Loneliness is complicated.
It isn’t just the absence of company. Loneliness is a complex combination of psychological, physical and social factors.
Among these many factors is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability we have to understand our feelings and the feelings of others and then use that understanding to guide our thinking, communication, and behaviour.
Our emotional intelligence isn’t fixed. Our emotional intelligence is, in part, a product of our genetics. But it’s also a product of our environment and our learned behaviours. Like other forms of intelligence, through awareness, well-directed effort, and practice, we can improve emotional intelligence at any point in our lives.
Oftentimes, we think of feelings as happening to us.
We’re struck by anxiety.
We’re overcome with anger.
A wave of excitement rushes over us.
Happiness sweeps over us.
The way we think of loneliness is no different.
Feelings sometimes seem like external forces that act on us – this idea is embedded in the language we use to talk about our feelings day after day. But feelings aren’t created by the things that happen to us. They’re created by our interpretation of the things that happen to us. When we realize this, we can take active steps to understand and shape our interpretations.
This idea that we can manage our feelings by bringing awareness to our interpretation of the world is the foundation of social-emotional learning.
One of the leading figures in the field of social-emotional learning is Marc Brackett. Marc Brackett is a researcher, author, and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Brackett's RULER framework is an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning that offers a set of tools for recognizing, understanding, and managing feelings. While Brackett’s RULER framework is used widely today to help school-aged children develop emotional intelligence, it’s also a valuable framework for helping folks of all ages better understand their feelings – including loneliness.
RULER is an acronym that represents five key skills for developing emotional intelligence: Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate.
Loneliness carries its own emotional signature. The first component of RULER, "Recognize," emphasizes recognizing feelings in ourselves and others. By improving our ability to identify and understand when we are experiencing feelings of disconnect, we can find ways to address those feelings.
Practice recognizing your emotions with a daily morning check-in: start your day with a brief self-assessment of your emotional state. Ask yourself how you're feeling. If you sense loneliness, acknowledge it. Understanding when a feeling is present is the first step toward managing it.
Loneliness can have various triggers, such as isolation, lack of meaningful connections, or life changes. “Understand” encourages us to explore the causes and consequences of our emotions. Understanding this leads to greater self-awareness and empathy for ourselves and others who may be experiencing similar feelings.
Try keeping a daily journal to explore and understand when feelings of loneliness emerge in your life. Write down the events, thoughts, or situations that trigger the feeling. This can help you identify patterns and gain insights into your emotional responses, enabling you to address the root causes.
Labelling is attaching precise and nuanced words to feelings. Feelings are subjective. By naming our loneliness, and distinguishing it from other similar feelings, we empower ourselves to express ourselves more accurately and seek more meaningful support.
Try using a feeling wheel or chart to label your feelings. It may help you understand your loneliness better. These tools provide a range of feelings to choose from, making it easier to describe the exact nature of what you’re feeling, whether it's a sense of isolation, a longing for connection, or something else.
Learning to express what we’re feeling helps prevent emotional suppression, which can hurt our wellbeing over time. Expressing loneliness can be challenging. But it’s crucial for finding meaningful solutions.
Try sharing your feelings of loneliness with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. Sometimes just by articulating our feelings, we gain new perspectives on them. You don’t even have to use words: we can gain clarity on our feelings through many means like art, music, or writing.
"Regulate" focuses on our ability to manage and regulate emotions. Loneliness can be a persistent and distressing feeling, but by learning strategies for emotional regulation, we can better navigate its challenges, build resilience, and use emotional intelligence to mitigate its impact.
Try practicing mindfulness meditation to develop emotional regulation skills when facing loneliness. Focus on your breath and observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment. This can help you respond to uncomfortable feelings more calmly. If you prefer a more active approach, you can try challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with positive affirmations to re-frame your interpretation and foster a sense of connection.
Emotional intelligence is foundational to our wellbeing. When we understand loneliness and our relationship to the feeling of being lonely, we become better able to manage it.
RULER empowers individuals of all ages to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their feelings. But RULER isn’t the only way to build emotional intelligence. By creating even a small amount of time each day to think about our feelings, we can build the understanding, skills, and introspection to improve our wellbeing in important ways – including dealing with loneliness.