Loneliness is a huge concept.
To be able to set off in the right direction, we ought to have an idea where the goal is. The difficulty in dealing with loneliness is that it itself does not seem to have an elegant antonym.
This reminds me somewhat of the journey that we take in therapy. My work with clients is hardly ever a linear voyage and therein lies the poetry and dance of the therapeutic exploration that occurs in sessions (which, while non-linear, is not entirely opaque to clients; most, by Session No. 4 or 5, feel illuminated about the dance steps and are fascinated with their footwork of self-discovery). In a similar vein, to hawk some DIY solutions for loneliness almost feels like a disservice to this intense human condition that contains such complexity.
The following tips may not appear as intuitively clear-cut as cliched advice can get, such as, “get out there and meet some new people” or “be positive” (something close to none of my clients enjoy hearing but well-meaning people around them just cannot seem to stop themselves) so understanding the derivation of these tips may help clarify what we hope to get out of their practice.
Unlike previous posts with infographics, the current post works best with a visual introduction to today’s baby steps, followed by explanations in support of these self-care tips.
Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.
— May Sarton, poet & novelist
The previous post on the dangers of loneliness introduced both physical isolation and perceived loneliness to be damaging to our physical, mental and emotional health. Because we are all different (people), formulaic advice may well be foolish. Social activities may alleviate feelings of dreariness for some, and elevate feelings of anxiety in others. Likewise with being alone. Thus, the number one tip in managing self-care is to listen to yourself. By monitoring your inner self (feelings, body cues, reactions), you will gain insights into your truer, more authentic reaction toward an event. Perhaps you have had a can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it moment when you met someone who was awfully bubbly, cheery and sweet... but you felt something was a bit off? That would have been your body informing you of potential disconnect or warning you of a cue in the interaction that should be red-flagged. Our bodies know more than we realise and these internal check-ins can be meaningful.
That perceived loneliness is as great a danger as actual isolation suggests that this tip is not just about saying yes to the events that you are invited to. There will be times where you might feel better declining an invitation and enjoying some me-time or solitude. Me, myself and I might provide richer company than a room of people you feel disconnected from.
Self-awareness helps us understand when we might need to do this and take a voluntary social time-out. How can we help ourselves be more attuned to our emotional needs? One thing that can assist us in enhancing this awareness is hygge-centred activities. According to the Danes, hygge comes from a Norwegian word meaning well-being. Words are insufficient to do justice to these huge emotional concepts (hygge, loneliness, the opposite of loneliness...). Without a straightforward definition, hygge can be thought of as a feeling, an experience, a sensation. My clear lack of Danishness can only allow me to intimate what I feel hygge encompasses, that it seems a close cousin to present moment mindfulness as mentioned in this post. This winter, how about creating a hygge space for yourself to curl up with a good novel, surrounded by fluffy furry cushions, a cosy fleece blanket, scented candles, and a warm, aromatic cup of cinnamon hot chocolate to engage all your senses and allow you to just be (this mere lexical imagery is powerful enough for me to be in the moment, so this hygge sure is something). For the uninitiated, these happy hygge tips here are a great introduction to the practice.
Sometimes our little inner voice may be a bit of a Debbie Downer. This comes with the territory: it is well-established that negative thinking patterns (depressive styles included) narrow our thought processes and vision of the world. “The depressive mind is narrowed to a tunnel vision in which patients tend to circle around the same (negative) pieces of information” (Remmers & Michalak, 2016). Knowing that this happens gives us more power to be even more insightful. When we are feeling down, our unhelpful thinking patterns may be interacting with our nagging voice of self-doubt to hatch a plot to prevent us from reaching out to others or to participate in something fun. In these situations, an easy reality check could prove useful for us to quickly see if these thoughts hold water. Reality testing is as simple as asking yourself for evidence for as well as to the contrary. If I were to borrow Charlie Brown’s thought, “I get tired of losing. Everything I do, I lose,” the simplest reality check would be to ask him, “Really, everything everything?” In my couples therapy sessions, thought patterns like this come up pretty often and this reality check frequently elicits sheepish chuckles in the guilty party, if not in both partners.
Related to the tunnel vision of negative thinking is an automatic, physiological self-preservation that kicks in with loneliness. It is fascinating that research has demonstrated that loneliness makes us more defensive (self-preservation), lending credence to stereotypes like the grumpy old man. The vicious cycle becomes clearer. Tendency toward defensiveness makes us unpleasant company, which in turn generates reciprocal attitudes and behaviours toward us that aggravate our negative thinking and defensiveness, and the cycle goes on... also making any form of reasonable reality testing a challenging (and humbling) task.
On the other hand, if we were to notice a preference for me-time over group activities, that doesn’t mean that we should call it a day. A healthy balance of social connections is important for human well-being; we see what happens in extreme situations where children are deprived of human touch and connection (e.g., Harlow’s monkey experiments, feral children). This also means putting down smart devices to engage with someone in real life. Smart devices - and emojis - are poor substitutes for face-to-face conversations where empathy and connection can be conveyed through the slightest facial twitch. Noting that the key to all these self-care tips is baby steps, real life connections need not be overwhelming or frequent.
Bottom-line, listen to your inner voice (always Step 1) and pace yourself according to your needs and preferences. Call it a night after 30 minutes at a gathering or make a night of it with one meet-up after another. Your pace, your time. Loneliness is a subjective state. If your inner voice misses someone from your past and is whispering for you to reconnect with this person, no harm dropping a short hi to round off 2017. The new year gives anyone the perfect excuse to reach out with a simple, how are things going.
Please check back in here after the new year for more mental health self-care tips. Wishing one and all a happy 2018.