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Intelligent but lonely

Intelligent but…lonely

High intelligence and loneliness. What’s that all about, then?

It’s one of those smart person problems: the lonely genius syndrome. Highly intelligent people often feel lonely.

Sometimes, it feels as though being intelligent is lonely. That your intelligence itself is the problem. You might start to think that loneliness is one of the disadvantages of being highly intelligent.

And to some extent, you’re right.

But, that’s not the whole picture.

Yes, it’s true: when you’re highly intelligent, you’re out on the end of the bell curve.

Only a few people in a thousand have the same capacity and agility of mind that you do. Of those, how many share interests with you, and also have capacity to connect? Where, and how do you maximise your chances of finding them?

From feeling a bit on your ownsome, to devastating and despairing depths of loneliness, and everywhere in between, loneliness isn’t often enjoyable.

It can feel hopeless.

If this is you, you’re probably wondering: why are gifted people lonely? Is it always going to be like this? And: what can I do about it?

In this article, I deconstruct loneliness, why highly intelligent people often experience loneliness, the nature of human connections, and what to do about it if you’re gifted/highly intelligent and want to feel – and/or be – less lonely.

Problems need to be solved at the right level. In this article, I take you from the top level – not connecting with the people already in your world – through deepening those connections, creating new connections, checking your emotional and relationships skillset, and finally looking at the stored emotional/energetic baggage that gets in the way of connecting.

As you read, remember that while this article goes from top to bottom, building and developing friendships and other relationships isn’t linear. You’ll draw on knowledge, skills and experience from across the different levels depending on time, circumstance, and who you’re connecting with.

Why do intelligent people get lonely?

There’s a big difference between being on your own, and being lonely.

You can be lonely on your own, or totally content in your solitude.

You can be lonely in a crowd, or content in yourself in the company of others.

You can be lonely inside an intimate relationship, or be in a relationship that’s gone toxic, or contentedly living your life alongside someone.

Like a charged ion, you have connectors that want to connect with.

You want to make bonds.

You enjoy those bonds when you have them (or you think you’ll enjoy it).

You feel you’re missing something – and therein lies the loneliness.

Loneliness is the sadness of ‘there could be a connection with someone here, and there isn’t.’

It’s worth mentioning that you might feel loneliness differently. Your experience of loneliness might be numb. Or you might have a simmering anger or grumbling about having no friends. Or something different – make a note of that.

If you grew up in a household where sadness wasn’t permitted, you might numb out your sadness and feel more or less nothing. You might have learned to protect your sadness with anger – read more here on why anger is very often sadness’s bodyguard.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

What is connection?

If loneliness is the underlying sadness you feel when you’re missing a connection, the next questions to ask are: what are connections? And how do we go about creating and strengthening them?

Let’s define some terms.

Start with a simple model of two people.

They have an interaction. A greeting. A conversation. An adventure. Whatever the scale of the interaction, there was an interaction.

A series of interactions over time builds up a connection.

The nature of that connection gives you ideas or labels about the nature of the relationship.

Here you have the building blocks: interaction – connection – relationship.

Next, let’s take apart the types of connection you like – or would like – to have.

We’ll first look through the mundane aspects (time, manner, place). Then we’ll dive deeper into the sometimes tangled web of emotional experiences that help or hinder our ability and capacity to connect, and to feel connected, with other people.

How do you like to connect?

You can’t have connections without you being involved.

So, who are you? What are you like? What do you like?

If you have a journal, write about your responses to these questions. If you don’t have a journal: start one!

The art of reflection – reflecting on a question, a thought, a statement – is well worth developing. You get to know yourself better through reflection. You get to know your thoughts, your subconscious bias, your deeply held beliefs. And you get to examine whether these ring true for you.

Ratnaguna’s book The Art of Reflection was my first thorough introduction to the topic, and I whole-heartedly recommend diving in.

Reflection exercise: Who am I?

You might like to come back to this step later, especially if you’re suffering from low mood, depression or social anxiety. Also: read the sections below about Emotional Valence and circle back round to this.
Human-ing isn’t a linear process: you come back to the same questions and ponderings time and time again, at differing levels and intensities each time. You can’t step in the same river twice, you’re not the same person tomorrow as you were yesterday.

Who am I?
(who am I not?)
What am I like?
(What am I not like?)
What do I like?
(What don’t I like?)

Riff on a theme of these questions in your journal, with your counsellor, with a good friend that you trust to care for you and be kind in their responses to your exploration.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

Asking the question from both directions (What do I like? What don’t I like?) elicits different answers. By clearing away what you don’t like, what you’re not like, the remaining space that you do occupy becomes more clearly visible and obvious.

Reflection exercise: Existing Connections

It might surprise you to find out that you have more connections than you think you do – you just haven’t stopped recently to take stock. Do that now.

Grab your journal, a notebook, open a writing app and make a big list. Get creative and scrawl it across a massive whiteboard if you like. Just make sure you do this.


Family members
Old friends that you’re still friends with but are rarely in contact with
Colleagues – current, former, and people in your work-related network
Club mates – sports, games, special interest groups, political, hobbies…
Social groups
Religious/spiritual community connections
People you interact with regularly – include retail assistants, people on your commute, fellow dog walkers, if you recognise and greet one another, they count.
Anyone else who comes to mind as you do this

Take a while to look through your list. How do you feel as you read it? How connected do you feel to each of these people? What changes would you like to see?

Don’t underestimate the importance of the small incidental connections with people in your community. Saying hello to your neighbours, a warm smile with the regulars at the cafe, greeting the people you see every day on the train – these all make a difference, if you let them.

Observe yourself for a few days or weeks, and reflect on these questions:

Which connections bring you joy? Which connections don’t? Why – what’s the difference? Which factors are at play?
Which connections have you slacked on for a while, that you could give a little more attention to?

Like pot plants, relationships wilt when they’re not given enough water. Watch out though – too much water can stifle some plants, so pay attention! Pro tip: don’t water dead plants 😉

You may have plenty of people that you’re interacting and connecting with. But how are you feeling about it? After all, loneliness is a feeling, so pay attention to your feelings as you go along.

You’ve made a great start looking at your baseline.

As my sailor friend says: you can only race from where you are.

Now, because connections are as much about the quality as they are about the quantity, let’s move on to the qualitative aspects of connections.

What do you connect on?

Human experience can be roughly split into four (overlapping) aspects: physical, emotional, mental/intellectual, and spiritual/energetic.

We interact with people in these four ways: physical, emotional, mental/intellectual, spiritual/energetic. You might notice me using this framework fairly often.

While it’s tricky to separate these out cleanly into four distinct sets of activities, let’s have some examples.

sports, sex, cuddles, daytrips or holidays, going for walks together, gardening, building, volunteering activities

Heart-to-heart conversations, the feeling of being connected, empathy (getting them emotionally, they get you emotionally)

Head-to-head connections: intellectual connections, mental stimulation, riveting conversations, discussions, and debate. Intellectual loneliness

Before we move on to Spiritual/Energy connections, think about the types of friendships and connections you have. Different circumstances give you different opportunities to build connections. You might recognise different types of friendships detailed in this article from The Guardian.

So far, so straightforward. The next aspect of human experience – Spiritual/Energetic – takes a little more explaining if you’ve not come across this line of thinking before.


You know how you just click with some people? You get one another on a level that you can’t quite explain, even when you’ve not known one another that long.

Or how you have someone in mind – then they call or text you?

Everyone has a spiritual/energetic aspect to their experience. Some people are aware of it. Some people are less aware of it. Some people are aware of it but call it something else. Regardless, it’s there. It’s good to be aware of its existence, even if (you think) you’re not directly aware of it.

Speaking personally, I became much more aware of my energy and energetic connections to other people through my mid 20s. You might be similar. Or you might have always had a spiritual/energetic awareness, with or without the words to describe it.

Communicating energetically is called communing. Have a read of this article about Highly Sensitive Empaths to find out more. You can (learn to) commune with animals, plants, and other supposedly inanimate objects. You can read the energy of a building, a relationship, an event, as well as people.

While being open to such deep energy connections can be immensely wonderful and nourishing, it also takes skilful management: energetically, emotionally, ethically. I help energy sensitives to do this – if this is of interest to you, feel free to check out ways of working with me.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

If you easily take on other people’s feelings, you might have the empath tendencies of porous emotional and energetic boundaries. You need more solitude to recharge and recenter yourself.

Learning energy management skills will help: check out my free course on Grounding, a straightforward energy management practice that helps you be more in yourself.

The flipside of having some friendships with deep connections is that you miss it when you’re with people who don’t do it. You know there could be a deeper connection, but when the other person, whether through ability, willingness, or readiness, doesn’t do it, it stings.

Especially if you’re in an intimate partner relationship with someone who can’t, won’t or simply doesn’t connect with you at that level – there’s loneliness, right there.

Deepening existing connections

When you’re highly intelligent, and/or highly sensitive, depth is very often super important. When depth is missing, when connection at depth is missing, you feel lonely even though there are people in your world and you have plenty of interactions with them.

There’s a loneliness that comes from thinking that there aren’t that many people that will get you, or that will get you at that depth.

As Imo Lo puts it, “As an adult, you may enjoy solitary pursuit, or you have to be alone because it is difficult to find people who could keep up with you intellectually. You feel lonely on the inside, yet others merely see you as being aloof and arrogant.”

Highly Sensitive People often have the same problem: the depth of connection HSPs are capable of – and delight in – is not available with everybody.

Because HSPs feel feelings more intensely than non-HSPs, your feelings of connection are more intense, but your feelings of loneliness can be deeply intense, too. Some HSPs have blocked off their emotions – if you suspect this might apply to you, have a read of these articles on being sensitive or sensitised, numbing out your feelings, and being sensitive and yet insensitive.

On a practical note, researchers at the University of Kansas found “that it takes roughly 50 hours of time together to move from mere acquaintance to casual friend, 90 hours to go from that stage to simple “friend” status and more than 200 hours before you can consider someone your close friend.”

But no matter how much time you spend with someone, if they can’t go there, they can’t go. As a gifted person, you can slow down to match other people – but they can’t speed up to meet you. This poses difficulties in therapeutic and counselling relationships too – and why specialist support for gifted adults by gifted adults is necessary.

So if you’re someone who loves depth – say you love scuba diving, it’s hard to feel connected with your companions when they are perfectly happy sitting on the shore, and you’re itching to dive down deep.

Depth as I’m using it to mean here, is what you experience when:

Small-talk is totally not your thing.
It’s super fun to take your brain-wheels out for a spin. It’s even more enjoyable when you have someone else to do that with – but who?
Deep-and-meaningful conversations are where you come alive, where you feel in touch with yourself, where you connect deeply and meaningfully with others.

When you’re deeply into something, who can reach those depths with you?

When you’re a specialist, an academic, advanced in your field, you know your thing inside out.

But, as the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top.

It’s lonely when you’re always the one explaining and people can’t meet you there pre-loaded with the same level of knowledge and experience.

It’s lonely when you’re the expert artist, musician, surgeon, and the majority of people you meet look up to you, they look up to your knowledge, your expertise. You love meeting up with people who already know your field, but they’re rare.

To go back to the scuba diving metaphor, you need to find your buddies.

Perhaps the first thing to do is: assume there are buddies out there, somewhere.

Know that there are enough gifted, highly sensitive people around, just like you, wondering if they’ll find someone they can connect with…

Mind you, not all highly intelligent, highly sensitive people know that they are highly intelligent or highly sensitive.

When you get better at interactions, and have more interactions with more people, you increase your odds of finding the ones you’re looking for. You also increase your calibration skills of figuring people out.

When you find your people, you can then develop connections with them – and steer those connections into the deep.

Reflection exercise: connecting more deeply

We’re going to revisit your connections list using circles.

Grab a large piece of paper.

Put a stick figure, smiley face, or your name at the centre of the paper.

You’re going to draw circles around yourself. Each circle represents levels or depths of connection. This is the sense or feeling of connectedness you have with that person. If you’re a bit stuck on the ‘feelings’ don’t worry – we’ll come round to those again later.

This sense of connection isn’t necessarily the same as how much time you spend with them, or the ‘officialness’ of your connection.

In other words, your mum, dad, husband, girlfriend etc might be assumed to be in your inner circle, but in actual fact your connection with them is not that close or deep at all, though it may well be very strong. Time for some clarity and honesty with yourself.

Draw an inner circle, and write it or symbolise the people in your inner circle. Typically, people have space for up to 5 inner circle connections. Polyamorous groups – polycules – often max out at 5 connections. If you have gaps, draw an empty circle to represent the gap.

Draw a middle circle and populate it.

Draw an outer circle and populate it.

Outside the outer circle, write down the other people in your life.

How does it look to you?

Who do you connect with, on what?

Go back to your notes on what and how you like to connect: who do you connect with physically? Emotional? Mental? Spiritually or on an energy level?

What would you like to change?

Are there gaps for new people to enter your world?

Who would you like to change levels – to be closer, or be further away from?

What parts of you (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) would you enjoy more and/or deeper connections with other people? You might like to add colours to your connections map to indicate difference types of connections, or to highlight the people who are particularly important to you.

I’d strongly recommend doing a connections audit like this every year.

If making and building connections is important enough to you that you give it ‘project status’, make a note in your diary to review your connections every month and quarter too.

Making new connections

Now it’s time to look at the first thing people often think about when tackling loneliness: how to meet new people, make new connections, and build friendships.

An important step that you’d be wise to get in place before this one comes in the next section. However, starting with the end in mind and working backwards from there, you see how the steps rely on one another, intermingle and connect.

While this article has a start, middle and end, your connectings with other humans doesn’t (so neatly), so join the dots and fill them in as you go along.

To recap, so far, you’ve been building up:

Clarity on what kinds of connections you enjoy
A reviewed your existing connections
Lists of connections that you want to strengthen, broaden or deepen
Ideas about how you’re going to do that

You’ve got quite an action list already, if you’ve been following along.

Next, you’re going to dive into how to maximise your opportunities for new people to come into your world.

A note on energy:

You’ve probably heard already about intention setting and things like the Law of Attraction. While I’m skeptical of some Law of Attraction principles (namely, if bad things happen to you, it’s because you wanted it), there is power in being clear in your intentions for the kinds of people you want to meet.

Given you’re reading this, you’re most likely highly intelligent. If you’re also highly sensitive, and especially if you’re energy sensitive, this bit is for you.

Be aware that you bring people and things into your life that you want. When you’re clear on what you want, it’s easier to bring it in.

On the energy level, your Ancestors and other members of your spirit team are always helping you do the things you really want to do. Imagine them like your spiritual support crew, behind-the-scenes alumni network, onboard satnav team. In the energetic realms, they connect with and interact with other people’s energies and support teams. Often, they communicate with you through your intuition.

Speaking from personal experience, it’s like my people talk with your people, then my people get me to talk to you, or bump into you synchronistically, or be referred to you, with your people’s input on your side. And vice versa.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

Reflection exercise: Time, manner, place

Pull out your notebook, journal, sketchpad again.

You’re going to reflect on the opportunities you get or would like to create for interaction, connection, and relationship.

Look at a typical day, week, month, quarter, and year in your diary.

What time do you have available?

What opportunities do you get for interaction?

What would you like to do more of, with the people on your Connections list or with new people?

What would you like to do less of – to free up time and space?

What balance of connection do you thrive on?

Introvert/extrovert conversation – how much peopling do you enjoy? What sort of peopling? 1:1? Small groups? Getting lost in the crowd? And how much solitude suits you on a regular basis?

What do you like to do with other people?

Equally, what do you prefer to do on your own? What do you like to keep for yourself, in your own company?

What do you like doing with other people?

Highly intelligent, highly sensitive people often connect at deeper levels than other people. I cover this at more depth (of course!) below.

As a side note, it’s worth checking your manners, too. You might be missing out on interactions or stymying yourself through a simple lack of awareness and practice of manners.

Pull up a reference on manners or etiquette for the usual places you find yourself, country and culture specific, of course. Learn, digest, implement.

You might also find a bit of research on body language might help.

Writing as a neurodivergent person, there are of course ways that neurodivergent manners are different from, and rejected by, neurotypically-socialised people. This sucks, but there you have it.

Pro-tip: learn your manners, use them when you need them, and find neurodivergent or accepting neurotypical people that you unmask in front of 😉

Sometimes, it’s a numbers game: if you want to meet more people, go to more places.

If you want to deepen your existing connections with people, go to the places you meet them more often, or go to more places with them – go explore the world together.

Where do you encounter other people?

Make a list of the places you go.

List the places you’d like to go.

Include online spaces too: social media groups, meet-ups, networking events, even my virtual retreats might be an option for you.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

Refer back to what you wrote about what you enjoy doing, or would like to try out. It’s about you, after all. Would you be happy doing those activities, in those places, without the objective of wanting to meet people there? Be happy in yourself and what you’re doing on your own, and you’ll find people more open to engaging with you than if you’re a sourpuss.

What’s missing?

What we’re really drilling down to here is: what connections – and with whom – do you already have in your world, and what or who are you missing?

At this stage, it’s your best guess at the who and/or what you’re missing. You can revise and refine this later.

It’s the missing that fuels the loneliness. Identifying what or who is missing helps you figure out what you want to do about it. If you’re lonely inside your marriage, have a read about figuring out Is it a rough patch or is it over?

If you’re feeling a little disheartened right now, try a little tenderness. You can only race from where you are.

Identifying the connections you already have and perhaps have let wilt, also helps you see what’s there that you need to pay more attention to.

The skillset to connect: relationship and communication skills

This is one of those things geniuses struggle with.

Partly nature, partly nurture, partly schooling. Let’s deconstruct to see how it fits together.

From infancy onwards, it’s clear that people have different levels of drive to connect. The more you connect, the more practice you get at connecting. And vice versa.

You’ll naturally tend to connect more, or less with people, and your skills will reflect your innate urge to connect, as well as other factors.

Every family has its own communication and relationship culture. Ways of interacting, or not. Ways of talking with each other – and about which subjects (or not). Ways of being affectionate, or not.

You’ll have learned your relationship and communication skills largely from the grown-ups around you. This sets the benchmark for ‘normal family’ for you. You’ll have supplemented this later on, from school and other places.

Genetically related families with high intelligence running through them may well have a family culture that prioritises thinking over feeling: emotional intelligence isn’t on display by the grown-ups, so the kids don’t have models to learn it from.

Highly intelligent kids at school often don’t get along with their peers. With few shared interests and different approaches to the world, high IQ kids often opt out of social interaction. Lunchbreaks in the library. Immersed in reading. Engaging more with adults than kids.

Left alone and choosing to be on their own, this works for one’s school career, but later on leaves a few gaps in the relationship skillset, leading to typical relationship and communication problems of people with high IQ.

Relationship skills are largely founded on communication skills. Add in some skills to maintain the relationship – seeking or initiating contact after a break, consistently paying attention over time.

Reflection exercise: Skills assessment

Yes, this exercise has a most tedious title. Let’s do it.

Pull out your notebook, journal, sketchpad again.

You’re going to reflect on your connecting skills. It’s going to be honest (or as honest as you can get through self-assessment, which sometimes, let’s be honest, isn’t very accurate). What you think of your connecting skills may be an underestimate, overestimate, or both, even in the same category!

To start, think over some of your friendships, connections, interactions with colleagues. A few particular ones might jump to the foreground: note down their names.

Next, you’re going to think through the different categories of connecting skills described below. As you read and reflect, have a think about these skills, and rate yourself: no skill / some skill (sometimes, with some people / plenty of skill – goes smoothly each time. You might have plenty of skill in one environment (e.g. sports club, work) and much less apparent skill in other environments (e.g. family, intimate relationships). Note down the contexts as well.

Here we go…

Entry Skills: How do you start interacting with people? Can you join a group? Do they welcome you in their conversation or activity?

Assistance: How well do you recognise when and how to provide assistance as well as seeking assistance from others?

Compliments: Do you provide compliments appropriately? Do you know how to respond to a compliment someone gives you?

Criticism: Do you know when criticism is appropriate or inappropriate? How are your skills in giving criticism? How well do you tolerate criticism?

Accepting suggestions: How open are you to receiving suggestions? How well do you incorporate other people’s ideas?

Reciprocity and sharing: How well do you participate equitably in conversation? Is it 50/50? Do you dominate or fade into the background? How well do you give or receive direction? How well do you share resources?

Conflict resolution: How well do you manage disagreement? Do you recognise the opinions of others? Can you negotiate an agreeable outcome? How well do you avoid responding aggressively or immaturely?

Monitoring and listening: Do you regularly observe the other person/people to monitor their contribution to the activity? How well do you read their body language? How well does your body language communicate your interest to/in the other person?

Empathy: How well do you recognise when appropriate comments and actions are required in response to the other person’s circumstances and their positive and negative feelings? (Empathy here refers to conventional neurotypical making the right kinds of responses to emotional content of an interaction, not necessarily empath skills.)

Avoiding and ending: How well do you know and use appropriate behaviour and comments to maintain solitude or end interactions?

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

Research challenge: how do other people see your connections skillset?

Select a few people to approach (exercise discernment in who you choose!) to ask for their feedback on your relationship skills.

Review feedback you’ve already received from people – can you pin it into any of the above categories?


Now you have clarity on your relationship and communication skillset, you can find appropriate resources and/or support to help you build those skills.

For some, you might read a book, watch a few videos, then experiment.

For others, you might join a communication skills training, get input and support from a coach or counsellor, or participate in other activities that hone your communication skills.


Red flag moment: if you feel justified in hurting other people, you might have abuse issues. Get help for these from a specialist who works with abusers. It’s an ethical issue, not necessarily a skills or feelings one.


If you have people to connect with, opportunities to connect, connections based on the things you want connection on, a good-enough skillset for connecting and maintaining relationships, and you’re feeling lonely, it’s time to go one level deeper: emotional valence.

Emotional Valence: how to overcome loneliness

Valence is an idea I’m borrowing from chemistry. As you might know, atoms bond to make molecules. The bond-ability of an atom is its valence.

Whereas atoms bonds with charge between protons and electrons (in general), bonding between humans is a mix of physical, emotional, mental/intellectual, and spiritual/energy-related.

Loneliness is centred in our feelings, so let’s focus on emotions, then we’ll come back to emotional valence.

How connected are you to your feelings?

Folks with strong intellects tend to spend a lot of time using that wonderful intellect to do great things. Interesting things. Mindblowing things.

But sometimes that intellect gets too much airtime. Our emotions get much less attention.

Our body gets less attention. Our experience of the world around us – of nature, other people, our environment – gets less attention.

Feeling less lonely is all about feelings. So how are your feelings?

Reflection exercise: feelings

What feelings do you feel? How strongly? When?

Are you sensitive to – do you notice – your own emotions?

How in touch with your own emotions are you? Do you feel all your feelings across the spectrum?

My grounding course can help you be more in touch with yourself, more present to your feelings, and therefore more available for emotional bonding (and less loneliness) with other people.

When we numb ourselves out, or numb parts of ourselves out, these parts of ourselves feel lonely. We feel lonely.

In ignoring parts of ourselves, we feel ignored.

Rejecting ourselves, we feel rejected.

Not being present or connected to ourselves, we feel alone.

While loneliness shows up as thoughts and feelings about missing other people, it’s often the case that we’re actually missing this most fundamental connection of all: the one with ourself.

Without being or feeling connected to ourself, we have little chance of feeling connected to others, even though we might be connected, and even though the others might have a very warm and fond connection to us.

Reconnecting with yourself first helps you connect better with others.

Luckily for us, the remedy isn’t all that complicated: be present to yourself. Allow yourself to feel, to experience, to enjoy, to savour. Become friends with your body. Become friends with your emotions. Become friends with your surroundings. Be present and connected to your experience in all its intricacies. Love it, and it will love you right back.

The emotional skills you need – both for yourself and for being in interaction, connection and relationship with others – are well established.

Dr Jonice Webb provides this handy breakdown of the seven key emotion skills:

  1. Emotional Awareness
  2. Identifying Your Feelings
  3. Accepting Your Feelings Without Judgment
  4. Attributing Your Feeling to a Cause
  5. Tolerating Your Emotions
  6. Managing Your Emotions
  7. Expressing Your Emotions

If you’re missing – or not so strong on – any of these skills, you can build them.

Meditation, grounding exercises, counselling or coaching, working with a therapist… You don’t have to become expert in these skills – good enough to work for you is good enough.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

Connecting with others: the antidote to loneliness

Now you’ve got an idea about how you’re doing with your own feelings – and bear in mind this will change with time, attention and experience – let’s look at connecting.

Going back to our atoms making molecules for a moment, the key question is:

Can you bond?

Can you connect emotionally with another person, and sustain that connection?

It’s not a given that a person equipped with skills, opportunities and matching people to connect with, will actually bond with other people.

There are a few things that can get in the way.

But first, let’s journal down a baseline. Just think, in a few months or years you might look back at your notes and see a) how much has changed b) or not 😉

Reflection exercise: Bonding

Grab your journal again. Here we go, write down or draw your answers to these questions.

What does bonding look like to you? Feel like? Sound like? Touch like? Taste like? Smell like?

Who have you experienced what kinds of bonding with? Go back through your memories.

If not with a person, do you have a bond with e.g. a pet? A place? Something geographical e.g. the ocean, mountains?


What affects our ability to bond?

Past experiences

Another – I won’t say final – piece of the puzzle, is what’s happened to you through your life. Things happen. Difficulties happen. Good things happen and don’t get grieved before we parcel them away in a box labelled ‘Forgotten’ at the back of a cupboard somewhere.

Some of this stuff, we don’t want to look at. Particularly if it involves abuse. This is going to be a tough little section, so hang in here, or skip ahead if that feels better for now.

Abuse happens.

NSPCC figures estimate 1 in 10 kids are abused, whether physical, emotionally, psychologically, or sexually. That changes to 1 in 4 when you include teenagers. Kids also witness partner-abuse: when a kid sees one partner abuse the other, that counts as child abuse, too.

If you’re aware you’ve been abused, you know this is a factor in bonding. It undermines trust. It takes away feelings of safety. Building solid connections with people is going to be innately tricky when your previous experiences of ‘love’ were ‘abuse+sweeter intervals.’

If you don’t think you’ve been abused, it’s not always so clear-cut. Here’s why:

Some family cultures are abusive, and the abuse is considered normal in the family, to the extent that the kids don’t realise they’ve lived through, witnessed, and been abused.

You might need to read around what’s considered abuse by psychologists and trained professionals to get an idea of whether your upbringing was abusive. Look up physical abuse. Look up emotional abuse. Look up psychological abuse. Look up sexual abuse. See if and how it fits, or doesn’t. You can always rule it out.

Even – perhaps especially – if you think your family was ‘fine’ and ‘normal’ – you can’t know if it was or not until you calibrate against other families, even until you calibrate against guidelines put together by e.g. charities that support abused children.

If you find that it fits, the ways forward for you open up. Knowing precisely enough what you’re dealing with is a good foundation for building.

People who were abused as kids, or raised in abusive families, often experience a collection of ‘symptoms’ (actually, survival responses that appear to be ‘dysfunctional’ behaviour but ones that protect you as a kid) that fall under a description of cPTSD – complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Complex, because instead of a single trauma-inducing event, you experienced potentially tens or hundreds of minor or major abusive acts on a daily basis throughout your childhood.

cPTSD often co-occurs, for obvious reasons, with insecure attachment. When your primary caregivers were too absent, abusive, or insufficiently attentive to your infant needs, you attach insecurely to them. This underpins a whole raft of relationship difficulties for adults: codependence, abuse, choosing abusive partners, insecurity, inability to bond, commit-avoidance, or a tendency to blow perfectly good relationships up.

Be gentle with yourself: recognising that your childhood would in fact be categorised as abusive, when you’ve been thinking for decades that it was ‘fine,’ can itself be traumatic as your worldview, self-view and family-view all shift considerably with new information.

If you need support through this recognition and coming-to-terms with your past, get support. Trusted, kind friends. Professional help including counsellors, psychotherapists, massage therapists can all lend you support through this critical period. If working energetically feels right to you, reach out to me or another practitioner that you click with. These are tender times.

Other people who don’t think they’ve been abused may be under the protection of their incredible minds. Some abuse gets blocked by the brain. Kids can create extremely good survival mechanisms for themselves. One of these is to block stuff out. Literally, blank it out. No memories.

But the body remembers. Somatic and body-focused ways of working trauma out of the body can help here: yoga, body-psychotherapy, somatic experiencing.

Beyond childhood, difficult experiences still happen.

Abuse. Assault. Attacks – physical and verbal.

And life happens: things go well, things go badly. People get ill, have accidents, move away, die. Pregnancy happens, so do abortions, miscarriages, stillbirths, and traumatic births. Job transitions, moving house, moving country. Friendships form and break. Relationships grow, evolve, fade out, go sour.

Loneliness itself creates a backlog of feelings, too.

In short, stuff happens. Our emotions happen in response to the stuff. The emotions that don’t get felt, that don’t get to deliver their messages, get stuck.

Emotions that are stuck in the body are, by definition in fact, trauma.

When you have stuck emotions, stuck trauma in the body, it interferes. With your activities, with your energy levels, with your motivation. It makes you hesitate, procrastinate, or drives you into recklessness. It makes you fearful where there’s no need for fear.

It’s not ‘just’ the big stuff that creates a backlog of emotions in the body. It can be overload. It can be too much, for too long. It can be too little support for too long. It can be tiny beliefs that linger past their validity date and keep you hooked into a past version of yourself who no longer exists like that.

Stuck emotions get in the way of interacting, connecting, and bonding with people. They’re (part of) what keeps you lonely, sad, or unfulfilled.

Stuck emotions are what I help my clients to find, to recognise, and to release.

There are plenty of things you can do by yourself to release trauma, and sometimes you need someone else’s perspective, or plain old leverage, to get it free.

For 1:1 support, have a look at your options for working with me to get free of what’s dragging you down.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

Mental blocks that create loneliness

Your beliefs about other people affect your emotions – and it’s through your emotions that you’ll feel a sense of bonding and connection to others. You might need to look at your thinking to improve your feeling!

If you’re feeling lonely and…

You don’t want to get close to people
You think that if people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you
You’re scared of getting hurt
You find yourself saying (or thinking – thinking is talking to yourself in your own head) things like, “what do other people matter?” “who cares what they think?” or doing the “whatever” shrug…

…you cut yourself off from your own ability to feel emotional connectedness to other people.

You stop yourself before you even start.

You might find it useful to consider the trade-off you’re making.

You’re keeping yourself emotionally isolated, based on a belief that it’s keeping you safe, but you feel lonely. You can keep the isolation (and loneliness) or you can slowly drop it and connect with people in more meaningful and engaging ways.

I would take a running guess that you probably experienced some deep hurt in the past, and keeping yourself isolated keeps you away from hurting. Which is fair enough, but you have to then really consider if the long term loneliness is worth it, and if you want to change that.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

Early infancy effects on bonding

Now for some super-deep stuff.

Our ability to bond is seriously affected by our experiences in infancy and early childhood. When we’re born, the brain is still developing. In fact, the brain continues developing until we’re about 25, and even after that there’s still neural plasticity.

But in the early years, the brain is developing a lot.

To develop, a brain needs other humans around to help it build bonding and thinking capabilities.

Some parents and caregivers – around 45%, infact – don’t give their infant’s brain what it needs to develop.

You might need to take a moment or two to let that sink in.

Not necessarily through any deliberate fault of the grown-ups raising the child, 45% of people aren’t getting what they need in the early days for the foundations of proper, full brain development to happen.

If you want to go geek out on this, read Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt.

If you’re one of these 45%, you might recognise yourself in descriptions of insecurely attached people, avoidantly attached people, or anxious-avoidant people.

I’ve written about what you can do to heal from insecure attachment in a separate article.

An important thing for now is to put a pin in the map if you see insecure attachment as a factor in your loneliness. Knowing what you’re dealing with – and its implications – helps enormously.

If you’ve experienced trauma and sustained PTSD or complex PTSD (cPTSD) from that, grew up insecurely attached to your parents/primary caregivers, or experienced abuse or neglect as a child, your emotional capacity might need a bit of an upgrade.

If you’ve read that and think, nope, my childhood was fine – at least go read a little around the subject. As kids, we don’t get a chance to calibrate our grownups’ parenting skills. You might view things a little – or a lot – differently now looking back from an informed, adult perspective.

Anti-loneliness formula


{Connection types + depths} available in {contexts + opportunities} affected by {relationship skillset + emotional valence}

Intelligence and loneliness: how to fix it

1. Do nothing
Always a valid option 😉 However, you’re all the way down here reading this, so my best guess is you’re looking to change your loneliness/connectedness in favour of less loneliness, more connection.

Do carry on…

2. Do It Yourself
Take this article and run with it. Pick-a-mix your way through the reflections. Follow some of the referrals for further reading. Take what works for you.

3. Do It With Support
Take a step outside the loneliness zone and connect with a human! Or two!

Find a support group. A friendship-making group. A shared-interest group.

Get help with your relationship skillset from communications workshops, a coach or counsellor who specialises in this field.

Work your way through past trauma with a counsellor or therapist, especially a bodywork (massage, cranio-sacral therapy…) practitioner, or me. If you feel you’re giftedness is getting in the way, or you have something unresolved from the past that’s interfering in your life now, this one aspect of what I help my 1:1 clients with.

Once you have the last strands of that old relationship out of your system, get disentangled from the enmeshed threads of your family-of-origin, or release the beliefs and restrictions from well-intentioned but misguided upbringing, you can open up emotionally to making deeper, stronger, longer-lasting connections with people.

You can check out the options for working with me. You can tell me what’s going on for you, we’ll get a feel for how we click, and – if appropriate – I’ll give you a few suggestions for how we might work together to move forward.

1:1 Support - Sue Mahony, Ph.D

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The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.

Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, giftedness group programmes, speaking and bespoke support for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.

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