Six months ago I sat on my couch in tears, my concerned husband at my side wondering what was wrong and what he could do to help. I had never had trouble telling him what I was feeling, but this was different. I worried that he wouldn’t understand or worse, he would be hurt.
But, I told him: “I’m just lonely”. He understood.
A few months earlier we had moved from my hometown to his—half way across the country. This was after years of working long and erratic hours, which had already made me feel disconnected from my social circle.
I wasn’t actually alone. I was spending my days surrounded by people. I talked to clients and coworkers constantly. At night, I was home with my husband. On weekends, we would spend time with his family or friends.
But, this is the interesting thing about loneliness: it’s not really about how many people we are surrounded by. Even those who have many friends, long lasting relationships, or many interactions with others, report being lonely.
Loneliness is a feeling. It is a feeling of sadness about the state of our relationships or about the lack of a certain kind of relationship. How many and what types of relationships fulfilled us, is different for different people. Just because you have some great relationships, doesn’t mean that you can’t be lonely. While I had many great people in my life, I was used to having strong friendships. I was missing the girlfriends that I could talk about anything with.
The hardest part about loneliness is that when you feel it, you think you are the only one. This is especially true in the age of social media. When enough people share photos and notes of the great social things they’re doing, even if for them it was a rarity, you start to think that you’re the only one sitting at home.
But, you’re not alone. An estimated 40% of people report being lonely. That’s huge. But, it's still hard to talk about, because it makes us feel vulnerable.
So, how can we get through our loneliness? Like depression, it’s not something will necessarily go away without work. It impacts our mood, our outlook, and even our physical health. According to Dr. Karyn Hall, “When people are lonely they react more intensely to the negatives experienced in life and experience less of an uplift from the positives.”
But, there is hope. Here are some things that helped me combat loneliness. I hope they help you too:
1. Find the source of your loneliness
If you're surrounded by a lot of people or if you have a few very good relationships, it might not be completely obvious why you’re feeling lonely. Before you can’t start to fill the hole, you need to figure out what’s missing. Try sitting down with a pen and paper and free writing about your loneliness. What you’re missing will likely come out.
I was looking for friends that I could call up on short notice to grab coffee or get our nails done, but for you it could be something different. It may be that you’re aways giving in your relationships, and you need someone that will be there for you. Or, if you work in a helping profession, you may need an outlet for the traumatic things you are hearing or seeing, but don’t want to burden your friends and family. A great place to start is by seeing a therapist. This might be the type of relationship you’re missing, but even if it’s not, a therapist can help you identify the source of your sadness and address it in a healthy way.
2. Connect with old friends in new ways
There are a lot of things that change our friendships and cause us to drift away from those we care about. We move. We have work schedules that are inhospitable to social outings. We have kids.
It’s is natural that as we get older, we don't see our friends as often as we used to.
But, that doesn’t mean that the relationship has to end, it might just be different. Since moving, I have started writing long emails to friends. It’s different, but some of my relationships have actually grown stronger since I’ve started being more intentional with my communication. Here’s how I connect with old friends even when it's been a while.
3. Don’t assume that people are too busy to spend time with YOU
One of the assumptions that I had to overcome when I moved to a new place was that everyone else already had enough friends. I felt uncomfortable asking people I met if they wanted to hang out, because I assumed that they all had great social lives and didn’t want to add any more friends. This is ridiculous. We already know that 40% of people feel lonely and the rest are probably still looking to make new connections. Others may not reach out to you unless they know that you are open to a new friendship. Just ask!
I also worried that since my schedule was not the regular 9-5 that people wouldn’t be able to find the time to see me. But, this wasn’t true either. When you put yourself out there, people will make time. Maybe you can go out to lunch on their lunch break or grab coffee before work. You’ll find the time, but only if you ask.
4. Say yes to Invitations
Even when we’re lonely, we can sometimes avoid social interactions. It could be that we’re tired or that we’re worried we won’t make a good impression.
Give yourself four weeks to say yes to every invitation that comes your way that you don’t have an actual conflict with. Try something new, socialize with coworkers. You may be surprised at how many opportunities you were missing.
5. Attend a support group or start your own
Groups are a great way to connect with others and find support related to your lonliness, mental health or self-care. There may be one at your workplace or you may find a community group that fits your needs. Groups can give you hope, help you find strength in numbers, and give you the motivation to make positive changes. “Having a place where we can share experience—including feelings of aloneness—and hear others speak of their struggle with the same issues can be liberating.”, says Zoë Entin, LCSW.
If you can’t find a group that fits your specific needs, consider creating your own. Here’s our guide for starting self-care mutual support groups.
6. Find groups of people with similar interests
One way to meet new people is through mutual interests. Whether you like hiking, crafting, gaming, or something else, there are probably other people who enjoy the same. I have attended many local meet ups and have had some wonderful experiences. A bonus of these types of groups is that usually many of the participants are looking for new friendships and people to socialize with as well.
If you have trouble with small talk, one trick is to start learning a foreign language and then join a conversation group for others at your level. Small talk that would take ten minutes in your native language can fill up a whole hour if you and your language partner are trying to get by on limited language skills. Laughing at yourselves also breaks the tension.
7. Kill two self-care birds with one stone
Exercise helps us enhance our physical health and wellbeing, but it’s also a good way to meet new people. Some activities have particularly strong social components. I know many people who have joined rock climbing gyms or cross fit clubs and feel like they’ve become a part of a second family. I prefer yoga, even though they don’t necessarily encourage social interactions during the classes. One way to combat this is by showing up for class 15 minutes early. After going to the same studio for a few months I began to get to know the teachers and other "regulars". Many studios also offer workshops or retreats, which have more conversational aspects.
Make sure talk to your doctor before starting a new activity so that it fits both your physical and social needs.
Like meet ups, volunteering is a great way to meet new people and to connect others with similar values. It also increases our feelings of efficacy and can help us feel more connected to our communities. When you volunteer your attention is focused on completing a task together and this can take some of the pressure off from feeling like you have to come up with conversation topics. I have made some great friends this way and even met my husband volunteering.
9. Schedule your social life
One common reason we aren’t able to socialize or build friendships as much as we would like is that we’re too busy. When we’re juggling work, life, school, relationships, kids and everything else, making time for our friends can feel like a challenge or even a luxury we can’t afford. But, given what we know about the importance of combatting loneliness, we need to make time.
The way I do this is by blocking off a time on my weekly schedule that is designated for social activities. Even if you work in a field where your schedule changes from week to week, you may be able to ask for a one specific afternoon or evening of.
You might have one friend that you decide to get together with every week or you could use that time to try out different social activities. It’s up to you!
10. Take a social media break
I will admit, part of my loneliness came from comparing myself to others on social media. I saw pictures of my friends back home having dinner parties or going out and I felt like I should be doing that too. Social media has been shown to impact our self-esteem and when we’re already feeling lonely, it can exacerbate it.
Take a few weeks off from social media and focus on building your relationships in other ways. Tell your friends that you won’t be there and then email or call them instead. You may find that you like it so much, you never go back.
Even if you’re not sure if social media is causing you problems, it can’t hurt to take a break.