We all feel lonely sometimes – whether we are actually alone, or with other people. I remember presenting a case study during my Masters in Psychology, about my therapy with a young teenager with Tourette Syndrome. As part of strengthening her social skills, I taught her the technique of “How to meet, greet and keep friends.” My wise Psychology professor interrupted me by asking: “Can you teach me that technique as well?”
A study in 2015, broadcasted on National Public Radio in America, suggested that lonely people actually may have excellent social skills. They are not lonely because they don’t know how to reach out to people, they struggle with relationships because they are scared of messing up. They worry about saying the wrong thing in social situations.
As we are social beings who need others, no wonder that the feeling of loneliness is one of the most difficult feelings to experience. Although it is a very universal feeling, it does not make it any easier. It is a feeling that asks: “Does anyone care about me?” When people experience mental health disorders, there seems to be an even bigger risk for feeling lonely.
We often hear about people retiring at the sea, just to move back a few years later because of loneliness and lack of connection with others. According to Susan Johnson, founder of Emotion Focused Couples Therapy, we need human connection for our well-being and mental health. We need to be able to reach out for support in difficult times and connect with family, friends or loved ones.
Let’s look at a few ways to befriend and deal with loneliness:
1. Daily mindfulness. The biggest reason why we don’t want to be alone is that we don’t always know who this person is I am going to be with. If you make time every day to become aware of your inner thoughts and feelings, naming them and accepting them with non-judgement and compassion, loneliness won’t be an enemy anymore. If you can start to enjoy being by yourself, you can move from a lonely place to a sacred space, where you can get to be creative, grateful and content.
2. Understand why you may feel lonely. You may not know many people you can connect with, or you can be surrounded by friends and loved ones, but struggle to share your thoughts, feelings and needs because of lack of energy, confidence, time or self-compassion. Sometimes we build high walls to keep people out – we think it is the only way to feel safe – and then we struggle to find our way out. Maybe you don’t feel cared for, understood or supported. It would be important to become aware of your needs and find productive ways to fulfil them.
3. Reach out. If you think of feeling lonely like feeling hungry, loneliness is just a way your body is telling you that you need more social contact. You can start small by just joining an online group (like gardening, cooking or adult colour-in), or consider joining an actual group in your community. Find other people who are lonely too, and help them, or consider volunteering. Helping others give meaning to your life and can help to improve your mental health.
4. Find activities that give you meaning and satisfaction. Finding new hobbies or growth opportunities where you learn something new, is an important part of self-care.
Henri Nouwen writes in his book Reaching Out (1975), that “the movement from loneliness to solitude is… the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”