Woman walking in the forest

Why loneliness is not an emotion

Loneliness: The drive for connection

Since the first edition of The Language of Emotions appeared, people have wanted me to add drives (such as lust or hunger) to the emotions list, or they’ve asked if specific states are emotions.

In this excerpt from the updated and revised Language of Emotions, I explore the most-requested drive: Loneliness.

Book and audiobook covers for The Language of EmotionsUsually, people ask me about a nuanced form of an emotion that’s already in my Emotional Vocabulary List, such as frustration (soft anger), suspicion (medium fear), humiliation (intense shame), and so forth.

But the state that people ask about most often is loneliness. It’s in my vocabulary list as medium jealousy, but people want me to create emotion questions for it. I understand why, but I don’t see loneliness as an emotion in and of itself.

In its simplest form, loneliness acts as a drive toward connection, and we feel lonely when we want and need to be with people. Loneliness belongs in the jealousy (and envy) category, but it’s also a multiple-emotion state.

If you ask people what else they feel inside their loneliness, you’ll get dozens of different answers, and some people will be able to identify many different kinds of loneliness, each with its own grouping of emotions.

The many different emotions in loneliness

For instance, if a child is lonely for a parent who is busy, they may feel anger and sadness, some jealousy and envy toward whomever or whatever is keeping the parent occupied, plus some anxiety about when the parent will be available.

If a friendless child is lonely for relationships they don’t have, there may also be grief and depression in their experience of loneliness.

If a person is lonely because they’re in a new city where they don’t know anyone yet, they may feel fear, anxiety, sadness, happiness (about possible future relationships), or depression.

If someone’s mate dies, their resulting loneliness may involve nearly all of the emotions as they grieve and remember and recall and miss their lost loved one.

And if a person has outlived all of their friends and family (or has been separated from them) and hasn’t been able to find new connections, their loneliness may also involve the lifesaving emotions of panic and the suicidal urge.

Each situation of loneliness speaks to that drive for connection, but the emotional mix is unique to each person.

A drive toward co-regulation

In her books How Emotions Are Made and 7½ Lessons about the Brain, researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett writes about how we co-regulate each other’s emotions and what she calls our “body budgets.” Loneliness may be a drive that lets us know that we require co-regulation, either emotionally or physiologically.

As a social species, we need other people to help our brains develop in infancy and childhood. Throughout our life spans, we continue to need warm social connections to help us survive and thrive.

The drive to connect and co-regulate feels to me like the drives of hunger and thirst; our organisms require other people and healthy social structures as functions of our homeostasis.

We need each other physically and emotionally; we need the nourishing food of love, belonging, relationships, and social connections. So loneliness can be a drive that is solvable, such as the drive to hug your sweetie or the drive to talk with your uncle because he knows you so well.

When the drive toward co-regulation goes awry

And yet there are forms of loneliness that are not solvable and do not respond to the presence of others.

For instance, you could feel that no one has ever or will ever love you, or that no one can truly know you because you’re so alone. This persistent and unresolving form of loneliness feels like persistent hunger that is not satisfied by food, or persistent thirst that is not satisfied no matter how many drinks you consume.

The drive for co-regulation and belonging is somehow short-circuited in persistent loneliness. Some research on persistently lonely people found that they tend to physically distance themselves from others, even mates, such that they’re lonely even when they’re with people. Something stops them from connecting and experiencing nourishing co-regulation no matter how near they are to others (could this be a boundary/anger/shame issue?).

Another study found a correlation between sleep deprivation, social withdrawal, and loneliness, which could speak to persistently lonely people lacking the energy they need to successfully connect and co-regulate with others (could this be a depression or apathy issue?)

The lack of connection can also be internal

My teaching colleague Sherry Olander has also focused on two forms of loneliness that are helpful to identify: the loneliness of not being connected to others (for whatever reason) and the loneliness of not feeling connected to yourself. This second form of self-loneliness may involve an imbalance where the boundary-setting emotion of anger is unavailable, yet the behavioral-monitoring emotion of shame overwhelms us with unworkable shaming messages.

If we don’t have healthy boundaries, and if our shame is overtaken by toxic messages, it would be difficult or perhaps impossible for us to truly connect to or create deep intimacy with ourselves or others.

If your drive toward co-regulation isn’t helping you experience healthy connections and intimacy, it can be instructive to observe the condition of your relationships (past and present) – not just with other people but also with your emotions and specifically with the anger family and your jealousy and envy.

Yet there is a vital importance in loneliness

There is an important component to the loneliness of solitude (though many of us enjoy solitude and don’t feel lonely when we’re alone).

Photo of a natural rock formation creating a perfect heart shape.This form of lonely solitude can be essential in art, philosophy, and spiritualty, where we need to be alone, to feel lonely, and to experience isolation sometimes in order to ponder and dream of new ideas, new forms, and new futures.

This unique drive for not simply unresolvable but unobtainable connection can be an aspect of the lives of great artists, thinkers, and mystics, who regularly enter states of deep and enduring loneliness as they attempt to connect to their gods, to new art forms, to original visions, or to universal truths.

Sometimes, loneliness that is held in sacredness and is not resolved with connection or co-regulation is a necessary passageway to a new state of knowing or being. 

Sometimes, loneliness is a necessary state, and understanding each of the emotions that arise to support you in lonely times can help you understand, tolerate, and move through lonely periods with patience and hope.

Observe the many emotions inside loneliness

As you explore your own loneliness or ask people about theirs, observe the emotions that are present. There’s so much variability in people’s emotional responses to loneliness that, beyond jealousy and envy, we can’t really create an emotion list that works for everyone in every lonely situation.

Loneliness is not a single emotion; it’s a mixed-emotional state. But those mixed emotions are deeply personal and highly situational. Certainly, focus on jealousy and envy as you explore your own experience of loneliness, but know that many (or all) of your other emotions may also be involved.

From The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You (2003) by Karla McLaren, M.Ed. All rights reserved.


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