Functional Loneliness

Rochelle Rosenberg

Functional Loneliness

April 18, 2014 Uncategorized 0

Functional Loneliness – What is it?

I believe that functional loneliness occurs for individuals who have found somewhat effective ways to cope with their loneliness. Unlike individuals that may have overwhelming feelings of loneliness, people with functional loneliness are able to successfully suppress their feelings without having to deal with it directly. Usually it is because they are so busy doing other things that there is little time to have these feelings bubble to the surface. They are almost forced to suppress these feelings in order to do their job, take care of their families, or other such things. It is like a drowning person desperately trying to keep her head above water, it is a sink or swim situation. Functional loneliness folks have learned to do some amount of swimming and keep their heads above water whereas other folks just get drowned by their feelings of loneliness. The fact of the matter is that in both situations, the underlying root for these feelings of loneliness is still not being addressed. The cause is that they are not getting the kind of intimacy that they need in their life. The social interaction, the friendships, the disclosure, the feeling of connection and belonging is simply not enough. While they can ignore it with distractions, they cannot get rid of it that way. It will always be there waiting to remind them that their lives are not complete.

When functional loneliness becomes dysfunctional

It is no surprise then that certain situations would trigger these overwhelming feelings of loneliness that would shut them down. These situations demand the support, intimacy, and connection of others, something that was never fully satisfied in the first place. For example, when we experience an embarrassing moment, or someone hurt our feelings, or we feel overwhelmed with the work that we have to do, it helps to have someone to talk to. Even better, it really helps to talk with someone we are close to. However, when that person is not around or does not exist, then feelings of loneliness crop up, and for those with functional loneliness, it becomes very difficult to continue to ignore that background noise of loneliness. That noise has become a lot louder and a lot more distracting. Even ironically, it may be affecting their behavior and they don’t even realize it. Sometimes we feel too stressed, or tired or just have no energy or simply feel lost. Underlying these feelings may really be feelings of loneliness, hiding in the shadows behind these other feelings. We become so good at ignoring the noise of loneliness that even when it distracts us to the point we become dysfunctional, we still do not recognize the noise. So our life may become a series of functional and dysfunctional periods marred by our ever constant loneliness.

Living with functional loneliness?

The other question to ask ourselves is, is it okay to continue living life with functional loneliness, with our ups and downs. The answer really depends on the person. Change usually happens when one has enough motivation to make it happen. That whole cycle may not be enough to motivate us to do something about it. However, living with functional loneliness is living a life incomplete. It involves being able to start trusting others and open up our lives to them. Others cannot be sources of comfort, support, and connection if we do not let them into our lives, let them know what is going on, and ask for help. It involves taking a risk and moving outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes we get so used to a bad habit that we forget it is a bad habit and how much of a detrimental effect it has on our lives. And habits are hard to change, but if you are willing to make the effort, you can make that background loneliness noise go away, or at least become a very quiet whisper that you can deal with, even in the tough times.


To feel (1) lonely and depressed, (2) lonely but not depressed, (3) depressed but not lonely, and (4) neither lonely nor depressed. The first scenario is the one most typically seen and, in general, correlations tend to range from .4 to .6 (Weeks et al., 1980). Later research also demonstrates that there might be a reciprocal interplay between loneliness and depression with the net result of increasing both (Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2006). However, it is also possible to experiences states (2) and (3) and there is research to show that the co-occurrence between loneliness and depression has its limitations (Weeks et al., 1980). One can think of scenarios where people are traveling and feeling lonely because their interactions with loved ones is limited, but they are not depressed. In other words, typical symptoms associated with depression are not apparently, such as feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, fatigue, and loss of interest are not present. Similarly, one could be severely depressed and isolated and yet not feel lonely because he/she desires little contact with others.

So the next time you, someone you know, or a client, comes in and says they feel sad, one should really stop and wonder why exactly they feel sad. If it is that that sadness is related to a lack of social connections or a sense of belonging, then perhaps loneliness is the real problem and not depression. They may actually not be depressed at all. Understandingloneliness as a fundamental problem that needs to be dealt with, arguably, can lead to much more effective results than simply lumping everything together as depression.

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