Making light of loneliness
The only thing I can bring myself to watch lately is comedy shows. My latest fixation is on the Netflix special Getting Coffee in Cars with Comedians, in which Jerry Seinfeld takes comedians out to coffee. When two comedians get together, they commiserate about the state of the world and their fears and insecurities, but always find a way to make it funny. Comedy shows remind me of the human condition which is this: We all struggle, and we all feel desperately lonely sometimes. This is even when, and perhaps especially when, we have all the fame and money in the world.
I know this sounds depressing, but it’s meant to be reassuring. We are all in this tough world together, so we might as well laugh as a way to cope.
If famous comedians with millions of adoring fans feel this lonely, where does that leave us regular folks?
We have all been there
In her last post, Ada made an appeal for social inclusion, urging readers to reach out to those who may feel excluded. It inspired me to pay attention to people who may not be in my inner circle, but it also reminded me of all the times I have felt excluded.
I was that painfully shy kid in school, so it’s a sensitive topic. It’s been 20 years since junior high but still feels #toosoon. And even as an adult, I have felt abandoned by flaky friends, like a loner on many a Friday night, or terrified of rejection when I initiate hangouts.
So, I wanted to talk about what this young adult does when she feels like the “other.”
The loneliness epidemic
So many people live in solitude and wish they had more connection. We all know that feeling lonely is emotionally distressing, but science also confirms that it can lead to a whole slew of health problems. And conversely, people who are well connected live longer and happier lives.
We Americans pride ourselves on our individualism and place a lot of value on independence - that cowboyin’ lone ranger mentality. But we are social creatures, and even lone rangers need friends. Friendships came so naturally when we were kids surrounded by peers, but once we’re no longer in proximity of a social group, making new friends gets difficult. As we get older, many of us are worse at maintaining friendships. The fact that we're highly mobile and can move half way across the world also doesn't help. But, as we get older, our need for friendships doesn’t diminish.
You can try to counteract this disconnect with social media “friends,” but unless you’re using Facebook to decide where to meet the gang in real life, the social media experience can leave us feeling empty. We all crave acceptance, closeness, and meaningful connections.
Do you get lonely sometimes?
If you answered yes to this question, you're normal. Admitting that you feel lonely takes courage, because we humans have our egos to protect. It means confronting our social insecurities and realizing our relationships are not where we'd like them to be. We tend to blame ourselves for feeling this way, as if it shows that we're weak for needing others. So this is how it goes down: we feel lonely, we beat ourselves up for feeling this way, and we cope by trying to convince ourselves we don't need community.
It just doesn't work.
Welcome to the party
You are one of many lonely people. The irony is that our feelings of loneliness unite us all. Everyone feels this way sometimes, even people who seem to have it all. If you have a tendency to get lonely, studies show that it’s not your fault. The feeling of loneliness begins a vicious cycle: We crave companionship, and if we sense the slightest rejection, we perceive people’s reactions to us negatively and we feel more sensitive than usual. This further perpetuates our feelings of loneliness. Psychologist John Cacioppo explains this perceived rejection here.
The problem with the simple solution
Well-meaning acquaintances probably tell you to “just get out there and meet people,” enthusiastically suggesting that you get on a dating app or join a knitting circle. But it’s not that simple. Social interaction doesn’t necessarily make us feel any less alone. Sometimes the more people we are surrounded by, the lonelier we get.
Even people in relationships get lonely; in fact, a strained relationship in which you feel distance between you and your partner can make you feel more solitary than actually being alone. There are also the happily married couples who found companionship, but got so caught up with their relationship and family life that their social outlets dwindled over time.
Want to combat loneliness?
It turns out, one thing that helps to combat loneliness is learning how to interact better. If you identify as someone who perceives slights that might not actually be there, a trained therapist can help you read social cues so you can interact with the world in healthier ways. You’ll see with practice that what we may view as rejection may not be so, and over time you’ll build up the courage to approach others, make plans, and interact with less fear.
Knowing how common the feeling of loneliness is might help you be more open about it. Try telling a confidant that you’re dealing with this, and they might just share their struggles of feeling isolated as well. Much like the comedians confiding in each other about their anxieties, we can find fellow lonely souls who may share our concerns. This sense of comradery is good for our souls.
You’d be amazed at the kindness you might encounter when you open up and show vulnerability. Here's a better cycle: Vulnerability can beget vulnerability.
Put yourself first
It may seem counterintuitive to focus your attention inward when you’re already feeling so self-aware. But try it. Take your attention off the external world “out there” and do things for yourself that make you feel worthwhile. Imagine a lovely guest from out of town is coming to stay with you. How would you treat your friend? Would you cook special meals, make their bed and keep the house tidy? Well…the twist is, that guest is you! Pamper yourself, respect yourself, tend to your needs. This diverts attention from your expectations of others and things that are outside your control.
Ease into the world at your own pace
As a lonely person, I used to try combat my own solitude by inviting everyone I know to hang out at once. These bashes rarely went well, and usually had two outcomes: 1) people would show up, I’d feel all this pressure to make it fun. I wasn’t in my comfort zone and I’d get overwhelmed and vow to never do that again… or 2) almost no one would show up. As a sensitive gal, I’d internalize this as meaning I’m unlovable as a friend and the rejection cycle ensues.
I learned over time that it'd be in my best interest to embrace my introversion. I started small and continue to take small steps. I run with my strengths, not my weaknesses. I do better with an intimate crowd of one or two and I'm happy with that.
Be true to you
When you’re ready to go out in the world, find what works for you. Do what makes you feel comfortable so that you can be excited about it. Your interests and hobbies make you who you are. Go find your people. There is a crowd for every interest these days and sharing your likes with others can be a gateway to making connections. Sites like Meetup.com allow you to find activities based on shared interests. Find art classes, lectures, or musical events that provide a structured activity so there is less pressure to interact. If you’re religious, try joining community events at your congregation.
There is no pressure to keep attending social events if they don’t feel right. But, putting yourself out there is a form of therapy called “exposure therapy.” The theory is, the more you expose yourself to an uncomfortable situation, the less white knuckling you'll be doing and more at ease you will feel with time.
The key to being around others? Enjoy the activity as your first priority, and if connections happen, that's the cherry on top.
You got this!
Meeting new people can be intimidating. Go easy on yourself and treat yourself with compassion as you navigate this strange new world. Having a professional around to help you through this process can make a big difference. Talk to a therapist for guidance if you’re not sure where to start. You know where to find us.
Karen Lenz is the Executive Assistant at People Bloom Counseling. She’s the office admin whiz - not a therapist. She writes blog posts as a human navigating this world, a client sitting across from a therapist, much like you. She is thankful to get to share her experiences with you, and hopes that her messy journey might resonate with you and make you feel less alone.