You Don't Have to Be Lonely: How to Get Connected

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Are you lonely? If so youíre not alone! One in three Americans report being lonely. All types of people experience loneliness from time to time, but certain groups are especially vulnerable to chronic, heart-aching loneliness Ė older people, widows and widowers, divorcees, and singles are especially vulnerable to loneliness. Surprisingly, even many teenagers (1 out of 10) admit to struggling with loneliness.

Loneliness Hurts

It hurts to feel lonely. Our greatest need as people is to be in loving relationships and when we donít feel connected to others who we care about and who care about us then we feel lonely. And with prolonged loneliness come other problems.

Depression. People who are lonely are usually depressed. Their relational and social needs aren't being met. They miss having a partner to share life with and feel disconnected and bored. Even if youíre busy, competent, successful, or wealthy life lacks meaning if youíre not connected to people.

Low Self-esteem. Commonly, those who are lonely donít feel good about themselves. Self-esteem is not something we can manufacture ourselves or even maintain by ourselves. We all need to be esteemed and affirmed consistently by others for who we are inside, how we express ourselves, and what we have to offer. If youíre isolated from others then youíre unknown and unappreciated.

Fear and Anxiety. We need each other in so many ways. One reason we need others is to talk through our feelings. Every day we all experience many things including some negative, painful things. We need to share these feelings and receive support. If we donít regularly share our hearts with others then weíll become anxious, worried, and agitated. And we may become fearful and increasingly mistrusting of others.

Misperception and Projection. When weíre not receiving support from caring people our souls become a breeding ground for negativity. Lacking in feedback from others weíre prone to make all sorts of wrong and negative assumptions about other people and how they feel about us. And we may project our own issues onto them seeing judgment or rejection when itís not out there, itís actually coming from inside!

Physical Problems. Dean Ornish, MD reported on research that showed that people who are lonely, depressed, and isolated are three to five times more likely to develop serious illness or to die prematurely. He concluded:

"Iím not aware of any factor in medicine Ė not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery Ė that has greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death than the healing power of love and intimacy. Yet the need for love and intimacy often goes unfulfilled." (Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy.)

Four Types of Lonely People

Socially Isolated. Jared is 37 and single and not currently dating anyone. (All names and identifying information in this article have been changed.) Heís a representative for an investment company and works from home. He sells financial products to investment brokers, mostly over the phone and for 10 or more hours per day. With his free time he likes to watch sporting events and tinker in the garage.

Jared is busy, successful, and enjoys his work and his hobbies, but he doesn't belong to any social groups or clubs. Heís friendly with his clients and people he sees at church or around town, but he has no context for regular contact with a consistent group of people.

He finally sought help saying, "I donít belong anywhere. I need to meet some people and make some friends, but I donít know where to start." He started to feel connected to people when he affiliated himself with some groups. He got involved in the singles group at his church and he started an investment club with weekly member meetings. And he volunteered in his churchís car ministry. He had less time for his work and his hobbies, but he was much happier.

Interpersonally Isolated. Alicia had places to belong, but she was still lonely. Sheís married with two young children and volunteers in her childrenís school and plays bunco with her friends in the neighborhood every couple of weeks.

Why is she lonely? Sheís getting enough social interaction and is affiliated with groups that are meaningful to her, but all of her relationships are rather superficial. She said, "I just donít feel like I have anyone to really share my heart with. Nobody really knows when I've had a bad day and Iím tired of being a mother or I just hung up from a call with my sister in which I felt criticized. My husband knows, but he doesn't know how to deal with my feelings."

Alicia needed more intimacy in her life. Talking with me about her true feelings helped because she felt understood. She had been dismissing her feelings herself and now she started to take them seriously. Also, she took some risks and became more honest with two of her friends that she felt safest with and the closeness that developed was just what she was missing.

Intrapersonal Isolation. Ken had struggled with loneliness ever since his wife died of cancer three years ago. Of course, he missed her, but his loneliness went beyond that. The surprising thing was that he felt lonely even though he was very involved with his grown kids and their families and was active in his work and church and community. He had places he belonged and people who cared about him, but still he felt lonely.

"I hate being alone," he complained. "I just stay busy all the time." Work, projects, errands, social outings he was always doing something. And when he was with his family and friends he kept the focus off himself and onto them. What we found out was that Ken didn't like himself. He was quite self-critical and felt guilty having any needs at all. He didn't ask for help and tried to stay out of the spotlight. Even when others offered care it didn't get in very well because he felt so bad about himself.

Ken had to learn to ask for personal attention and care and to accept it and agree with it. He had to take it in and care for himself. And whenever he was alone and not liking being with himself he tried to call his or daughter or one of his friends and tell them how he felt.

Spiritual Loneliness. Beckyís loneliness was spiritual, although she didn't identify it as such at first. She was satisfied with her marriage and her relationships with her teenage daughters and she had friends that she enjoyed. But she felt that something was missing.

When I asked her about her faith it became clear that she was struggling in that area. She was a Christian, but she wasn't active in her faith and didn't really have much of a relationship with God. She had stopped going to church and reading her Bible some years ago and only prayed now and again, mostly in times of great need or stress.

To her God was distant and uninvolved at best and harsh at worst. She had unresolved anger at her religious fatherís hypocrisy and some bad experiences in a legalistic church and some which were effecting how she felt about God. As she worked through these issues and talked about the emptiness in her life it became clear to her that she was hungering for intimacy with God and a feeling of significance to her life. She realized that she had been enjoying Godís blessings in her life without attributing them to him. She did so and sought him with an open heart and she began to experience his love in new ways and it made the difference for her.

The Cycle of Loneliness

I've found that there is a pattern to loneliness, how it develops and how it continues. And the negative cycle can be broken. You donít have to live with perpetual loneliness. The way out starts with understanding how loneliness develops and worsens.

People who struggle with chronic loneliness usually have bonding injuries or deficits from childhood that need attention. Obviously, this includes those who have been abused, harshly treated, or abandoned. Less obviously, it may include those who were repeatedly criticized or rejected or were emotionally neglected. Sensitive, fragile, and perfectionistic children are particularly vulnerable to receiving lasting relational wounds.

The pain from being continually wounded or unloved by those who you depend upon can be crippling. To cope with this we develop patterns of denial and escape. These defense mechanisms, compulsions, and patterns of withdrawal are unconscious ways of minimizing the pain of the moment, but over time they make the pain worse.

Tragically, those who have been most hurt and are most in need of love and care are often least equipped to develop the caring, healing relationships that they need. Theyíre lonely. And they may become negative, mistrusting, and hopeless. Their loneliness may continue or worsen as they recycle through the pattern, being re-injured and experiencing more pain in relationships that are abusive, chaotic, or disappointing.

Quick Comforts for the Lonely

For many loneliness comes and goes. And for those who are chronically lonely the pain may peak and wane. So for those times that quick comfort is needed what you can do? Some deny their feelings and try to distract themselves with busyness. Others have a bowl of ice cream or engage in some other compulsive behavior.

Here are a few ideas for healthy ways to get through about of loneliness:

  1. Pick up the phone and call a family member, friend, or an acquaintance.
  2. Go to the store or an event and be friendly with people you encounter.
  3. Go outside and take a walk. Let nature speak to you.
  4. Get a pet to care for and cuddle with.
  5. Get involved in a hobby you enjoy.
  6. Talk to God about how youíre feeling and express your love to him.

Steps from Loneliness to Loveliness

If loneliness is a continual problem for you then you need more than a quick dose of comfort. You need to work at building meaningful, caring relationships with others, yourself, and God. And you may need to focus on your emotional healing and growth by seeking the support of a therapist or support group.

Here are some steps to overcoming chronic loneliness.

  1. Get involved in a social group(s) in your church or community. Be in contexts where you can meet and get to know other people by having frequent contact with the same people.
  2. Join a support group or small group in which there is a stated intention of developing caring relationships.
  3. Build intimacy with safe people by sharing your inner feelings and drawing them out too. Talk about your relationship and how itís going, especially the positives.
  4. When someone is listening to you, helping you, or caring for you work at taking it in by agreeing with their care and encouragement and expressing appreciation.
  5. Keep a journal in which you write down your prayers and your sense of what God is saying back to you.
  6. Find other people who are lonely and express care for them. Lonely people are not hard to find. Just volunteer your time in a church ministry or community center and youíll encounter people who need your listening, encouragement, and help.

How to be a Popular Person

People who make desirable, genuine friends are well liked for good reasons. Popular people practice certain skills that make them attractive to others and make their relationships more likely to succeed. Practice as many of these skills as you can until they become they become a habitual part of your lifestyle and character. Then loneliness will be an infrequent and momentary experience for you.

  1. Schedule social time. Your calendar should have room for relationships. Things like support groups, quality time with family, one-on-one time with friends, community service, and social events are regular parts of the schedules of popular people.
  2. Maintain a positive attitude. An enthusiastic, encouraging, positive approach to life is winsome and it makes relationship opportunities succeed. Expect others to respond positively to you and usually they will. Be friendly and people will want to talk with you again.
  3. Be an active listener. Ask open-ended questions that draw people out. Reply to others with caring comments that are connected to what has been said to you. Contrary to what most think, you donít have to be interesting to be popular; you have to be interested.
  4. Bounce back from rejection. Everyone feels rejected or shunned from time to time. The key is how you react to rejection. Those who are socially secure and confident donít take rejection personally. They realize that it can result from misunderstanding, the other personís problems or mood, or an incompatibility. They learn from their experience, bounce back, and try again Ė with the same person or someone new.
  5. Contain your emotions. Nobody likes to be dumped on. Donít ramble on and on about your problems and donít overreact to situations with huge emotional displays. Think about what youíre going to say before you say it. When expressing your feelings, take ownership of what you feel and be clear by saying, "When that happened I feltÖ"
  6. Diffuse disagreements. Disagreement and conflict is inevitable in any close relationship. Work at stopping conflicts from escalating by validating the other personís feelings, apologizing for your wrongs, and negotiating resolutions.
  7. Express your sense of humor. Everyone likes to laugh. Share jokes or funny stories and try to find the humor in situations and talk about it.

By Dr. Bill Gaultiere

© 2001 Used by permission.