Chronic experiences of loneliness can have devastating physical and psychological effects! This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace support from family, community, or a qualified professional.
If you or someone you know is experiencing chronic loneliness, please avail yourself of existing support.
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Get help and support for suicide, by country:
In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
How Can Nonviolent Communication Aid in Managing Feeling Lonely or Feeling Alone
To be able to hear our own feelings and needs and to empathize with them can free us from depression.
How can Nonviolent Communication (NVC) help you manage feelings of loneliness?
Let’s differentiate between alone and lonely. You can be alone, in any meaningful sense, and not feel lonely. And you could be surrounded by others, and yet experience loneliness for any variety of reasons — including the fact that just because people are there does not mean you feel any meaningful connection with them.
Nonviolent Communication is based on the premise that we all have the same needs.
And from the standpoint of NVC, feelings come from whether or not we perceive our needs to be fulfilled, met, or satisfied.
When your need for safety is met, you have certain feelings. When your need for safety is not met, you have different feelings. The same is true for trust, autonomy, love, and all the other Universal Human Needs.
Loneliness is a feeling. Knowing where the feeling of loneliness comes from may help the feeling shift into something else.
However, if you don’t know the source of the feeling… then knowing how to be with it, work with it, or resolve it will be more challenging than if you do know the source.
Loneliness tells you that one or more needs are not met. When you can identify the unmet needs and mourn them, after that, you are in a much better place to take proactive, constructive action to fulfill your needs.
Sometimes people can get stuck in the opposite of NVC: life-disconnected, life-alienated thinking and language.
This can show up as:
- judgmental self-talk (Nobody likes me. I’m lame and that’s why I have no friends),
- blaming others, (If they knew how I felt they would be here keeping me company, or at least call, but they don’t care!),
- or both (They’re a terrible friend! But I’m not that great either — why would they like me?).
NVC teaches you how to understand the needs underlying judgments so that you can translate them, and get back to a language of life — that is, of Universal Human Needs.
When you can give yourself empathy — or get it from others — in relation to those needs, you find that your energy shifts, and usually you will feel more grounded and self-connected. It is from this grounded, self-connected place that you will make more effective choices than from an emotionally reactive place.
The NVC framework makes it easier to translate any judgments you may have about feeling lonely. And it helps you connect with the underlying cause of loneliness, thus making it more likely that you can move forward without allowing loneliness to slip into deeper sadness and depression.
Understanding needs, the link between these and feelings, allowing yourself to mourn, and getting self-connected about what is important and what is motivating you: these are some of the ways NVC can help when you feel lonely.
The Importance of Identifying the Need Underlying Your Loneliness
Why is it important to identify the need underlying your loneliness?
Let’s first define needs!
Universal Human Needs are not manifestations of scarcity or a sense of lack, and have nothing to do with the judgment of someone being “needy”!
So, what are they?
Universal Human Needs are:
- The conditions necessary for Life to thrive — inside you or any other human being, regardless of cultural background or geographic location; for example, love, trust, creative expression, autonomy, connection, and more!
- Core human motivators — they impel us into action; any time someone speaks or acts it is in the service of one or more needs, whether or not that person is conscious of it!
- Energies that want to flow, not holes to be filled!
Needs — as we define them in NVC — are paradoxically personal and at the same time completely impersonal.
If you see a very ill person who is suffering, you may experience multiple feelings in relation to your needs for health or vitality. Even though you are perfectly healthy and it is the other person who is unhealthy — your feelings are coming from your need for health! So if something is stimulated for you, you can trace it back to your needs.
At the same time needs are impersonal. How is that?
The easiest way to explain it is to compare it to language. When you speak, someone else is hearing your words. And yet, in a meaningful way they are not your words! The English language existed before you and will continue after you — and you did not invent it! So it could be said that the words you use are not personally yours since they have an independent existence.
Needs are like this. We take responsibility by connecting our feelings to our own needs, and we understand that they are universal, common to all humans and not actually unique to us!
That covers needs — and this brings up a fundamental key differentiation in NVC, one that will help us understand how to deal with loneliness.
That key differentiation is the distinction between needs and strategies.
Because needs are universal, they never refer to a specific person, location, action, time, or object. (You can use the acronym PLATO to remember this.)
As soon as we refer to a specific person performing a specific action, in NVC we call that a strategy — and strategies by definition are not universal.
One of the pitfalls for beginner NVC practitioners is jumping to a strategy prematurely before understanding all the needs. This leads to strategies that meet some needs but not others, or that fulfill no needs at all!
Even so, strategies are crucially important, because they are the ways in which we fulfill needs.
For example, your need might be for connection. You may prefer connection with a specific person in a specific way — but that would be a strategy rather than a need.
When you confuse strategies and needs — if you think this strategy is the only way your need will be met — you risk turning an abundant universe into a scarce one.
By differentiating needs and strategies you enhance both your self-connection and the possibility of meeting your needs more effectively.
That said, not all strategies are equally effective! Let’s look at three types of strategies, so that we can apply this as we look at loneliness:
Some strategies take you away from the need you are trying to meet: for example, hitting someone because you need compassion and understanding for how much you’re hurting. (That is the old, tragic pattern: when we’re in emotional pain humans tend to lash out or withdraw! In other words, when we most need others’ love and support we tend to act in ways that make it least likely that we will receive that love and support. NVC teaches you new and more fulfilling possibilities!)
Some strategies meet needs partially and at the expense of other needs. For example, smoking tobacco could temporarily meet someone’s needs around handling stress or provide short breaks to support productivity — but that strategy works against that person’s needs for health and possibly many others including freedom and integrity.
And some strategies are referred to as super-satisfiers — because they meet so many needs that you can experience them as a need even though they are strategies. For some people these super-satisfier strategies could include money or sex. Money is not a need, it is one or more strategies — and the same is true for sex.
So let’s go back to the question at hand: why is it important to identify the need underlying your loneliness?
First, by recognizing the need you will feel more self-connected and it has the possibility of interrupting blameful thoughts or language. This self-connection is a place of power and choice, and life-serving choices more easily flow from it than from a place of emotional reactivity in which you’re not connected to your needs.
Second, by recognizing the need, it is easier to separate from the strategy. When you separate the needs and the strategies something wonderful happens! At this point, you can keep the needs and open up to other strategies.
When you feel lonely, you can get empathy for your feelings and needs, and after that try out different strategies. And in some cases you can employ interim strategies — like brainstorming your options — which are more likely to lead you in the direction of having fulfilled needs.
You are much more likely to be able to come up with ways to overcome loneliness when you do the following: identify the underlying needs, separate them from the strategies, get empathy for the feelings and needs, and then see if you have an actionable request of yourself or another that can move you in the direction you want to go.
The request is essential, is an opportunity to take responsibility for what you want, and it flows from the connection you have with your own needs and wants.
The alternatives are to let loneliness slide into isolation and depression, or to stay in the blame game — neither of which are likely to lead you to where you want to go.
These are some of the ways it can be so valuable to identify the needs underlying your sense of loneliness.
Utilizing Nonviolent Communication to Meet Our Needs for Community and Closeness and Managing the Effects of Social Isolation
How do you use NVC to meet your needs for community and closeness and also manage the effects of social isolation?
Let’s first acknowledge that loneliness and social isolation can be extremely hard, difficult, and in some cases deadly.
After all, community and closeness are critical needs.
First, by separating the needs and strategies you can keep the needs close and explore multiple strategies for meeting those needs. In this way you avoid the trap of thinking any particular strategy is your need.
NVC is not magical and does not perform miracles. However, NVC is very good at what it is designed for: improving the quality of connections to the point that people enjoy contributing to one another’s well-being.
The word “community” has different meanings and definitions. In this article we are talking about it in a layered and nuanced way — sometimes as a need but also as a set of strategies. For example, when you strike up a conversation with someone at the bus stop, you are creating more community, or increasing your sense of community. And our definition can also include the various forms of cooperative living strategies known as intentional community.
Whatever the form, it is that sense of connection, closeness, and belonging that lets you know that your need for community is met.
How to create community, in a larger sense, is a bit beyond the scope of this article. There are many groups, organizations, and modalities. If you are specifically interested in the form of cooperative living known as intentional community, we recommend that you check out the Foundation for Intentional Community at ic.org.
How to create closeness? Let’s briefly look at what destroys closeness, or separates us more: the “opposite” of NVC, also known as life-disconnected, life-alienated thinking and language.
In brief, the elements of thinking and language that destroy closeness are:
- Name-calling, criticism, judgments, pigeonholing, and diagnosing people (“What’s wrong with you is _____ !”)
- Blaming and avoiding responsibility (“You make me so sad!”)
- Placing demands on others rather than requests (“You’d better do what I said or else!”)
- Justifying punishment based on static labels (“He deserved it because he was bad!”)
- and any form of coercion, internal or external, that leads us to do things for others, or others for us, motivated by fear, guilt, shame, duty, obligation, to get a reward, to avoid punishment, or out of shoulds or have-tos.
How do you use NVC to create greater closeness?
Actually, everything in NVC — when applied correctly — works to cultivate greater closeness with those around you.
NVC help you create more closeness by giving you tools for:
- translating your own and others’ judgments to perceive what is alive at a deeper level and using a language of values and needs;
- giving yourself self-empathy to self-connect, self-regulate, get more grounded, and understand what is motivating you;
- asking for empathy from others, and knowing how to provide it for others;
- mourning in a life-connected way when something is not working (more on this below);
- forgiving yourself when you mess up or are less than perfect, and;
- clarifying what you want and how you might ask for it, among others!
What are the effects of social isolation, and how can NVC help you manage that?
We do not want to underestimate the effects of social isolation, especially when it is chronic. There are troves of research online showing increases in anxiety, depression, dementia, and premature death.
And each case of chronic social isolation could have multiple and complex causes!
Despite this, Nonviolent Communication teaches you to do what Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC, called life-connected mourning. The alternative is to be in your thoughts about what’s wrong with yourself, others, or the world — to entertain thoughts of blame or self-blame.
Life-connected mourning means that you are present with whatever feelings are flowing through you while staying connected to the needs. So you let yourself fully feel the sadness and the discouragement (and other feelings that might be present), while staying connected to your needs for community, closeness, friendship, belonging, and connection. The sadness, disappointment, and discouragement can be uncomfortable — and yet the energies of community, closeness, friendship, belonging, and connection are beautiful energies!
And life-connected mourning helps you grieve the pain of the unmet needs and still appreciate the beautiful energy of the needs themselves.
As your mourning begins to shift you can begin to look at strategies for coping with or overcoming social isolation — including interim strategies like researching what strategies others have used to deal with it effectively.
Allowing yourself to grieve or mourn is far from a morbid or even frivolous activity!
Mourning is as human and natural as being born, eating, and laughing.
We resist it because it can be uncomfortable.
And yet, when we don’t do it we store unprocessed emotions in our tissues. This is because mind and body are actually not separate at all (except conceptually and in language).
When you don’t allow yourself to do your grief work, you walk around a little heavier, a little more constricted, and less present to the beauty of the natural world or to the people around you.
And when you do allow yourself to grieve in a life-connected way, afterwards you feel so much lighter!
It turns out that the process of mourning and grieving frees up space inside us for more joy to come in later. So your capacity for joy is limited — or supported — by your capacity for grief!
Grief work is another area in which professional support could be useful, especially if you are unable to get past mental blockages or doubts as to whether or not you are “doing it right.” You can ask around and do some searching online. We also recommend Nala Walla who guides people in what she calls Somatic Griefwork.
As you continue to improve in your NVC skills, you naturally continue to create more closeness and community.
Why and how?
Because if you are truly living the consciousness of NVC, and practicing the skills effectively, then:
- you naturally have a more collaborative approach to relationships;
- you more easily prevent misunderstandings and conflicts;
- you are better prepared to resolve a conflict when it shows up;
- you are able to be more real with others, which invites them to do the same; and when we are real with each other we begin to access true intimacy.
Doing your grief work and continuing to improve your NVC skills is not a panacea.
Sometimes life can be so difficult!
And that is the challenge for each of us: get up and try again.
After all, you cannot ask more of yourself than doing your best!
Identifying the thinking and language that destroys closeness and community; opening yourself to doing your grief work; continuing to deepen your NVC consciousness and improve your skills — these are various ways you can use NVC to meet your needs for community and closeness, and also manage the effects of social isolation.
Using Nonviolent Communication to Support a Loved One Experiencing Loneliness
How do you use Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to support a loved one who is experiencing loneliness?
As you know, NVC has three areas in which you can put your attention: your connection with yourself, your authentic self-expression (honesty), and your empathic listening skills.
When considering supporting a loved one experiencing loneliness, NVC would first have you check your intentions and clarify whether there is any “should” thinking, or whether there could be feelings like guilt motivating you. The reason for this is that doing things for each other out of guilt or obligation usually generates resentment which damages relationships over time.
Let’s assume that your motivations are clear, and you simply want to support a loved one going through this experience. Let’s make sure you can do that in the most skillful way possible!
In NVC we have a guideline that covers a majority of, though not all, situations: empathy before honesty.
While your intentions may be clear, let’s save any honesty you may have — even if you think it will be helpful — until after the other person feels completely heard and understood for the pain of their situation. (And, in case you have a different perspective than they do, remember that you can still offer empathic understanding without agreeing!)
When we give someone empathy we are present with our whole being — and we are not trying to make the pain go away, make it better, fix, resolve, solve, or heal it. The pain is not static — it is dynamic. By being and remaining present it can flow. Stay present with the other person’s pain — and the needs it’s connected to — as long as you can, or until it shifts. Occasionally, the person may experience comfort or reassurance when you tell them back what you’re hearing is important to them underlying their pain.
Common mistakes people make:
- Panicking when the pain is more than they expected. If this happens it’s probably because empathy is working. Do your best to put your attention on their feelings and needs no matter how the person is expressing themselves. It requires staying present over time, and usually you do find that the pain begins to pass or subside.
- Giving advice or suggestions. Empathy is the need for being understood compassionately that is met for them when they feel completely heard and understood. Even if your advice would be helpful, if you share while they are in pain they may not have the mental space or bandwidth to receive it. After empathy, you can let them know you have something that might be useful, and then you give them a choice as to whether or not they hear it. No matter how good your advice, if the person is not at choice they will likely resent it and not put it into practice!
- Jumping to honesty too soon. One of the key tips for empathy is slowing down! Go slowly, gently, allow everything the person has to say to be heard in a safe space.
- Leading rather than following. Empathy has a quality of following the other person, not leading them. Stay present.
After empathy, you can ask questions that help the person connect with their own clarity. This would be a form of leading — in the way an experienced life coach might — but it is most effective after empathy, that is, after the person feels heard and understood.
If your loved one sees you as the only strategy for meeting their needs for connection, that can be a challenging situation. In these circumstances, your clear boundaries, established with care and compassion, have the greatest potential to contribute to trust and closeness.
When someone is in a vulnerable place, it can feel scary to receive support especially if they’re not trusting whether or not it’s a real yes to offer support. Expressed with care, your ability to say no when it is a no will help the other person trust when your yes is a real yes.
Being clear within yourself and staying with empathy first are some important ways you can use Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to support a loved one who is experiencing loneliness.
Marshall Rosenberg on the Feelings of Loneliness
What would Dr. Marshall Rosenberg say about feelings of loneliness?
Sometimes what we experience as loneliness has to do with a certain sense of desolation which could be described as existential angst: an itch that never goes away.
There is a certain loneliness that can’t be cured by other people!
We sometimes cover this up with distractions: TV, shopping, drugs including alcohol, empty hobbies…
Dr. Rosenberg would encourage you to be present to what you’re experiencing, and stay with the feelings and the needs as long as necessary before going to strategies.
Dr. Rosenberg was a fan of several poets, whom he often read or quoted in his trainings. One such poet was Mary Oliver. Here are a few lines from her poem Wild Geese (emphasis added):
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
Regardless of how deep the loneliness, we all belong as members of the community of Life!
Another favorite of Dr. Rosenberg’s was the Persian poet, Hafiz, who writes “don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.”
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft
My need of God
Puddledancer Press Books for Emotional Loneliness
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and emotional loneliness.
History has shown time and again that human beings are capable of immense creativity in meeting their needs.
Because of the clarity NVC provides you in separating needs from strategies, you can mourn unmet needs and pursue new strategies for moving forward toward a life in which you thrive.
Using NVC to connect with our observations, feelings, needs, and requests when feeling lonely, can increase your sense of both groundedness and possibilities. To the degree that you are making decisions from a more grounded place, and are connected to possibilities, you will likely create more satisfying and sustainable outcomes.
Our books on Nonviolent Communication skills can help you:
- Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
- Offer compassionate understanding to others,
- Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
- Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
- Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict,
- Create mutual understanding without coercion.
Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on handling emotional loneliness, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.
Check out our catalog of books… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!