In the lonely wintertime, I often sit at my desk to observe the houses across from me. Not to spy, be nosy, or play Big Brother. I simply want to see signs of light, signs of life.
When dusk sets in, the spectacle begins.
Lights are switched on, and TVs start flickering. I start feeling a glimmer of connection. As more and more lights elucidate, it can seem as if the apartment lights merge into one beaming glow—like thousands of pixels resolving into a sharp image. I catch glimpses of people walking through their rooms, someone swinging a pan, someone setting the table. The scene feels so wholesome. A huge dinner party is about to happen, and they’re just waiting for the last guests to trickle in. I want to join. I’m ready.
But then, unexpectedly, the feeling is gone.
I realize it wasn’t real. A naïve fantasy. I snap back to my desk, staring at artificial light rays. Artificial entertainment. Artificial connections. It’s agonizing. The end of loneliness is almost there, right in front of my eyes. I can grasp it, but also… I can’t. There’s a barrier between me and others.
The setting often reminds me of a giant glass skyscraper: from the outside, it seems like a glowing, connected lighthouse. But on the inside, it’s just thousands of isolated capsules and bleak cubicles.
It’s tricky to articulate what loneliness feels like. But in those cold months, it’s often the moment when I realize I’m stuck in a cubicle — secluded from the rest of the floor, the building, the city.
Loneliness Can Feel Like Many Things
Loneliness is an extremely subjective sensation. Although external circumstances — like genes, housing, and culture— can affect your chances of becoming lonely, the ultimate question is whether or not you feel lonely.
If you feel lonely, you are, in fact, lonely.
This also means that all of us will experience loneliness in different ways. Not just because of our individual personal histories but also our circumstances, personalities, and ways of coping with emotions. Our feelings of loneliness are as unique as our fingerprints.
Loneliness isn’t completely invisible. It’s not a specter that will haunt us with eternal, unseen torments. We can make it visible. We can share our experiences of loneliness — and, in doing so, find connection.
But before we dig deeper into what loneliness feels like, let’s find out why this is worth investigating in the first place.
The Power of Knowing What Loneliness Feels Like
Learning what loneliness looks and feels like is in itself a way to feel less lonely. In her book The Lonely City, Olivia Laing says it best:
“You can show what loneliness looks like, and you can also take up arms against it, making things that serve explicitly as communication devices, resisting censorship and silence.”
But, of course, it’s an uncomfortable process. Moving through the subterranean depths of our minds can get dark. And scary. That’s why it’s indispensable to remember how we’ll grow in the process of understanding loneliness.
Here are three beacons to illuminate our path:
- Less panic and attachment — “Loneliness is the great masquerader,” Dr. Vivek Murthy writes in Together. “It can appear as anger, alienation, sadness, and a host of distressing emotional states.” In other words, we might feel awful without knowing loneliness hides beneath our pain. This can cause panic. However, when we investigate the many shades of loneliness, we unmask it, making it less scary. Then, like curious scientists, we can observe it: “Oh, loneliness. How interesting.”
- Better coping methods — Contrary to popular opinion, loneliness decreases as we age. This is because, as we mature, we can better diagnose different types of loneliness and find suitable coping methods. Actively getting to know loneliness accelerates this process.
- A breeding ground for connection — The more we know what loneliness feels like, the more equipped we feel to talk about it. The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, it gets easier to confide your feelings of loneliness to someone else. Secondly, you reach a deeper understanding of the loneliness of others. Which sets you up for connection.
With these three beacons in mind, let’s find out what loneliness feels like. Here are three examples based on my experiences and the descriptions of others. May they help you feel less alone in feeling lonely.
Loneliness Feels Like Hunger
“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.”— Olivia Laing, The Lonely City
At around 10:40 pm, I was sitting on my bed, doing… well, doing what exactly? I was doing many things at once, and yet nothing. I was stuck in a liminal space between reading a book and non-stop checking my phone. It felt estranging. My focus: lost. My loneliness: distressing. Whenever I put my phone down, I tried to convince myself: It’s okay if no one texts you. You’re okay. You have your book. This is fine.
Except… it wasn’t.
I was starving for attention. I was hungry for connection. Even a notification for a severe weather warning would’ve made me feel less lonely. In an attempt to escape the digital shackles of my phone, I placed it on the other side of my room, facing down. It didn’t work. After a few seconds, that itchy craving returned. “Maybe now someone has texted me?” I rushed to my phone. The screen lit up.
Zero new messages.
I decided to turn on notifications, so I wouldn’t miss the next incoming message — if it ever came. But the next time I put the phone down again, the itch returned. “Maybe now?” I thought. “Maybe I just missed the sound? Maybe my notifications stopped working?” I couldn’t take it. I needed something. In a frenzy, I swooshed through my phone, swiping through profiles, updating emails, downloading apps, and pulling levers of social media slot machines.
But there was nothing.
No attention. No messages. Just a distressed mind, growling to get its social calories.
Pathologically checking my phone with zero new notifications felt like making a pizza in a cold oven. You wait for something to happen, but every time you look at it, the absence of progress disappoints you. All this happens while you get more hungry by the second. And then you think: other people are probably devouring a delicious meal right now, and I can’t even get this oven working.
It feels shameful. It feels desperate. It feels hopeless.
Loneliness Feels Like Coldness
“We speak of loneliness sometimes as being “out in the cold,” and of the feeling we get from satisfying social connections as “warmth.” … Part of the unfairness of loneliness is that it often deprives us of touch and the soothing comfort that it brings.”— John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness
In my article How to Feel Less Lonely, I described a particularly lonely episode that occurred a few years ago. Back then, my loneliness hit so bad that I curled up in a fetal position next to my radiator. I tried to feel the warmth. But my heart stayed cold.
During that time, I constantly felt like I was stuck in a vast glacial cave with infinite tunnels but no escape path. The longer I was trapped in this cave, the more I became part of it. Each of my cells built for connection dropped closer to absolute zero, turning into ice-cold steel.
This loneliness-induced coldness didn’t just feel distressing. It also felt eternal. Heck, it was self-reinforcing. The warming smile of a stranger left me cold. They’re just pretending, I thought. Surely, they’re not smiling at me. Similarly, socializing with friends gave me momentary hope, but there was literally no way to break the ice. Being with friends just reminded me of my inability to connect. And it spawned seeds of doubt if I actually had friends — or ever had had them.
I craved to be around people but hated to be around them.
But the worst part of this coldness was seeing the warmth of others. The sight of people happily together — without me — was paralyzing. Couples, in particular, drove me deeper and deeper into my arctic cave. God, I hated spotting love birds that devoured each other like cold drinks on hot summer days. And giggles. I really hated giggles.
Watching people in love spread thick layers of black ice on my glacial facade. They made me frustrated. Jealous. Almost furious.
I thought: Hey, I want that!
I thought: I can never have that.
I thought: I feel so lonely.
Loneliness Feels Like Pain and Emptiness
“You are completely disconnected from others and the world. No one understands you or can understand you and you don’t care about trying to understand others, even meet other people. It feels like it would be a total waste of your time and energy. And yet, you long for that touch, that connection, that smile, those sweet reassuring words. Your heart feels squeezed and you sob at the pain of your loneliness. It physically hurts you.”— An anonymous contributor from Hawai’i
In my darkest, loneliest moments, a crippling thought often crossed my mind: I could literally die today, and no one would give a damn, let alone show up at my funeral. Will there even be a funeral?
In these moments, loneliness would feel like a hole inside my chest that expanded and imploded simultaneously. There would be emptiness. But there would also be pain.
This dissonance can make loneliness feel unbearable. You want to connect with people. You want better relationships. You want to call your friends, your parents, your crush. That’s the longing, the pain. But simultaneously, you feel like there’s no one. And even if there was: surely, they wouldn’t want to talk to you. Surely, they moved on, found better friends, or have better things to do.
There’s arguably no one who better captured this dissonance of loneliness than Edward Hopper. His infamous painting Nighthawks shows a diner at the corner of a street. It’s nighttime and corrosive shades of neon green spray on the sidewalk. Inside, four lonely individuals. No one’s talking. No eye contact.
“But what about the couple?” you might think. Yes, at first glance, it seems their proximity shields them from loneliness. But look closer. Their gazes are empty. Hopeless. Trapped.
The bartender is a little more active than the rest. He’s looking in the direction of his guests but seems to overlook their faces — as if they were holograms, fickle imaginations. To make things worse, he is trapped in the triangular confinements of his counter — an apt analogy for the imprisoning feeling of loneliness.
But it’s not just about the people. There’s a deliberate, logical distortion in this painting. Do you see it? At first, I didn’t notice it myself and only saw it after Olivia Laing pointed it out in The Lonely City.
The distortion is that there are no doors. And if you ask me, it’s this subtle flaw that induces the diner’s distressing aura. Well, yes, there’s this lean, squeaky door on the far right, probably leading to the pantry or the kitchen. But there’s no entrance, no exit, and no way to get out. The bar is sealed off from the outside like a large zoo cage, thus pointing to a fundamental dilemma of loneliness: you feel so exposed, but there’s no way to connect.
All this raises a deeper question: What actually triggers the loneliness of Nighthawks? The four figures? The geometry? The window? Or is it the point where you realize that you’re the observer, standing out in the cold, feeling cut off?
One Tricky Truth (and a few questions)
Yes, making loneliness visible can sometimes feel dark and gloomy. But when looking at artworks of loneliness or reflecting on my own metaphors, something becomes clear:
None of it is real.
I’m not saying that you can magically make loneliness disappear. The feeling of loneliness is, of course, excruciatingly real. But in the real world, we don’t get stuck in infinite arctic caves, diners without doors, or an imploding cosmos. These are just preconceptions of the mind. In reality, tunnels lead to a warm surface. Diners are actually very strict with emergency exits. And with every passing moment, we feel a soothing sense of gravity.
Choosing reality over distortions — that’s one of the main challenges we face when feeling lonely. As Cacioppo and Patrick put it in Loneliness:
“The secret to gaining access to social connection and social contentment is being less distracted by one’s own psychological business — especially the distortions based on feelings of threat. When any of us feels connected, the absence of social pain and the sense of threat allows us to be truly there: in sync with others.”
So — what do you believe in?
- The lonely voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough, that people will reject you, and that the world is evil?
- Or the (far more likely) alternative: that others crave connection as much as you do, that many people appreciate your company, and that humans are inherently kind?
The version you choose will predict your future. In fact, Cacioppo and Patrick found that the cynicism of loneliness — a lack of faith in others — actually contributes to social rejection. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here’s the good news: if our minds can conjure cynicism, they also have the power to induce trust and kindness.
And so, I encourage you to ask yourself a few questions:
- What does your loneliness feel like exactly? What does it look like? If it were a person, what would be its personality? If it were an object, what would be its shape, color, and temperature?
- Look at your answers from 1). Are they true? Does your loneliness define you, and is it all there is? Or are there other parts of you that you can listen to and visualize — like kindness, love, and connection?
- When has your loneliness deceived you? How did you feel when you reached out despite your loneliness? And with that in mind, how would you act if you didn’t feel lonely but connected?
Ultimately, loneliness can feel like many things — hunger, coldness, emptiness, pain. Sometimes it feels like all these things at once. But we must remember that it needn’t be all-encompassing. There are ways out. We can choose to insert doors into the wicked diners of seclusion — and in doing so, transform them into places of encounter, places of community, places of connection.