How Childhood Trauma Can Lead to Adult Loneliness
...and why victims are so prone to unhealthy partnerships.
Posted July 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Young adults are said to be twice as likely as older people to experience loneliness.
- Deep feelings of emptiness may show up as boredom.
- Feelings of loneliness may increase after a narcissistic relationship, resulting in further social withdrawal.
Childhood trauma can have lifelong consequences which vary depending on many factors, including the age of the original trauma, whether the trauma was an isolated event or chronic, the presence or absence of parental or primary caregiver support, the child’s natural resiliency, and the severity and duration of the trauma(s). Irrespective of the type of trauma, its consequences may leave long-lasting emotional wounds, which increase the risk of developing an attachment disorder in childhood, and the potential for adult relational trauma, including feelings of deep loneliness.
Current statistics on adult loneliness are staggering. More than 58 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves lonely, even when in a relationship. Young adults are said to be twice as likely as older people to experience loneliness, with 79 percent of people between the ages of 18-24 claiming they feel lonely. Similarly, 42 percent of adults ages 18-34 say they “always” feel lonely compared to only 16 percent of people 55 years old or older.
These statistics are representative of averages currently seen in the U.S. The rates and percentages of people who have experienced significant childhood abuse, abandonment, or neglect are likely to report even higher proportions of loneliness.
Deep feelings of loneliness are commonly reported in histories of childhood emotional neglect. Signs of adult relational trauma and loneliness may include:
- Difficulty being alone—the constant need for stimulation or something to distract themselves.
- Difficulty understandings themselves or their emotional needs.
- Deep feelings of emptiness that may show up as "boredom."
- Feeling worthless, or fatally flawed.
- Toxic positivity.
- Inconsistent boundaries.
- Deep feelings of shame or guilt.
Loneliness Can Breed Further Loneliness
Because loneliness is linked to feelings of shame and not feeling “good enough,” adults who experience feelings of chronic loneliness can become quite skilled at masking it, and learning to hide it. For example, many who struggle with feelings of loneliness may try to overcompensate their vulnerable feelings with toxic positivity—where “don’t worry, be happy” becomes a toxic mantra that momentarily pushes away shame and loneliness.
They may become more depressed or feel more socially awkward by having to uphold a ‘social mask’ which may exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Others may distract themselves through superficial relationships, self-medicating, or addictive or compulsive behaviors, including excessive video gaming.
For example, a recent study found that feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and boredom are positively correlated with compulsive gaming behaviors in adulthood. These results suggest that the more depressed, lonely, or bored a person feels, the more at risk they are of becoming hyperfocused on gaming as a way of avoiding more vulnerable feelings which can spiral a person into feeling more lonely.
Childhood trauma is closely linked to many disorders including social phobias, anxiety, depression, complex PTSD, and an increased risk for some personality disorders. These red flags may reduce a person’s ability to effectively socialize. Some may not want to make friends, while others may be ostracized or bullied, affecting their sense of worth.
Children who experience early trauma often have challenges connecting with others, or only feel that they are wanted if they’re “fixing” or “helping" others. This dynamic often generalizes in adulthood as the trauma response of “fawning” behavior, where a person ignores and neglects their own needs in order to put others’ needs ahead of their own.
Another factor that can increase feelings of loneliness is social media. Because social media makes it easier to avoid authentic connection with others, many adults who struggle with feelings of loneliness wind up negatively reinforcing their loneliness by “connecting” to others on social media. The more we turn to social media to fill a void in connection, the higher the risk of feeling lonelier.
Similarly, if we have experienced narcissistic relationships based on “love bombing,” superficial connection, or emotional avoidance, these can make a trauma survivor less likely to take a chance at another relationship for fear of attracting another toxic situation into their lives. The result is that feelings of loneliness may increase resulting in further social withdrawal.
The quality of our relationships outweighs the quantity when it comes to overcoming feelings of loneliness. By learning how to recognize what we are feeling, we can begin to validate all of our emotional experiences. Through better understanding our mind/body/emotion connection, we are educating ourselves on where our unmet emotional needs may be. This in turn can help us fine-tune more vulnerable feelings that we may be in the habit of pushing away or trying to avoid, which can include feelings of loneliness.
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Cigna Newsworthy. (2021). The loneliness epidemic persists: A post-pandemic look at the state of loneliness among U.S. adults. Retrieved from https://newsroom.cigna.com/loneliness-epidemic-persists-post-pandemic-l…
Li, L., et al. (2021). A network perspective on the relationship between gaming disorder, depression, alexithymia, boredom, and loneliness among a sample of Chinese university students. Technology in Society, 67, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2021.101740
Wen-Hsu, L., et al. (2020). Adverse adolescence experiences, feeling lonely across life stages, and loneliness in adulthood. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 20(3), 243 - 252.