Early loneliness researchers often talked about the difference between state and trait loneliness. I talk about it here as well. State loneliness is a temporary, easily changed, externally-caused loneliness. This means that something external to the person causes the loneliness (such as a rainy day and being isolated from others), is temporary (I don't usually feel lonely), and is easily changed (call a friend up on the phone). Individuals who experience state loneliness do not view loneliness as a problem, as they are usually easily able to overcome these feelings. Individuals with trait loneliness, on the other hand, are the opposite. Trait loneliness is long-term, difficult to change, and internally-caused. This means that a person can move from place to place, change situations, "join a cooking class", and yet, still inevitably feel lonely. This is because what is driving the loneliness is internal, so it doesn't matter where the person goes, loneliness will always follow them there. Often times it is a result of faulty thinking and behavior, either we think we aren't good enough for others, or we think that others aren't good enough for us, etc. It is like no one ever stands a chance being your friend because you've already written them off. The problem is that these thoughts are so ingrained in our way of thinking, we do not even realize sometimes exactly what we are doing. And because these thoughts become so automatic, we attribute our loneliness to external factors without fully understanding the role we may play into contributing to our own loneliness.
One way this becomes particularly manifested is when a lonely person moves from one place to another. When I was doing a loneliness intervention program with college students, I could see this process played out. Often times, a lonely person would report that before the move from their local town to college, they may have experienced loneliness, but it was not extreme, it was just an awareness that it existed. However, once they moved off to college, they had difficult making new friends, establishing social networks, and in general, experiencing strong feelings of loneliness. This is in contradistinction to the student that moves to college, experiences some initial loneliness, but then quickly establishes a new set of friends and builds a new social network. Lonely individuals internal characteristics is probably building most of the barriers that prevent successful relationships being formed in this example.
So, if you've been experiencing loneliness for a long time there are two major questions you need to ask yourself:
1. What are you doing that contributes to your feelings of loneliness? Yes, I agree, not everything about your loneliness comes from you, some of it comes from external influences. Assuming for a minute you couldn't change the external influences, the only thing you have control over is yourself and changing yourself. It would be prudent to start there to see how far along you can get with some positive changes. What changes do you need to make? It really depends on you. Remember a lot of what is internal to you that contribute to your loneliness is probably outside of your own awareness. Maybe you have some automatic thoughts that cause you to push people way, or maybe you behave in certain ways that push people away. To really help figure out what these things might be requires an objective, qualified, third party (probably a seasoned, insightful therapist) that can see what you do and then give you some ideas.
2. The real kicker is, once you have accepted your own contributions to your loneliness, found out what they are, are you really interested and motivated to change? It is not just enough to know, it also requires action as well. I have seen folks understand the leap that was required from where they are, to where they need to be in order to become less lonely and faltered. Because change is scary, it requires a certain amount of emotional energy and persistence, and if the motivation is not strong enough, you may be unwilling to commit.
To me overcoming trait loneliness is a bit like trying to lose weight. First, you need to understand how you gain weight in the first place. Sure, there are a number of external factors that contribute to being overweight, like the multitude of unhealthy foods available (a McDonalds on every corner), the ridiculous portion sizes in American restaurants, excessive advertising, etc. These things we have no control over and blaming them does not help the overweight problem. But we can focus on the internal factors, watch what we eat, exercise, eat healthier foods, use correct portion sizes, etc. If we focus on these, we can make a difference. The other question is, are we willing to give up what we currently do, move from our comfort zone to a place that is not comfortable (dieting) to get to our goal? For some they answer may be yes, but for others, it may be no. I think the important thing is acknowledge that we are, partly making a conscious decision to either change or remain the same. You are not powerless, there is a choice.
My ending thought is this, to have a good friend, you need to be a good friend. It is not just about finding someone to satisfy your needs, expectations, and desires, it is also about changing yourself so that you satisfy others needs, expectations, and desires.