Dear Dr. Wallace:
I am a junior in high school and have many friends, but I still feel lonely. I participate in school events and sports, and most people who know me would describe me as a social butterfly, yet so often I feel empty and alone. How can this be the case when it seems as though I have succeeded in my mission to make as many friends in high school as possible?
— Surrounded and still lonely, via email
Dear Surrounded And Still Lonely: It is important to recognize that loneliness is not always equitable to social isolation. In fact, a person’s idea and conception of “loneliness” is primarily subjective. This is why an individual with a very large social circle may feel completely alone, while another individual with a small social circle may feel perfectly content.
The cure to loneliness is not to increase the number of people with whom one interacts, but rather the quality of their interactions with those they connect most with. High-quality interactions are characterized by vulnerability and genuine connection. A friend is someone with whom you should be able to share your authentic self and reveal your imperfections, removing all and any facades from the relationship. In doing so, your friend will feel as though they have permission to do the same, and a deep mutual bond will often form.
I would like for you to consider whether the many friends you have are people with whom you can open up to without feeling the need to hide anything? If this is not the case, I would not be surprised to hear that you feel lonely, regardless of how many people you know. My advice is to identify a couple of individuals in your large social network with whom you would be willing to admit your feelings of loneliness.