Loneliness is painful. It often involves feeling disconnected, feeling outside of the circle, feeling forgotten. Loneliness has been a frequent companion throughout my life. I grew up as an only child and while my parents are wonderful, they established clear boundaries between their relationship and me, which I think was great for their marriage (they’ve been married for over 38 years!) but did not feel great for me as an only child. Starting at an early age, I felt somewhat on the outside in my family. This feeling continued for me at school and church. While I think I was generally well liked, I always felt like I was different and didn’t quite fit in. There were times when I actually was left out or teased (never badly) and then there were times when I was hypersensitive to the experience of being left out and looked for evidence to confirm my assumption that I was being excluded. There were also probably times when I held back in friendships and relationships fearing that I would be rejected and ended up feeling disconnected. One of the ways that I adapted to my experience of loneliness was to make myself useful. To be the friend that people call when they are going through a hard time, to be the one who bakes cookies from scratch and brings them to the gathering. I unconsciously believed that if I did enough people would include me regardless of whether or not they really wanted me to be there. While I will probably always enjoy doing things for people it’s been interesting for me to push myself to unlearn this tendency especially in the context of doing therapy where just being present can be powerful and healing.
I wish I could say that I was over this loneliness, this fear of being left out but I’m not. While I have come a long way and I’m much less sensitive than I used to be, I continue to struggle at points. Even as an adult I have struggled with being left out by my friends questioning what I have done wrong, how I could be better/different so that I could be included.
Your loneliness may look different than mine Loneliness can involve being in a crowd of people and feeling all alone or it could be spending a night at home alone scrolling through social media wishing you were out with friends. Loneliness can feel like wanting to call a friend but feeling like they won’t answer or want to talk to you. Loneliness often accompanies feelings of self-criticism and even shame as we assume that we are lonely because something is wrong with us.
Despite our increasingly connected world and ability to access other people at any time, many of us are feeling lonelier than ever before. This growing prevalence of loneliness is not something to be laughed off as a silly problem affecting millennials; it is a serious issue. Loneliness can negatively impact our health with some research studies connecting loneliness to dying earlier. We are social creatures and when we do not get the social connection we were designed for, our immune system can break down and we are more likely get sick. If you struggle with loneliness, consider the following strategies for overcoming loneliness, which I have found helpful in my own life.
Value the connections you have
It can be easy to focus on the connections that we don’t have. To focus on the friends who have not shown up for us or the people who didn’t invite us to the party, while overlooking the friends we do have. I encourage you to take time to reflect on the people that you do spend time with, those who are there when you call them, your friends who are down to hang out with you and do nothing. Spending more time and energy on the friends who show up for you and less time worrying about the people who aren’t there can help you overcome loneliness.
Disconnect from technology to connect
While social media helps us stay in touch with friends who live far away it can cause us to feel less connected to people when we are spending time with them. Loneliness can show up when we are physically with people but not really connecting. When you are with your friends and loved ones, I encourage you to put down your phones and be fully present. Really talk and be with each other without spending a lot of time checking your phone or taking and posting pictures.
Reach out to people
Fear of rejection often keeps us from reaching out to people and can leave us feeling isolated and alone. It can be easy to get caught up in worrying about how often we reach out versus how often our friends reach out to us. I encourage you to push beyond your comfort zone and reach out to friends more often. Send those random texts and set up time to get together. Let to go of your worries about being awkward and just reach out; your friends will probably respond well and it will be worth it.
Deepen your friendships
Some people can name a lot of friends they have to call or hang out with but continue to feel lonely because their friendships are superficial. If you feel like you have a lot of friends but don’t feel like they really know you, I encourage you to intentionally deepen your friendships. Get together with friends one-on-one or in smaller groups, hang out at each other’s houses or settings that make it easier to have deep conversations. Ask your friends about themselves and their experiences and be willing to share your experiences and be vulnerable with them. Friendships tend to deepen over time so I encourage you to be intentional and patient with this process.
Learn to enjoy time with yourself
My last recommendation for overcoming loneliness is to learn to enjoy your time with yourself. This may seem counter intuitive but if you get more comfortable being alone you will be less likely to feel lonely when you are alone. Being alone can be wonderful, especially if you use this time to do something enjoyable and restorative. I encourage you to use your alone time to get to know yourself. What are your likes and dislikes? What do you want to do when your time is your own? What makes you fun to be around? Spend time reflecting on these questions and use your alone time to do things that you love.