I mark a difference between loneliness and solitude. Solitude is when YOU want be be alone - it's a very different thing from wanting to be around others but not being able to. There are many reasons for loneliness, among them shyness or social anxiety, or depression and/or thinking that no one wants to be around you (Remember the "stinkin' thinking"? This is an example).
Feeling lost in the crowed or different from everyone around you is a factor. Loneliness can come up in different situations - when you're single among couples, childless among families, ill or emotionally traumatized around people who seem healthier than you, a member of a minority group surrounded by the majority...there are any number of situations which may trigger loneliness.
There are no easy answers for changing loneliness - this is one of those situations where, if I did have a magic wand, it would be useless. (And trust me, I wish I did have one.) The basic reason there are no easy answers is because the causes are so varied. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps with some causes like social anxiety, depressive thinking, or dealing with "Shoulds" or "Stinkin' Thinking". Ok...well, that's fine and dandy. I change my thinking and I just feel better, like that?
Uh, well...not really. I wish it was that simple. CBT will help you work with your thought patterns AND with the behaviors that get in your way. This is where the "homework" stuff comes in again. If you want to counter loneliness stemming out of anxiety or depression...guess what? You have to interact with people. Typical homework assignments in this realm might be something like, "Talk to five people about a current news topic" or "Compliment 3 people sincerely." The idea here is to get you out and getting experiences that contradict your fears.
And also - loneliness is a feeling. I know...some of you are saying, "Well, DUH!" Here's the thing though - you can use your skills to deal with feelings that are overwhelming. Call it "riding the wave," DBT, Coping, Self-Care, Self-Soothing - whatever. The idea is you use the skills you've got and have learned to help yourself feel better. "Emotion Regulation" and "Distress Tolerance" have these names for a reason!
Ok, so CBT and DBT help. What if you're stuck in a situation where you really DO "stick out like a sore thumb"? Those are a little harder, to be honest. Your differences will likely be harder to hide, and it may feel as if the situation around you is moving on and leaving you behind, or worse, ignored. I can't tell you what to do in these situations, but I can share what's helped me.
First of all... if I seem to be in a completely different, alien, strange, unsual environment or group, I look around and see if there's someone else who seems something like me. By this I mean, "Is there one other person here who looks uncomfortable - for whatever reason - like I do?" If so, then I gather up my assertiveness and interpersonal effectiveness skills and introduce myself. I'll ask an open question like, "What do you think of all this?" and then LISTEN. Nine times out of ten, this helps.
Err...what about the 10th time? When the person just kind of looks at me as if I'm an alien from another planet, or as if I've just spilled spinach juice and red wine down the front of my shirt? Well..I politely say, "It was nice to meet you," and then move on to something else. At that point (and this may seem silly), I look for someone who has one thing in common with the way I look, or one thing about them that is intriguing to me - maybe it's wearing the same color, or a similar hairstyle, or style of outfit...maybe it's that the person is wearing some outrageously bright colors that I adore, or has eyes that seem to smile. SOMETHING I notice and can comment on.
Y'all are going to think that I'm a pain in the tushie with how I do things, but again, I go up and introduce myself, and say, "Those shoes are so cute! Would you mind telling me where you got them? I love those colors." Or I might say, "You know, I don't know many people here...and honestly, you look like someone I might be able to chat with. I'm Laura. What's your name?"
Here's the thing - fundamentally I am a VERY shy person. (You'd never guess it watching me now, but I swear - it's true.) It took me years of practice and yes, therapy to get over it. During this process I learned, though, that most people are generally nice. I also learned that if I say something completely stupid, or fumble for words, saying, "I feel a little awkward - I'm worried I look like a fool" and then laughing, most of the time people will laugh with me. Do they laught AT me? I'm sure some people do. I know for a fact when I was younger, people did.
And the sad fact is that there are some people who are judgmental and mean. Appearance seems to be a particularly favored target, and it sucks. People have judged me on my appearance, both when I was thin and now that I'm fat. And you know what? I survived. No matter what other people think of me, my sense of who I am is intact. It took YEARS to get here, and I'm not going to say that other people's perceptions don't matter - they certainly do. What matters the most, though, is what YOU do and what YOU think of yourself. I decided that I would try to like myself, no matter what anyone else thought. I don't know about everyone, but for me it was a choice and a conscious decision. And it took hard work.
When you have the sense that you are not just OK, but that you are a worthwhile, interesting, and caring person, loneliness has a harder time getting in. I won't lie - it sure does get in on occasion. But - I have a stronger sense that I can do something important, that I matter, and that I have gifts and talents to share. That goes a long way in pushing loneliness out the door. Even if no one listens, or no one seems to care, I know I matter.
So, when I start feeling lonely...well, I do something to kick it on it's butt out the door. I'll go talk to someone, engage myself in something I enjoy, write, read, take a nap, go sit outside, pet my cat... you get the idea.
And you know what? You don't have to be lonely - I'll talk with you. Seriously. Send me an email message, and I'll get in touch. I know how hard it is to feel lonely, and I want you to know that you're not alone. Really.
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org