Have you had the experience of feeling lonely, like there is no one around, no one to talk to, as you sink into a state of sadness, anxiety, and fear that you will never get over this feeling? You are plagued by a sense of emptiness, a desire to connect with someone—anyone or, perhaps, someone special to you—and you feel it is overwhelming you at times?
Well, if you have had these feelings of loneliness—no pun intended—you are not alone. Loneliness is one of the most common, unpleasant emotions that millions of us experience. For some, it’s a recurring sense of desperation and of sadness. For others it may be a passing emotion that one has at times. But for all of us it is part of being human.
Loneliness can lead to excessive drinking or binge eating—simply to suppress those unpleasant feelings. It can lead to depression and rumination, as you dwell on the question, “Why am I alone?” It can lead to a sense of hopelessness—“I will never be happy because I will always be alone”. Having a strategy to deal with loneliness may be an important protection against depression, substance abuse, or even making bad choices for partners.
Let’s take a look at how you can cope with your feelings of loneliness.
1. Normalize loneliness
As John Cacioppo, a researcher in the field of loneliness, points out, loneliness is on the rise—from 11% to 20% in the 1970s and 1980s to 40% to 45% in one study in 2010. So you are not alone in feeling lonely. Perhaps the breakdown of connectedness in the last 40 years can be related to the decline of the family, higher divorce rates, people moving more frequently, the decline of church attendance, and the decrease of participation in organizations like the PTA and labor unions. As Harvard social historian, Robert Putnam, illustrates in his book, Bowling Alone, people would participate in bowling leagues—on bowling teams—in the 1950s, but now they bowl alone. As widespread and increasing in frequency as loneliness is, we need to recognize that we need to have strategies for coping with this experience.
2.Relate loneliness to your values of connection
It may sound invalidating but we can also ask, “What is loneliness good for?” I would suggest that loneliness reminds us of the value of connection, intimacy, or simply sharing experiences with others. We evolved to live in smaller communities with daily face-to-face contact—and with shared labor in child-rearing. That has changed for many people. But loneliness may remind you of the fact that you value connecting with other people and that this value is an important part of being human. Don’t give up on connection when you are feeling lonely.
3. Have a plan
The first part of developing a plan is to identify your “trouble times” for loneliness. It might be evenings, it might be weekends, and it might be holidays. So have a plan in advance. What are you planning on doing? For example, on weekends you might make plans with friends or family, you might go to museums, concerts, bike rides, guided walks, church or synagogue events (you don’t have to be religious), or connect with people on meetup.com or other websites. Have a plan. I like thinking of turning yourself into a tourist for a day or a night. Or if your lonely time is at night, have a plan for a couple of nights each week when you might connect with someone—and it could simply be on Skype. Plan some videos to watch, music to listen to, take a yoga class, join a health club, take up a hobby. A friend of mine who is incredibly resilient, took up the guitar and swimming—separately—at the age of 68. He experiences great enthusiasm with these activities. So, what is your plan?
4. You don’t need someone else to do something rewarding.
So often people will say, “I have no one to do things with”. You don’t need someone to go to the movies, go for a walk, work out at a health club, go to a concert or take up a new hobby or skill. Some people say, “I feel self-conscious doing these things by myself”. But try to identify what those self-conscious thoughts are--- they may be thoughts like, “People will see me alone and think that I am pathetic”. Really? How do you know what they think? And if they did think that, why should you care? Maybe doing things alone means you are independent and empowered and free.
In fact, doing something by yourself might actually be a good way to meet new people. Imagine that you are at a museum or bookstore and you start talking to someone next to you about a painting or a book. Or imagine that you are taking a cooking class or yoga and you start talking to people. Empower yourself by getting out and realizing you don’t need someone else to do things with. You have yourself.
5. Identify your loneliness thoughts
We just identified a few of those thoughts just now. But write down some of the thoughts that you have when you are lonely. These might include thoughts like the following:
If you have these—or other negative thoughts—then you are like millions of people who are stopped in their tracks by loneliness. But try some of these rational and helpful responses:
6. Direct compassion and tenderness toward yourself
Rather than think that you need to rely on others for love, acceptance and compassion, you might think of directing these thoughts and feelings toward yourself. This can include acts of loving kindness toward yourself (such as making yourself a healthful treat to eat, buying yourself a simple gift), directing loving thoughts toward yourself (by giving yourself support for being who you are and being your own best friend), and by imagining a loving person from your childhood (your mother, grandmother, father, aunt) whom you recall showing tenderness toward you. Taking care of yourself and soothing yourself is a wonderful antidote for loneliness.
7. Build a community of connectedness
We all need some connection with other people—or even animals. Let’s take animals. So many people I have known over the years—friends, family, patients—have told me how much love and connection they experience with their pets. So consider getting a cat or a dog. Or, even easier, go to the local animal shelter and offer to volunteer. One woman I know volunteered for several months at a local animal shelter, “socializing the kittens”. Talk about great work to have, playing with kittens.
Another way of connecting is to do volunteer work. I think we all need to be needed. You can search on-line in your local community for volunteer organizations, even specifying the interest that you have. Perhaps it’s working with kids, older people, cancer patients, or people who are poor. I doubt that you will feel lonely when you are showing kindness toward someone.
And plan connection. This includes using social media—whether it’s Facebook, Linkedin, or even listservs from your college or high-school. Make plans to see people. Just because you haven’t been in contact doesn’t mean you can’t take the initiative. Join organizations where there are people interested in what you are interested in—political, cultural, religious, or social activities.
Being alone doesn’t mean that you have to feel lonely. And feeling lonely doesn’t mean that you have to feel lonely indefinitely. All emotions pass and go. It depends on what you are thinking and what you are doing.
It’s up to you.