How to talk about loneliness with your friends and family
Published June 2023 | 6 min read
Expert contributors Dr Michelle Lim, senior lecturer in clinical psychology and head of the Social Connectedness Laboratory at Swinburne University of Technology; Phoebe Rogers, clinical psychologist
Words by Bonnie Bayley
Feeling lonely can happen to us all. It’s a condition that makes you turn inwards and feel disconnected when what you really need is social support. Here’s how to tackle it.
Many of us have experienced the empty feeling of being lonely, which can be triggered by anything from moving to a new area, a relationship breakdown or divorce, family disconnection, grief, illness, or a lack of meaning or direction in life. It’s also possible to have plenty of people around you, or hundreds of followers on social media, and still feel disconnected.
"Loneliness is a feeling of social isolation where you feel like you are socially disconnected from people and like there’s no one you can turn to, or talk to, or that people don’t understand you," explains Dr Michelle Lim, senior lecturer in clinical psychology and head of the Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory at Swinburne University of Technology.
One in four Aussies report problematic levels of loneliness, according to a Swinburne University of Technology survey, and loneliness can be harmful to both our mental and physical health.
Chronic loneliness can increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke in older people, and social isolation has been linked to emotional distress, mental illness, the development of dementia and poor immunity.
While we may be embarrassed to confide in others that we’re lonely, talking about it is essential to feeling better. "You need to talk and be vulnerable because that can be an important way to receive connection," says Phoebe Rogers, a clinical psychologist.
Here are six common ways a conversation about loneliness is likely to arise, and how you can navigate it confidently.
Scenario #1: You have anxiety, depression or a mental health condition that makes it difficult to interact confidently with others. Yet you’re longing for connection and support.
How to raise the topic: If you’re out of practice or feeling flat, it’s a big ask to expect to rush out into the world and make a bunch of new friends. What you can do instead, suggests Dr Lim, is take small everyday actions that make you feel more connected with people, and slowly boost your social confidence. "It can be a smile, a nod, asking someone their name or how their day is going," she says. "These small interactions allow us to build confidence so that we can turn strangers into acquaintances, and acquaintances into friends." Don’t be too shy to call on the friends already in your life, too. Send a text to start the conversation.
Try saying this: "Hi, sorry I’ve been quiet, I’ve been feeling depressed/anxious/lonely, it would be lovely if we could stay in touch at this time, would you mind reaching out a little bit more?"
Being vulnerable is a powerful way to connect, and the responses you get will be a useful indicator of who you can rely on.
Scenario #2: You’re going through a divorce or relationship breakdown, have lost mutual friends and connections, and feel alone and are struggling to find your feet again.
How to raise the topic: Seek out someone in your social circle who has gone through a relationship breakdown, or an empathetic friend who you can reach out to. Starting the conversation by revealing how you’re feeling in subtle ways can help.
Try saying this: "I wish this wasn’t happening, I feel embarrassed/ashamed, it’s harder than I thought and it would mean a lot to hear from you or to find time to talk with you."
Relationship break-ups can sometimes mean you lose mutual friends, so it’s useful to nurture friendships from different areas of life, says Dr Lim. You may want to consider joining a divorce peer support group or online forum, or even seeking professional counselling. "These periods of grief can be quite prolonged for some people, so you want to protect against any onset of depression," says Dr Lim.
Scenario #3: You have a chronic health condition or mobility challenge, and you can’t get out to socialise like you used to. You miss your friends but don’t want to be a burden.
How to raise the topic: Sometimes health issues (for instance chronic pain or hearing loss) can be invisible, in that the sufferer can look like they always do, but in reality they may be struggling. Firstly, it’s okay to confide in others that you’re feeling lonely. "We need to stop thinking of loneliness as a dirty word. ‘I’m lonely’ shouldn’t be any different to ‘I’m thirsty’ or ‘I’m hungry’. ‘I’m lonely’ means, ‘Hey, can we connect?’," says Dr Lim. Help your friends to support you by sharing insights into your situation.
Try saying this: "Some days are bad days, some days are good days. My bad days look like this: I might withdraw or you might not hear from me but just know that I love hearing from you."
You may also need to express boundaries, like, "That social event/playing tennis isn’t suitable for me, but I’d love to see you for coffee or lunch instead".
Scenario #4: Your young child or teen is spending a lot of time alone lately and doesn’t seem connected to a strong social group. You’re worried they might be lonely.
How to raise the topic: Approach the chat in a non-confrontational, curious way. You might mention they don’t seem themselves, but you’re there for them and do they want to talk about it? Walking side by side or talking when they’re in the car with you can be a less intense setting than face to face.
If your child doesn’t tend to confide in you, go back to the basics of building connection. "Start with sitting next to them, not talking about the topic itself, but gaining their trust, asking how school is going," suggests Dr Lim. You can lead into the conversation from there.
Try saying this: "I’ve noticed a change [in the way you spend your time], maybe I’m being a bit too worried, but is there something going on?"
It’s helpful to normalise the idea that friendships look different for different people; one or two meaningful mates are better than 200 contacts they barely know, and friends don’t need to be the same age, or even from the same school.
Scenario #5: Your elderly parent or neighbour confides in you that they feel down or lonely. They may live alone, be bereaved, recently retired or have health challenges.
How to raise the topic: Your first instinct may be to comfort them or fix the issue with suggestions of what they can do to get out and about more. However, it’s more constructive to simply listen and let them talk about their feelings. "There’s a skill called Imago dialogue, where you mirror things back to someone," says Phoebe. The goal is to acknowledge and validate how the person is feeling. Resist the urge to advise what they could or should do, says Dr Lim.
Try saying this: "You’re feeling lonely because you haven’t heard from anyone this week, you must be feeling stressed out about that; it makes sense you’re feeling sad because you’ve been on your own so long."
"Asking them what they think could help, then helping them access resources or get connected, is much more helpful than just giving tips," says Dr Lim.
Scenario #6: Your friend is going through a life upheaval (like having a baby, going through bereavement or job loss) and they’ve dropped off the grid. You want to check in, without seeming overbearing.
How to raise the topic: In most cases, people are happy to hear from others, even if they’re not up to catching up face to face. Leaving friendly voice notes or expressing your love and care for your friend through text messages still count as connection, and can sometimes be an easier way to communicate for someone who isn’t feeling sociable.
Try saying this: "I’m sure you’re going through a lot with the new baby/losing someone/moving to a new area; I just want you to know that I’m here and I’m thinking of you."
"If they’ve completely dropped off the radar, you can say, ‘I’m worried that I haven’t heard from you, so do let me know if you’re okay, and if you’re not, that’s okay, I’m here to help’," says Phoebe. Continue to invite them to things (even if you know they probably can’t make it), and if they’re not in the headspace to talk, practical acts, like a hot meal left on their doorstep, offering to run an errand or do something useful, lets them know you care.
Where to find help and support for loneliness and social isolation
Lifeline: Information, support, tools and apps to help you manage feelings of loneliness.
ReachOut: Community support and chatrooms for young people experiencing loneliness.
This Way Up: practical advice and professional support resources. Eligible HCF members can access a range of online courses through This Way Up*.
Beyond Blue: mental health support, resources and a free telephone and web chat counselling service.
Need to speak with someone?
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Everything you need to know about how social isolation can affect you, and how to deal with loneliness.
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