This piece on how to deal with loneliness is part of my themed posts for Mental Health Awareness month. Check out other posts about on money and mental health here.
I signed off a call with my family, feeling lonely and letdown. We’d taken to having weekly conference calls to catch up while everyone’s been stuck at home.
This week, I’d shared some professional updates — things I was working on but not quite confident about. I was nervous to share that news and hoped for some excitement and reassurance.
Instead, when I was done the subject of conversation just changed. No, “Wow, sounds exciting. Keep us posted!”
My heart sank. I felt so, so alone.
Me, 3 years ago: isolated, lonely, and living in a new state
Loneliness and isolation are universal experiences right now. But for many of us, they aren’t new.
Take me, for instance, an extroverted freelancer who works at home.
The isolation really set in after moving across state lines just over 3 years ago. In a new place, with few people I knew, and working from home, I really had no way to meet anyone. And as a working mom with two young kids, I felt I had no time to commit to social engagements.
On top of this isolation, I felt alone. There was no one in my immediate social circles who was walking the same path I was, at the same time, of working motherhood. I’d recently left Mormonism and lost my congregation and common ground I’d shared with my family.
I was lost on how to deal with loneliness when it seemed my life was set up to so often leave me alone.
It’s (like actually, literally) dangerous to go alone
Talking about how to deal with loneliness in a therapy session, I ended a thought with, “I dunno, maybe I just need to deal. I mean, everyone gets lonely sometimes.”
I was minimizing the problem, trying to pretend I didn’t care. My therapist was having none of it.
“Humans are social creatures,” she said. “We’re built to be around others. Not having that interaction can be harmful. It can actually make us sick. People do, in fact, die of loneliness.”
She referred to studies that connect social isolation with an increased risk of early death by as much as 32% — rivaling the health risks of smoking cigarettes.
Social connection has protective benefits against numerous health risks, from alcoholism or addiction to mental illness, complications from heart problems, and inflammatory or immune disorders.
Loneliness correlates to financial insecurity
There’s also a connection between loneliness and financial insecurity, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report.
People who say they feel lonely are more likely to earn lower incomes and feel dissatisfied with their financial situation. They’re more than twice as likely to report have seen a drop in financial status within the past two years.
If I lost a job, I might find myself drifting away from formerly-close work friends. Or rack up debt and face criticism or disapproval from parents. The simple fact of my fall in status can introduce social friction and awkwardness between friends who were previously on equal financial footing.
While financial hardship or lack can lead to loneliness, the inverse is also true. Another study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that experiencing social exclusion can lead to riskier (but potentially more lucrative) financial behaviors and decisions. The results suggest that when we don’t get social connection, we often use money as a stand-in for popularity or approval of our peers.
In other words, loneliness puts our brains in scarcity mode — and we’re more likely to take greater risks or give into impulses. This also suggests that we should avoid making financial decisions when we’re feeling rejected, excluded, or lonely.
How to deal with loneliness vs. isolation
As I worked specifically on the problem of my own isolation and loneliness, I had a realization over a few weeks: my feelings of loneliness and my social reality were two different things.
Social isolation: how much I socially engage with others
There was the objective, external state of how much I was actually around people, how often or how long we spoke, and even the quality of our interactions. That was my social connection or disconnection.
When I neglected that, it led to more isolation — the external measure of how much I was alone or socially engaged with others. And because I worked from home and was still working to make friends in a new city, I very often was socially isolated. It was rough.
Loneliness: the subjective experience of disconnection or exclusion
But then there was the loneliness: what I subjectively experienced and perceived as my painful social disconnection. I noticed the same kinds of thoughts coming up.
- Sure, people like me — at first. But not enough to actually stick around.
- I’m so flaky, why even bother making friends? I just let everyone down.
- I’ve always been weird, I just don’t connect with everyone.
I poked at those thoughts and found the tender sports where I stored a lifetime of social hurts.
I’m different. I don’t belong. No one understands me.
The third part: the grief
Along with loneliness and isolation, too, came grief.
My maternal grandpa passed away a couple of years ago. He chose to divorce my grandma before I was even born and then made other choices that, to my family’s view, took him further from us. I hadn’t seen him in years at the time of his death. I grieved him, but even more I grieved what could have been, that I never really got the chance to know him.
This grief underlies so much of my loneliness. The loss of cherished relationships and missing support. The aching absence of love, care and safety we deserved and maybe didn’t always get.
The deep rage and pain of being human in a society so determined to put a price on that humanity, then discount and devalue it.
We deserve a society with strong community ties that offer tolerant and unconditional love. We deserve teachers, friends, parents, extended families who understand us, see us clearly, and offer meaningful support. We deserve financial security, health care, and systems and institutions built to serve us and provide safety and security.
The gap between what we know we needed and deserved and what the world has to offer is so, so wide.
And yet — acceptance is the last step of grief. I deserve better, we all do, yet here we are. Still so often alone in the hot stink of it all. So what are the options? Am I willing to offer myself the belonging and acceptance I’ve always deserved?
The answer, I think, must be yes.
Belonging isn’t found — it is nurtured
Teasing out the different parts and shapes of my loneliness was a relief. Separating out my fears of not belonging from my isolation and separation, and my grief.
Because once I can see the shapes and pieces of it all, I can address this overwhelming problem of chronic loneliness a piece at a time.
I can find that small sliver of space I have to make things different, and I can widen it into my own belonging. I know now that belonging isn’t found, but is built within. Where no one can grant it or threaten it.
My loneliness has become less painful and frequent as I’ve relied less on others for validation and affirmation, and worked to befriend myself. Here are some things that are helping me feel less alone and isolated. Here’s how I’m building my own belonging.
How to deal with loneliness and build belonging
- I connect with myself more. Through meditating, exercising, journaling and making time for my hobbies, I make time to be with myself. I give myself a hug for comfort and connection. When I wash my face or brush my teeth, I make eye contact, seeking for understanding and to see and be seen. I work toward being my own best friend.
- I’m changing my beliefs about my place in the world. I fact-check negative thoughts and compare the actual events or evidence to how I’m thinking about them. I’ll ask: is this true? Is there another explanation? Is this helpful to believe? And I’ve found truer, better beliefs about myself to hold onto, instead.
- I’m more open to connection. Because I’m no longer looking to others for my belonging, I can instead allow for freer give-and-take. I can afford to be less picky (demanding) about when and how I speak with a friend. I find something to treasure in every shred of interaction. I find connection in the chat with a cashier, a Twitter exchange, or watching people walk past my house.
- I take responsibility for my social needs. I do my share of building relationships. I ask directly for what I would like, what I value in a relationship. I try not to pout or play passive aggressive games. I do not obligate others nore do I keep score. I trust that we show up for each other when and how we can and care to. In short, I don’t take being alone personally.
I honor you gods.Druidic prayer, via Elizabeth Gilbert
I drink at your well.
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place.
I have no cherished outcomes.
I will not negotiate by withholding.
I am not subject to disappointment.
Let’s build belonging into our communities, too
Of course, no woman is an island. The truth is that no amount of journaling will replace a face-to-face conversation with a friend, or even a phone call with a parent. We still will always need others. We need the give-and-take of energy and feedback of being with our people.
As I take responsibility for my own belonging, I still have responsibilities to others, too. I have responsibilities to my communities and my society. My loneliness and grief delivered me a message, that we all deserve better, and I’m listening. Trying to integrate this into how I live and act.
It is so messy and imperfect. But I don’t want to be cynical about something as beautiful as human connection. I know you and I deserve better than what our society is offering us right now. We need a society that builds belonging through inclusion, rather than clannish exclusion.
And I want to work to build a better community that matches the amazing humans living within it. I’m starting with my responsibilities: raising my kids well. Supporting those in my immediate circle, and using my influence to support those beyond as well. To vote and stay civically engaged. To work toward a healthier form of capitalism that puts people before profit. To speak and act to repair injustices that separate and oppress.
I hope we can be part of building a society where more people feel at home and belong.
- “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle is my most recent read, and it resonated deeply. She shares many messages on how to build a better life alongside building a better and more equitable society. It’s aimed at womxn, but I highly recommend it for all folks.
- “A Social Prescription: Why Human Connection Is Crucial To Our Health” is an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Hidden Brain. It takes a deep dive into the psychology of loneliness, including why the need for social connection is hard-coded into the human mind.
- “Loneliness” from Youtube channel Kurzgesagt breaks down the causes of chronic loneliness with the usual colorful-yet-soothing animation.
- “Create a Sense of Belonging,” by Karyn Hall and published on Psychology Today, is a clinician’s suggestions for developing a sense of belonging.
- “Take Steps to Counter the Loneliness of Social Distancing” by Jane Brody for The New Your Times provides tips from mental health experts for dealing with the specific challenges of isolation presented by the current pandemic. I love that it includes tips for soothing our own loneliness as well as supporting others.