When You’re Longing for Connection
Wednesday, May 11, 2016 28 Comments
Lonely is not Needy – or alone
Mood menders: history, empathy, and support
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
adding to the Loneliness Series – Part 3 of 3
Being alone is solitude; feeling alone is loneliness.
~ Psychologist & noted Leadership expert Manfred Kets de Vries
We are by nature storytellers
who must recount our days and our lives
in order to make sense of them.
For this we need listeners…
but listeners who are genuinely interested in us as people.
~ from Healing Loneliness, a sermon by Reverend Brian J. Kiely,
Unitarian Church of Edmonton,September 19,2012
About the longing for connection
In an article on everydayhealth.com, Dr. Sanjay Gupta suggests that we need to Treat Loneliness as a Chronic Illness. He includes a couple of paragraphs that summarize the points made in Part II of this article, Sliding Into Loneliness:
There’s nothing unusual about feeling lonely. “It’s perfectly common for people to experience loneliness when their social networks are changing, like going off to college or moving to a new city,” says Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
The death of a loved one or marital discord can also trigger feelings of isolation. But there’s a difference between temporary “state” and chronic “trait” loneliness.
“Many of the patients we see have had situational loneliness that becomes chronic. They have been unable to rebuild after a loss or a move or retirement,” says psychiatrist Richard S. Schwartz, MD, co-author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century.
“One of the ways that situational loneliness can become chronic is precisely because of the shame we feel about our loneliness — the sense we have of being a loser.”
Jo Coughlin has written an interesting article about avoiding loneliness in retirement in which she neatly distinguishes loneliness from solitude:
In most cases, solitude is a temporary state that is usually voluntary. The ability to be happy in the absence of the company of others is seen as a sign of good mental health.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is involuntary – an unhealthy state that creeps up on us over time, often accompanied by depression, a feeling of helplessness and isolation.
Successful engagement, according to Coughlin, hinges on gaining self awareness and focusing on empathy for others. She admits that these are traits often in short supply in those who have spent a great deal of their lives escaping into work to suppress their loneliness. However, she goes on to say, those traits can be worked on and developed later in life, especially with the help of a therapist, a coach or with guidance from a loved one.
Both of the articles mentioned above include the assurance that it’s never too late to change things — that it’s possible to learn the social skills of engagement and connection at any stage of life, even if you’ve been lonely for much of it.
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The dearth of true friendships in modern life
In her lengthy exploration of loneliness for the Globe and Mail, Life of solitude: A loneliness crisis is looming, author Elizabeth Renzettis introduces some of the ideas of Prof. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and a leading authority on the negative correlation between loneliness and poor physical and mental health.
“One of the things we’ve seen is a movement away from a concern for others. Economics basically says you should be concerned about your own short-term interests. There’s more division in society, more segmentation; there’s less identity with a national or global persona, but rather on the family or the individual. People aren’t as loyal to their employers, and employers are certainly not as loyal to their workers.”
His theory, simply, is that we are social animals who function most successfully in a collective; the physical pain and degradation caused by loneliness are a kind of early-warning signal of a failure to connect, the way the pain of a cut finger tells you to fetch a Band-Aid
But being lonely can seem crippling, notes Rezetti, […and…] comments like, “Just get out and make some friends” are like suggesting that an asthmatic climb Mount Everest!
I have long noted that comments that begin with “just” usually continue to suggest an action or activity that seems beyond possibility to the person who is struggling – comments that seem more judgmental than helpful, suggesting a basic lack of understanding and empathy that will make most people feel even more alone and misunderstood than they do already.
Based on my own experience (and what I’ve observed in my clients and students), the most effective first steps are tiny and incremental, each leading further away from emotional quicksand.
If we are to listen to Cacioppo, we need to start by accepting the idea that isolation and feelings of loneliness are a warning sign that something needs to change, rather than thinking of them as an indication of some kind of personal failure on our part that we need to hide, even from ourselves.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions.
When we numb the painful emotions,
we also numb the positive emotions.”
~ Brene Brown
Instead of pushing down those painful feelings, we need to take them as a nudge to take a clear look at the physical and mental effects that our lack of connection has on our lives – which will help us get specific about what it is that needs to change.
Watch your thoughts
Treat loneliness like any other emotion, rather than a miserable state of being: it’s a feeling, not a fact! Accept the reality that emotions wax and wane depending on our thoughts and the effect of our environments. Most emotions are triggered by one or the other, even feelings of loneliness.
Only through the lens of black and white thinking do we believe that any emotion will last forever. Start by paying closer attention to the grey areas rather than expectations of “white” or fears of “black.”
Make it a point to notice which environments help and which hurt. Pay special attention to the thoughts and expectations that precede your emotional reactions (or what you think about afterwards that makes things worse). Are your expectations realistic?
Tiny Emotional Triggers
People who simply adore puppies and kittens, for example, are consciously aware that small furry animals are one of their happiness triggers.
They also don’t have the unrealistic expectation that those warm-fuzzy feelings will continue much beyond the time they return from the pet store or dog park to their “no pets allowed” apartments.
A single hit of happy is never enough to create long-lasting change their emotional state – and they understand that.
If the underlying thoughts inspired by returning from the pet store (or walking past that “no pets” sign) are that they know just what to do any time they want to play with fluffy puppies or cuddly kittens, just thinking about visiting the pet store again later in the week will have a positive effect on their emotions.
If their thoughts are that it’s mean and unfair that they can’t even have a cat, or ruminations over the fact that they got passed over for an expected promotion so they don’t make enough money to move to the complex down the street where pets are allowed, guess how those thoughts will impact their emotions?
Thoughts matter – and we do have some control over what we tell ourselves about our situation.
Get to know your emotional triggers, good and bad, as well as the thoughts that accompany them.
Take note of the times when you notice you feel even a little bit better, as well as the times when you feel loneliness most acutely. What were your thoughts at the time? What were you telling yourself?
The first step toward feeling more connected is to understand what contributes to your feelings of disconnection.
Are there certain “triggers” that bring on feelings of loneliness and isolation?
- Do you feel more alone in one environment than in another?
- Is there a time of day (or time of year) when you feel better or worse? Why?
- Do you feel worse when the weather is lousy? Do heat, cold, rain or snow depress you most?
- Does reading about the amazing accomplishments and gourmet meals of everyone on Facebook send you into a downward spiral every time? How long does it last?
No two people experience loneliness the same way or for the same reason, so before you look for solutions you need to figure out what’s contributing to the problem. No matter how you arrived at the place where you have come to feel like life’s biggest loser, let yourself off the hook. Beating yourself up will send you in the direction you don’t want to go – straight into emotional quicksand.
Take Baby Steps not sudden leaps
Don’t try to do too much, too fast. Small advances each day are more likely to be successful – with the expectation that feeling better will be a process that happens over time, rather than the quick fix too many people believe will be the result of simply signing up for a class or joining a club. Start from where you are and take one small step toward becoming just a bit more connected. Control what you can.
Once we feel out of control of our lives, we tend to spend energy we can’t spare focusing on comprehensive changes that are unrealistic, given our current state of mind. Instead of contemplating goals like “I need to get out there and make all new friends,” set your sights on small accomplishments that will make your life just a little bit better. Then do it again.
Step by Step
One of the most effective ways to deal with a tendency toward isolation is to spend regular time out in the world, even for a little bit and even if you have to force yourself. If you’ve been holed up in front of your computer or TV set, your first step will be to get outside every single day – and for heaven sakes, leave your cellphone at home or turn it OFF.
Begin with something small and simple, like taking a walk down the street or around the block — and make it a point to pay attention to the sights along the way. Which house has the prettiest porch? Where do the people with dogs live? From their barks as you walk by, can you tell which are little dogs and which are big ones? Which tree is the tallest? Test yourself when you get home to keep your focus on anything but how unhappy you are.
Even if you don’t really feel like it, be sure to smile and say hello to everyone you meet along the way. After a while, some of them will begin to look familiar, and you will get to know some of your neighbors – at least by sight. If you take your walks at the same time each day, you may begin to notice that people start expecting to see you walk by. Give them your sunniest smile, a friendly wave and say hello.
Chase away thoughts that will lead to isolation (like they will think that you are that crazy needy person who tries to strike up conversations with total strangers). Think instead that each of them is lonely too — that they may well indeed look forward to the brief bit of company you provide for them.
As you step your way to more significant relationships, make sure you remember this: Small talk beats talking to no one at all HANDS DOWN!
That’s what I have to do. Rather than mourning the fact that I rarely exchange more than quick pleasantries as I walk my dog, I had to teach myself to fight black and white thinking, make it a HABIT to think in a more positive manner, and be grateful for even the tiniest bit of connection. Most days it works fairly well, too! My mood is almost always significantly lighter as I enter my home office to return to isolated endeavors.
Related Post: Habits, Decisions and Attention
Take the next step
Once your short walks become a habit, in addition to your now familiar block, start walking around a new block each day – and add still another as soon as you feel you might be up to it. While aerobic exercises increase neuroplasticity (encouraging your brain to create new neurons and connections believed to counteract depression), any kind of ongoing physical activity will stimulate your brain and body to produce endorphins, feel-good hormones which help to elevate mood for a short while afterwards.
Related article: Changing a Habit to Change Your LIFE
Don’t give up and give in to despair if it takes a while to see significant changes, or elevations in mood that last notably longer. Small changes add up over time – and they pay dividends.
When the weather is too lousy for a walk, take a bus just to see your city and people-watch the folks who get on and off. To keep your mind from wandering toward thoughts that they have lives of connection and you don’t, make up outrageous stories about who they are, where they’ve been and where they are going to amuse yourself – or keep count of the number of women wearing something red or men wearing sneakers or sandals. Smile at the ones who look like they could use a smile, even if they don’t smile in return.
Simple actions like going to the grocery store can actually help you to feel more connected, as long as you concentrate on the store and not your situation. Shop more often, for only a few meals at a time. Whatever you do, do something outside your home each and every day, no matter how small. That practice alone will begin to make a positive impact on your feelings of loneliness as it weakens the tractor beam of isolation.
Put healthy habits back in place
At any time of life, investing in your health and self-care is one of the easiest ways to protect against feelings of despair. Begin by addressing bad habits that may have crept in because you felt too miserable to take very good care of yourself.
- Have those leisurely baths or showers been replaced by quickies only when you feel like you really need them? Put those daily soaks or showers back in place.
- Get out of those pajamas and jettison the sweatpants. Get dressed first thing every day, in something that used to make you feel terrific. Wash your face and slap on some moisturizer or make-up, shave or style your hair. It’s difficult to want to be seen in public when you aren’t proud of your appearance.
- Have you let cleaning your home or apartment slide? You won’t be able to invite anyone over, even for a simple cup of coffee, if you are embarrassed for anybody to see how you are living lately. Start tidying things up a little bit everyday, focusing on how it will help you connect rather than beating yourself up for how bad you’ve let things become.
- Cut out junk food in favor of “real” food – the freshest fruits and vegetables you can find. Take your vitamins – and probiotics. Much of the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that facilitates feeling good, begins in the gut, as long as it’s healthy. And drink lots of water. Your brain needs more than your body, and you want your brain to work for you not against you.
As you begin to take better care of yourself, you will find that you have more energy and feel more like getting out into the world outside your windows. As your energy increases, look for small ways to get in better shape. Set an hourly alarm to remind yourself to get up from your television or computer and stretch – or run in place for a count of 100. As you begin to move your body, your mind will begin again to feed you positive thoughts.
One of the most powerful techniques that you can use to get on the road toward feeling more positive about life is to increase your sense of control over the small things.
Stop Faking It
Are you one of those lonely souls who buries yourself in your work – or hides behind a “life of the party” facade before going home to cry, ruminate, or drink yourself to sleep? If you ever expect to be able to choose to do something more effective, first you have to admit to yourself what you’re currently doing – and consider that it might not be doing you any good.
While it may appear as if you are better off than those with seemingly lower functioning ways of responding to loneliness, every time you act like you are okay when you’re not you are reinforcing your feelings of isolation from others — inching one step closer to the emotional quicksand you may one day find it practically impossible to escape. The only way to counter loneliness is with authentic connection. It’s an arena where fake it ’til you make it simply doesn’t apply.
Take the risk of admitting to someone that you’re feeling down. Accept whatever helpful comments they offer in response, even if it seems that they don’t really understand. The point of the exercise is that you begin to get comfortable opening up to others and stop pretending. You might find it easier to take that risk with a completely new group of people.
Joining a new group
In his work on collective cognition, Dr. Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has come to believe that humans are “hardwired” to coalesce into groups. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that Aristotle was indeed correct when he said that “human beings are social animals” — that we are pulled toward the companionship of other people as a significant component of our own feelings of safety and well being, and that we feel essentially lonely and at risk in its absence.
We become sociable, however, by acting and thinking sociably.
Feeling sociable follows naturally – we become what we DO.
Any kind of group participation can provide a social contact environment, without making you feel like you must brave the friendship waters one-to-one. For example, you could look for notices on community bulletin boards (or online) about book or bridge clubs in your area, which would provide mental stimulation as well as social contact. You might be able to locate a group that holds periodic poker games or board games of some sort (like chess or backgammon).
There are also theatre groups that gather to attend plays together, meeting afterwards for food or drink while they discuss what they just saw. Some theatres hold a talk with the actors following one of the performances. Start by asking an usher or somebody at the concession stand (or over the phone before you buy your ticket) if they host a discussion night. If so, make sure you go on that night and stay to listen, even if you don’t comment.
A lot of those groups make an announcement inviting anyone who’s interested to join them afterwards for coffee. Tag along. Look around in a friendly and approachable manner, and speak to anyone who speaks to you. Keep attending and you will be part of the group before you know it.
Are you religious, even a little? Churches and religious communities can be sources of support and interaction beyond their weekly worship services. Many church groups go out for coffee or brunch following the service. Join them. Even a church-sponsored dollar a card bingo night would gives you a chance to be around other people instead of going home alone after work – and you wouldn’t be expected to be the life of that particular party.
Taking a cooking class could not only provide an opportunity to meet a new group of people in another low-pressure conversational atmosphere, it might offer an opportunity to become part of a monthly dinner group where everyone brings a dish and rotates hosting duties. Bonding over the preparation and sharing of a meal is a great way to get to know other people – and they you.
You might search for a senior community that provides a variety of social opportunities – even if you volunteer as a facilitator because you are not quite into those so-called Golden Years yourself. Reaching out to ease the loneliness of someone else is a time-tested way of feeling better.
Volunteer your time and talent
Find a cause, group or person and spend whatever time you feel you can spare to lend your support – or do it online in a blog like this one. Offering your support in any form takes the focus off your own troubles, at the very least during the time you spend supporting, so the benefits are mutual.
One of my solitary clients mentioned that she noticed that a young oriental woman, the wife of an international student in her apartment complex, was almost always alone as she pushed her toddler around the block in a stroller. My client began by smiling and saying hello from her balcony, until the woman’s eventual response made it obvious that she didn’t speak much English.
Voila! A tiny bit of unofficial tutoring offered an opportunity to make a life-changing difference in somebody else’s life that brightened my client’s mood considerably.
Most of us will find ourselves lonely every once in a while, which is perfectly normal. Loneliness is a fact of modern life. A positive use of loneliness is that it serves as a reminder of our need for connection — and the importance of making sure we give our relationships a tune-up from time to time.
Stephen Ilardi, in an article on The Depression Cure blog (part of the Psychology Today network) suggests that the first step toward reconnection is to resolve to live each day as if connecting in authentic relationships is our highest priority.
- Most of us spend more time taking care of chores and working through our to-do lists than we do interacting with others.
- We may say that we’re not happy being alone but, except during our randy teen-aged years and early twenties, how many of us reflect that point of view in how we apportion our time and energy?
When our behavior during short periods of loneliness becomes integrated into the way we approach life in general, it is a reminder of the need to look inside to work on tearing down isolation’s walls, whether we built them ourselves or they were built as the result of a situation beyond our control.
In order to develop the habits of authentic engagement, we must first develop ways to engage at all.
The re-engagement process of military personnel, returning Veterans and their families adds an additional twist to this issue, which I address in a future article, so STAY TUNED. Meanwhile, check out the link below to The Coming Home Project for some immediate connection.
The Bottom Line
There are a great many articles and books you can find with a bazillion helpful tips and tricks for lifting depression, counteracting isolation and overcoming loneliness. Some of the ones I’ve tried (or might) are below:
- Enroll in a class to learn more about your favorite subject
- Take up a hobby that involves others
- Participate in a team sport
- Make life-long learning more than a solo habit
- Seek ways to connect or reconnect regularly with family members
- Look for ways to be of service
- Take a dance class or practice yoga or tai chi in a group environment
- Sign up for a museum tour rather than gazing solo
- Enroll your dog in obedience classes; if you don’t have one, get one
- Put down your cellphone & pay attention to what’s going on in “real life”
- Interact in virtual conversations, and spend less time using quickie methods of superficial connection (tweeting, texting, pinning, etc.).
Practically any of the many suggestions you’ll find online will work for someone, but none of them will work for you unless you commit to taking the time to take an action or several outside your comfort zone. It’s been proven that loneliness decreases as commitment to action increases. In most cases, you will begin to feel welcome in any community as your relationship habits improve and solidify.
But YOU have to keep reaching out – with positive expectations and a willingness to give anything you try some time to work. Lonely people tend to come to a point where they expect rejection, backing off when things don’t work exactly as they hope they will. Make sure you focus on the positive as you take baby steps toward reconnection with family and friends or attempts to engage in brand new relationships.
You can begin by sharing your experience and thoughts in the comment section below. I promise to respond in kind.
Before you know it, we’ll probably begin to feel like old friends.
© 2016, all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”
IMPORTANT: If none of the ideas above help you to, gradually, feel better and less isolated – after you’ve given them a decent try, of course – it might be time to consider major depression or another mental health issue as the root-cause. Don’t be ashamed to reach out for professional help, and don’t be afraid to try medication. A combination of talk-therapy and medication has been proven to be an extremely effective treatment for depression, and many of the bloggers supporting bi-polar disorder consider properly titrated medication as necessary to their quality of life as the air they breath.
We’re talking about your LIFE. Misery can be optional.
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IN ANY CASE, do stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.
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For links in context: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links will turn dark red;
(subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read, but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)
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(in case you missed them above or below)
- When you feel like you can’t bounce back
- The Importance of Community to Health
- Sliding into Loneliness
- The Unique Loneliness of the Military Family
… and the isolation of returning vets
- Grief and Acceptance
- Breaking the back of Black and White Thinking
- Linklist of ALL articles in the Black and White Thinking Series
- Changing a habit to change your LIFE
- The Habits, Decisions, Attention Series Linklist
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- The Coming Home Project – Veteran reintegration help of all types
- Binge-Watching TV May Be a Sign You’re Depressed or Lonely
- Life of solitude: A loneliness crisis is looming
- How to deal with loneliness
- Loneliness: A Problem or an Opportunity
- How to meet new friends
- 5 ways to beat loneliness
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- Make friends with your loneliness
- 5 Ways to Overcome Loneliness
BY THE WAY: Since ADDandSoMuchMore.com is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.