is it three hours into an intimate discussion? If the interaction is already deep and open, it's probably fine to bring up your loneliness. If it's a casual conversation there's an expectation that you keep things light and surface level. You can try to transition to a more-serious context by saying something like, "Do you mind if I bring up something a bit more heavy?", but overall it may not be the best time.
What do you want to accomplish by telling someone you're lonely?
Do you hope that you'll...
- ...get what you're going through off your chest, and receive some acknowledgment and support for what you're struggling with?
- ...get to give someone a truthful, factual update on your life? (E.g., your Mom asks how things have been since graduating, and you want to let her know it's been harder to make friends outside of college)
- ...get that person to provide some practical help in improving your social life?
- ...get that particular person to include you more in their social plans?
If you generally want to vent about how hard it is being lonely, you can technically do it with anyone, but if you spring it on a relative stranger they may not know how to respond. As I've said, if you're looking for emotional support it's best to go to a close family member, counselor, or a therapy group. If you're not lonely to the point of having zero social contacts, and do have a close friend or two, going to them is obviously also an option. Posting about it online is one more choice to consider. It doesn't provide that in-person connection, but a benefit is you may feel comfortable sharing more if you're anonymous.
Follow the standard guidelines for seeking emotional support: It's okay to go to someone about a problem, but even if they want the best for you, it can wear them down if you vent to them again and again and again. That's especially true if you're always venting, but don't seem to be doing anything to actually solve the problem. If you have a high need for emotional support for your loneliness, try to spread it around among several sources.
If you want to give someone an honest update on how you've been lately, but don't necessarily need to vent about how emotionally tough your loneliness is, here's where you can be conscious of the tone you're using. You can disclose to someone you're lonely, but say it in a matter-of-fact, content-at-the-moment style. If they care about you they may not be thrilled to learn you're lonely, but they'd probably be even more upset if you were outwardly miserable as you told them about it. If you really want to reassure them you can add something along the lines of, "It's not the ideal situation, but I'm working on it. I'm feeling okay overall."
If you're only looking for practical help in making new friends, realize you can ask for that without having to mention your circumstances are making you feel lonely. You can if you want, but it's not technically necessary. You could just say something like, "I'm trying to freshen up my social life and meet some new people. Let me know if you hear about anything interesting going on in town... Or do you have any ideas? What's worked for you in the past if you've wanted to make some more friends?"
If you want to get someone to hang out with you more, consider whether telling them you're lonely is the best way to achieve that goal. Would it be simpler to try to invite them out more, or let them know you'd be interested in joining in on that group hobby they do with their friends?
If an acquaintance hasn't shown much interest in hanging out with you, will telling them you're lonely change that? Honestly, probably not. If someone doesn't seem to want a closer friendship with you, and hasn't responded to your other efforts, telling them you're lonely as a kind of Hail Mary pass likely won't do much. They may feel for you, and wish you well in making some new friends, but still not think you're a match for each other.