Note: This post is the third in a series about loneliness and connectedness, which includes my own experiences dealing with occasional loneliness and what has worked for me when I feel lonely. If you’re dealing with chronic loneliness (>3 days / week) or depression, please please please seek help. Treat yourself as you would treat someone you love.
What to Do When You Feel Lonely
In an age of social media and admonishments to “Find Your Tribe and Love Them Hard,” it’s easy to look at your own life and feel lonely. Carefully posed wedding photos, people gushing about their BAE, and Instagram group shots featuring happy-looking people are enough to make anyone conclude that no one cares about her.
I’ve struggled with loneliness in my own life big time. As a little girl, I hated when everyone in my family would go to sleep, because it meant I was the only one awake and that if something happened to me, no one would know until morning. While I outgrew the hours-long crying jags that accompanied this anxiety, I never really outgrew the sense that if no one was around, I was in danger. It’s only been as an adult that I’ve allowed myself to let this fear go and develop trust in myself and the universe.
When I feel lonely, it doesn’t matter that I have family who loves me. It doesn’t matter that I have friends who reach out to me. It doesn’t matter that I have people who make a point to tell me how important I am in their life. It also doesn’t matter if I’m in a romantic relationship or not. Loneliness is a mindset, a perception of how you fit (or, more accurately, don’t fit) into the world. Your mindset then affects how you behave, which in turn affects how the world responds to you, which may or may not reinforce that mindset.
It’s only by changing your understanding of your place in the world, by changing how you interact with the world, that you can really address loneliness.
Below are the eight things that I would recommend you try when you feel lonely:
- Believe people when they say or act like they care about you
- Re-define what you view as connection
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Reach out
- Use social media sparingly and strategically
- Mindfully pursue your individual hobbies and interests
- Take your individual hobbies and interests on the road
1. Believe people when they say or act like they care about you
Believe it or not (hah), this has been my own biggest hurdle to feeling a sense of connection with others. When I feel lonely, I tend to do what I call “Yes-Butting,” which means that six months ago if you were to ask me, “Don’t you have friends at [insert place name here]?” I would have replied, “Yes, but…” and given a reason why those people probably don’t really care about me. Example:
Me: “I feel like I don’t have anyone here who I’m important to.”
Also Me: “Didn’t a friend just tell you he appreciates how often you plan events to bring people together?”
Me: “Yes, but he was probably just being nice.”
Also Me: …
In psychology-speak, this is called discounting, and it’s super unhelpful because it doesn’t allow reality to make its way through the stories you tell yourself. You’ve convinced yourself that you’re a lonely losing loser, and you interpret the world around you to support that story. Remember that your experience of this universe is subjective, not objective, and try to stop setting yourself up to interpret that experience in the worst way possible.
If you’re the kind of person who just doesn’t believe people when they say they care about you or appreciate having you in their lives, key in to that and stop it. As my friend Kim recently told me, people are busy, so if someone makes time for you in their lives, it’s because they actually care about you, not because they’re “just being nice” or “just feel bad” or whatever it is you’re telling yourself. Nobody has time to “just be nice” to everyone. Give that person the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume they’re lying to your face for some obscure reason.
Don’t “Yes-But” yourself out of the people you already have in your life, and I’ll try to do the same. 🙂
2. Re-define what you view as connection
If you’ve heard of the Five Love Languages, you’re familiar with the idea of people feeling more connected to others through different methods or mediums. I am a Quality Time person through and through, so what I want most from people is for them to make time for me, invite me to hang out and for us to do interesting, fun things together. The problem with such a narrow definition of connection, however, is that if someone can’t meet this one “requirement” for me to feel like he or she is my friend, then I am likely to convince myself he or she doesn’t care about me, which definitely makes me feel lonely.
I also tend to classify people as “work friends,” “yoga friends,” etc., which is fine for a descriptor when you’re talking to other people, but it’s not fine if you’re using it to inventory the people who are important in your life. I find that classifying someone as a “work friend” (rather than just a “friend”) automatically discounts any connection we might otherwise have.
I’ve spent the last six months or so redefining how I allow other people to “connect” to me. Now, if someone takes the time to stop by my office at work and talk to me, I tell myself they’e checking on me because they care about me. If someone sends me a link to an interesting story they saw online, I interpret that as them thinking of me. I’ve stopped telling myself, “If they cared, they’d ask me to go to the art museum with them,” and started allowing their caring to manifest itself however it can.
And if you still don’t think you have anyone in your life who cares about you? Go out in public and make eye contact with another person. Have a mindful and meaningful conversation with that person. Make (and be grateful for) your own moment of connection, no matter how fleeting.
And if you still don’t feel like you have a connection with someone? Find “your people” online, and engage with them there. You could even leave a comment below so you and I can have a meaningful conversation. 🙂
3. Keep a gratitude journal
When I feel lonely, I keep track of all of the ways that people make an impact on my life. While some people enjoy keeping a daily list of things they’re grateful for, I’ve found that just maintaining a monthly list of certain areas of my life helps me put things in perspective. Having a meaningful conversation a couple of times a week may not sound like much, but seeing a list of eight specific meaningful conversations I’ve had in the past four weeks is somehow more powerful (for me).
When I feel lonely, I start keeping track of the following:
- When people reach out
- When people say kind things to me
- When people give me gifts (even if it’s a stranger buying my cup of coffee for me)
- When people invite me to do things with them
- When people come to the things I invite them to
It makes such a difference for me to see a running list of HARD FACTS that are antithetical to my internal understanding of myself as being alone in this world. It also helps me remember to express gratitude to those people I appreciate, and it’s hard to feel lonely when you’re expressing gratitude to people who care about you. I highly recommend it. 🙂
4. Reach out
One of the hardest things for me to do when I feel lonely is to reach out to other people. I get into this depressing mindset of, “If they cared about me, they’d call me,” which is untrue, unfair, and generally unhelpful. Why deny yourself the opportunity to feel connected to someone else just because it’s “their turn to call me” or whatever other reason you’ve convinced yourself you have for not reaching out?
Do it. Reach out. Make overtures of friendship. Some things I’ve had success with:
- Keep track of people’s birthdays, and be the one to schedule celebrations. With the benefit of digital calendars, this is so easy to do and I find it to be a really powerful tool to bring people together. It both helps the birthday boy or girl feel loved, and it gives you fairly regular reasons to bring people together to celebrate. Plus, no one ever wants to decline a birthday invite. What could be better?
- Call a friend or someone in your family you haven’t talked to recently. I have several people in my life with whom I was once very close but with whom I now only talk maybe once every month or two… and you can bet I make those calls when I need them. This helps me to feel closer to those people and also makes sure we keep in touch.
- Invite your friends (or people you’d like to be your friends) to do specific, interesting things together. Too often, we say, “We should hang out!” but never get around to scheduling it. Instead, plan things you want to do and invite others to do it with you. Acceptances tend to be higher if it’s a specific date and it’s something that’s out of the ordinary or once-in-a-lifetime. Plus, you get to feel like the cool kid in town for getting people together to try new things.
- Look up old friends you’ve lost touch with and call them. I recently had a friend from high school find me on LinkedIn. We hadn’t talked in probably 6 or 7 years… but as soon as we got on the phone, we talked for an hour and a half and I had all of the warm fuzzies.
- Find someone who could use a friend. Maybe it’s someone who’s new to your company or your neighborhood and doesn’t know many people yet. Maybe it’s someone who’s going through a divorce. Maybe it’s someone who just seems a little down. Or maybe it’s someone who seems fine and is secretly struggling in life, as so many people do. Make time to listen to that person. Help them feel the way you would like others make you feel.
A word of caution about reaching out when you feel lonely: it’s absolutely vital, but sometimes the people we reach out to are honestly too busy to prioritize us or they have other things on their mind and they really need to conserve their own energy for dealing with that. Do not take this personally. I have a friend who I reach out to regularly and invite to do things and I literally hear nothing back. But the second this friend finds out I’m struggling with something? He’s on the phone and calling me to make sure I’m okay. People will give what they can give, and you have to learn to accept them as they are and be grateful for what they offer you.
5. Use social media sparingly and strategically
Full confession: social media is hit or miss for me, especially if I feel lonely. I will occasionally cut myself off from it for months at a time, and I also go through periods where I feel very connected to people based on the kinds of conversations we can have together online. Currently, I have gotten to the point where I try to only check Facebook a couple of times a day and I have carefully curated my feed to only include the following:
- My close friends who I care about and who care about me
- People I’m not close to but who post interesting things I enjoy
- Famous people or groups who post positive or inspirational messages that brighten my day or make me think about things differently
- Famous people who may go on tour near me who I’d like to see
I have unfollowed anyone who posts highly negative content, anyone who is extremely political, anyone who seems to put forward an inauthentic life online, etc. Your list of people you want to see on social media may obviously vary, but I highly encourage you to ask yourself how the people you’re scrolling past make you feel… and if they don’t make you feel happy or at least mildly interested, hide them.
6. Mindfully pursue your individual hobbies and interests
There are so many ways for you to make the time you spend by yourself more special or meaningful to yourself. Please note that I’m not suggesting that you should stay in all weekend binging House of Cards and ice cream when you feel lonely (unless you really enjoy doing that). Instead, be mindful and present and choose how to spend your alone time in a meaningful way. Read books you’ve been meaning to get to. Work on creative projects. Go for a run.
It’s difficult sometimes to separate ourselves from the inertia of social media or Netflix. It’s easier to zone out and go for the easy hit of endorphins that watching TV gives us than to get off the couch and do something else. But the pleasure we get from mindfully pursuing the things that bring us joy, and being able to look back and remember that we spent our time in a meaningful way, goes a long way to making us feel better about the times we aren’t around other people.
7. Take your individual hobbies and interests on the road!
If you feel as though pursuing your interests at home is still too isolating and lonely, then take them on the road! Go to a coffee shop to read or write. Take your guitar to a park to play music. Try a new gym or yoga studio. Take an art class. Go out into the world and be your best and most interesting self, and the world will respond. Who knows what will happen or who you’ll meet while you’re doing it? I’ve even gone so far as to go on a week-long road-trip by myself, and I have never felt more engaged or grateful to have the flexibility to be by myself for that length of time. You’re less likely to feel lonely if you’re being the person you want to be and living the life you want to live.
For me, volunteering when I feel lonely is a great way to accomplish several things:
- It helps me feel like I’m important to the community around me and key people in particular who need me.
- I get to meet other people who enjoy volunteering, who overwhelmingly tend to be positive, happy, and pleasant.
- It encourages me to be grateful for what (and who) I have in my own life.
Find volunteer opportunities that let you do things you already enjoy or support people or charities you’re already passionate about, and volunteering can be a really great way to ward off any feeling of isolation or loneliness.
Thank you for reading this post. In many ways, this blog is my way of reaching out to others who may be like me, so it means a lot that you’re here. Remember, very often you don’t even notice the many ways that you may influence others and how that influence may ripple out. So thank you for having a positive impact on my life just by being you and being here.
This post is the third in a series on loneliness and connectedness:
- The Difference Between Aloneness and Loneliness
- On Fostering Connectedness
- What to Do When You Feel Lonely
Do you have other tips on handling loneliness? Please feel free to share below. – Lindsay