12 Types of Loneliness That May Surprise You

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Loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can feel lonely in a crowd, in marriage, and, of course, in isolation. Being alone is objective and neutral, whereas loneliness is personal, painful, and multi-faceted.

And yet, our conversation around loneliness is marked by one-dimensionality and a lack of vocabulary. We sum up loneliness with one word when, in reality, there are many types of loneliness. This makes talking about loneliness blurry and confusing, like observing a painting from a large distance. What we need to do is get closer and examine the shades, the textures, the layers. It’s only then that we can discuss our perspectives — and perhaps find common ground.

With that in mind, here are 12 lesser-known types of loneliness we might experience throughout our lives. Understanding them can make it much easier to address and deal with our feelings of loneliness.

1. Hikikomori Loneliness

In the 1990s, more and more Japanese adolescents started retreating from their families and society as a whole. Not only that, a reentry from their withdrawal seemed impossible. These people have become known as hikikomori (derived from the verbs hiki “to withdraw” and komori “to be inside”).

Hikikomori — typically young males — self-isolate in their rooms for at least six months, avoiding any social contact and neglecting basic needs. Common causes include: unrealistic expectations from society, work stress, dysfunctional family dynamics, and internet addiction.

The phenomenon of hikikomori demonstrates how strongly loneliness relates to cultural concepts, such as expectations, values, and traditions — and what happens when we struggle to break free from them.

2. Soulmate Loneliness

To understand this type of loneliness, we must turn to the ancient Greeks, who first introduced the idea of soulmates.

In Plato’s Symposium, we find the story that humans used to roam the Earth in convenient pairs of two. They had two heads, four arms, and four legs. But one day, the mighty Zeus started fearing the power of these coupled humans and cut them in two. According to the legend, we’ve been yearning to reunite with our other half ever since. For without it, we are incomplete and doomed to be lonely.

Today, the idea of soul mates has turned into a romantic ideal. We’re told that we must find “the one” to know true happiness. That our soul mate is the only person who can free us from our prison cell of isolation.

It sounds dreamy. But it’s also a recipe for extreme disappointment. “The theme of the ‘soulmate’ is a tormenting one,” Fay Bound Alberti writes in A Biography of Loneliness, “for it sets the bar on heterosexual intimacy, at the same time as it promises only passionate destruction.”

3. Confidential Loneliness

This is the type of loneliness you feel when you don’t have anyone to talk to, no one to confide your fears, and no one to share your wins and losses with. This can often involve a desire for physical intimacy — which is also a sign of trust.

Put differently, confidential loneliness is the need for closeness. It’s not necessarily that you don’t have friends; it’s more that you aren’t experiencing deep relationships.

The tricky part is that it’s a vicious cycle. Researchers have found that the lonelier a person feels, the less likely they are to trust someone. And that, in turn, can make the lonely person seem less trustworthy.

4. Peer-group Loneliness

As I get older, I find myself doing more and more things with just one other person. I find it increasingly difficult to find a common denominator with three people, let alone four. Alas, all my social encounters are like a package of Twix: they come in isolated servings of two.

In Joan Didion’s The White Album, there’s a passage that perfectly captures the nostalgia of my peer-group loneliness:

“First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more: there would never be one or two more, because music people did not travel in groups of ‘one’ or ‘two.’”

I miss that table for twelve: the laughter of a large group, the diverse stories people tell, the wide angles in discussions. TV shows make it worse. Friends, New Girl, The Big Bang Theory — all these series create immense pressure to be part of a perfect friend group. They project an ideal I seem unable to reach.

5. Communal Loneliness

This is the craving for a larger community, a sense of belonging, and a place to feel at home. It’s about feeling integrated into the big picture, like a puzzle piece that perfectly snaps into place.

Traditionally, religion stilled our hunger for community (and still does for some people). “We began to disregard our neighbours,” Alain de Botton writes in Religion for Atheists, “at around the same time as we ceased communally to honour our gods.”

Even more traditionally, a tight tribe ensured our cooperation for the sake of collective survival. Our brains are still wired for communal living. But in the age of individualism and atomized one-bedroom apartments, the importance of community has vanished. Despite our hyper-connectedness and access to search engines, finding our place in the big picture has become increasingly difficult.

6. Capitalist Loneliness

In the 1936 movie Modern Times, one scene shows Charlie Chaplin as an estranged factory worker. You see him standing at a conveyer belt, tightening screws on some type of metal. Or is it wood? It could be anything. In fact, we never get to see the finished product, and there’s a good chance the factory workers have never seen it either. All that counts is one infinitely recurring motion: Position the tool, tighten the screw. Position the tool, tighten the screw.

No matter what happens to the workers, the conveyer belt always keeps running. Position the tool, tighten the screw. Chaplin and his fellow workers have become part of the machinery — blind to the outside world, stuck in robotic motions. Position the tool, tighten the screw. The belt accelerates. Position the tool, tighten the screw. Position the tool, tighten the screw.

Karl Marx would call this alienation. It’s when humans stop seeing purpose, pleasure, growth, and value in their work. Their self-worth shrivels. They feel isolated. Capitalist loneliness means feeling like a minuscule cog in a gargantuan engine.

7. Existential Loneliness

No one will ever know what’s going on inside our minds. Everything we express — feelings, thoughts, stories — has to go through an extremely fickle filter: language.

The philosophical idea of solipsism brings this to an extreme. It claims that the only thing we can know for certain is the existence of our own mind. Everything else — other people, our bodies, the universe — may very well be a mental construct. 

Existential loneliness is feeling small in the cosmos. It’s the realization that we all have to die one day. That life is absurd. And that we must deal with this burden alone.

8. Weekend Loneliness

Weekend loneliness is the painful experience of passing a quiet, uneventful weekend while feeling pressured to socialize. The person feeling weekend loneliness finds it normal to be alone on weekdays. But the weekend shoves unrealistic expectations in their face: You should be with friends. You should have fun. You should get out there.

“In the week, I am a contented, fulfilled person,” the 41-year-old Liz tells the Guardian. “At the weekend, I feel like a lonely outcast. I wake up on a Saturday and feel down. It’s a struggle to pull myself out of bed if I have nothing planned.”

Of course, this phenomenon isn’t restricted to weekends. A similarly painful feeling occurs when we’re alone on Christmas, New Year’s Eve, or a warm summer holiday. In all these cases, the societal pressure to be around loved ones can trigger extreme loneliness. 

9. Digital Loneliness

The internet has connected billions of people and yet, it comes with a bitter aftertaste of isolation. It’s a paradox: Everyone is there, in high resolution, right in front of you, but simultaneously they’re so far out of reach.

This is what makes ghosting so painful: it’s the sudden shock that a person dissolved into thin air. One moment they were still there; now they’re gone. All that remains is the silhouette of their digital footprint.

Another aspect of digital loneliness can erupt from para-social relationships: one-way relationships between followers and influencers. Watching someone’s life for dozens of hours can evoke the feeling of knowing them, of becoming their friend. But simultaneously, it can feel isolating to remember that they’ve never even heard your name.

10. Feeling-foreign Loneliness

Feeling like an outsider is a runway to loneliness. It can arise when you feel different from the crowd, when you’re the new member of an established team, or — what’s worse — when a group actively dispels you. It feels like you’re the alien particle in a cohesive organism.

In 2021, I moved to Portugal by myself. And while I loved the sun, the ocean, the vibes, I struggled immensely with the language. Despite intense studying, I couldn’t understand chit-chat on the streets, let alone have deep conversations. In the first few weeks, this was merely an itch. But after a few months, the language barrier became a constant reminder that I still wasn’t integrated. That I was different. That this wasn’t my home.

After seven months, my feeling-foreign loneliness got so intense that I needed to return to my home country, Germany.

11. Masquerading Loneliness

This is when you constantly feel like you need to be a different version of yourself in order to be liked. You wear a changing selection of masks, depending on the social situation. We all do this online: carefully curating our profiles to present a polished version of ourselves.

Wearing masks seems convenient because they shield us from rejection. If someone rejects us, we can tell ourselves it was the mask they rejected, not our real identity. But, of course, this also blocks the chance of a genuine connection. As Olivia Laing writes in her book The Lonely City:

“[Masks] offer relief from exposure, from the burden of being seen … To refuse scrutiny is to dodge the possibility of rejection, though also the possiblity of acceptance, the balm of love.”

Masquerading loneliness is like wearing heavy armor. Although it offers protection, it exhausts us and prevents us from being seen.

12. Aloneliness

So far, we’ve seen that loneliness can emerge out of disconnections from friends, society, or our environment. But there’s an entirely different type of loneliness: the disconnection from ourselves.

The psychologist Robert Coplan and his colleagues named this state aloneliness. It’s a yearning to get away from people and spend time alone. So, in a sense, aloneliness is the exact opposite of loneliness. And yet, it evokes similar feelings: the pang of disconnection, a desire to be heard, feeling empty.

This type of loneliness shows that feeling lonely is not just about relationships with other people. It’s also about the relationship with ourselves.

A Vital Lesson From the Many Types of Loneliness

This isn’t a complete list — like colors, loneliness is an infinite spectrum, and there will always be more gradients to find. Rather, this is an attempt to find primary colors we can use as cornerstones when talking about loneliness.

What all types of loneliness have in common is that they can turn into chronic loneliness. When we’re chronically lonely, our body switches to survival mode and is constantly on the lookout for danger. This wear-and-tear increases our risk of inflammation, depression, and stress.

But that’s when being aware of the many types of loneliness can be incredibly helpful. For one thing, they can help us pinpoint the diverse causes of (chronic) loneliness. For another, they demonstrate that the ways to reconnection aren’t as one-dimensional as we might have thought. For instance, coping with existential loneliness probably won’t involve finding new friends. Instead, it might involve a deeper engagement with religion, philosophy, or values.

The ultimate lesson is that loneliness cuts deeper than not having friends. Sometimes, what actually makes us lonely is feeling alienated from society, work, the world, and ourselves.

Once we realize this, we will discover surprising new pathways toward feeling less lonely.