In my presentation on loneliness that I give to college students, I share how throughout my darkest times there was a theme of having no one to talk to. I was on my own with handling my depression and anxiety. There was so much stigma and I felt embarrassed to bring up what I felt were weaknesses.
In the years since college I’ve learned that mental illness has this incredible ability to make us feel alone. It causes us to feel as though we’re the only one dealing with what we’re going through. It warps our sense of reality. Mental illness causes us to feel very lonely.
I already felt out of place in college. I was a punk kid at a school where most everyone was preppy. I chose my college because my sister went there and I felt scared of going to school somewhere that I didn’t know anyone. I thought a large state school would swallow me up. I worried I’d get lost there and matter even less than I felt I already did.
Music was my life at the time and it troubled me so much to realize that there wasn’t anyone else at my school who had the same deep interest in punk music as me. This already left me feeling lonely. The added burden of depression and anxiety only increased the disconnect I felt toward others.
I began to ask myself, "Why would I want to speak up about my mental health concerns if they left me feeling guilt and shame? Not to mention, how can I explain what is going on in my mind if I can’t even understand what it is? It seemed easier to not even try."
But not starting that process of speaking up on our mental health issues doesn’t help us. In fact, it only sets us back from being the happier people we want to be. (Even at my most negative and lowest points I had to admit I did want to get better. But I didn’t know how.) So we need to make those initial steps to speak about our mental health. In doing so, it enables us to not only work toward recovery, but break free of the loneliness that so often accompanies mental health issues.
I write a lot about connections, loneliness, and belonging. It’s important to have community in our lives. It makes us healthier, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And even though I’m not yet forty, I’ve been fortunate to have some friendships for over twenty or even thirty years. I find those friendships rewarding. We do our best to keep in touch via email and social media. I also try and visit these friends once or twice a year. Our brief times together provide me with much encouragement.
But there’s a flipside to this: how do you know when it’s time to end a friendship? As an article on friendship pointed out: “When getting together feels like an obligation, you dread seeing someone or you walk away from dinner feeling angry, frustrated or dissatisfied, it may signal that the friendship is faltering and the end is near.”
It’s possible we have a toxic friendship. There are people that abuse our time and sympathy (I call them emotional vampires because they suck our emotions and give nothing back). It’s often the case that we wish to do what we can to save the friendship—especially if it’s one we’ve maintained for many years. Yet, for the sake of our own mental health it can sometimes be best to end that relationship.
When I have found a friendship to be overwhelming me emotionally, what I often do is first try and confront the friend in an honest manner. I let them know what they’re doing and that while I still care for them, they way in which they’re approaching our friendship is difficult for me.
If that gentle reminder doesn’t help, it is good to speak again with them. But if repeated discussions don’t change the person’s behavior, it can be best to extract one’s self from the relationship.
In doing so there might be feelings of remorse and sadness from letting go of something that you may have once held dear. But keep in mind that your mental health is what is most important in this situation. It can be key to look after yourself, especially if the relationship is causing mental or emotional distress for you.
When it comes to the actual extraction, lessening the frequency of communication is the best means to do so. It doesn’t mean to stop speaking with them cold turkey, but it can mean instead of your monthly call or email, make it every other month. If you’re in their city or town for another reason, don’t reach out to let them know you’re there. If they find out later you were around, assure them you were busy the entire time you were there and didn’t have a moment to spare.
If the friend confronts you on your behavior, be honest with them. Explain that you spoke with them about changing their behavior to make the friendship more equal and that s/he didn’t adjust. Tell them that you have to watch out for relationships that are difficult for your mental health. There is no reason to feel shame—your mental health is more important than any of your friendships.
The relationship may find a rekindling. That is the ideal situation. Your friend sees how their actions caused problems with your relationship and then changes their behavior. Barring that, though, you may have to make a clean break with that friend. It can be difficult and there will likely be feelings of remorse and as though part of you has died. And it’s okay to feel that way, because when we lose something important in our lives, it’s natural to grieve.
At moments such as that, turn to other friends and family. Give yourself time to feel your feelings. And then continue to build new relationships. Leave the past in the past knowing that you did your best to save the friendship and had to look after yourself. And when dealing with the precious area of mental health, you can never be too safe.
It’s that time of year again: holiday season. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are all within six weeks of one another. While for many it’s a joyous occasion, for others it can be a very lonely time.
Here are a list of some things you can do to fight off the loneliness during this time (and especially on the actual days).
1. Reach out to family
Not everyone has a good relationship with their family. But if you do and can’t be with them in person, try and connect with them. I’ve spent a few Thanksgivings and Christmases on my own. I made sure to call family on those days and let them know I was thinking of them. I checked in to see how things were going and what they were up to—not only about that specific holidays, but generally in their lives. A phone call for half an hour or an hour is a good way to feel connected with others, even if we’re not there with them.
2. Reach out to friends
Chances are you may not be the only person amongst your friends who doesn’t have anyone to connect with on a particular holiday. For a few years I lived far away from my family on the other side of the country and couldn’t make it home for Christmas. So I spent it with friends—eating at a Chinese restaurant or a diner. Even if it was for an hour or two, it was nice to be out of my apartment and with others. Sometimes I didn’t even know the people too well. But I put myself out there and realized that I would feel better if I could be around others and out of my own head.
3. Come up with plans on your own
Chinese food and a movie. I’ve done it before and it’s always a good time. When you’re at the Chinese restaurant, take a book with you or do some journaling. Afterward, go see a fun film or some big, dumb blockbuster movie. Something to take your mind off any loneliness you may feel. Or, spend the day and binge watch a TV show while working on a project. I often feel bad if I binge watch an entire season of a show but if I’m also spending the time working on a project, it can feel useful.
4. Work on goals for the next year
If you’re alone for a holiday, spend it working on goals for the next year. What do you want to do in the first three months of the year? The first six months? Ask yourself why you want to achieve these goals and what roadblocks may come up in trying to do them. Develop steps to complete your goals. Then put these steps in your calendar for the next few months and keep yourself on track.
These are a few ideas of things to do when you’re alone (and if you're lonely) on a holiday. I’ve celebrated my fair shares of New Year’s Eves, Christmases, and Thanksgivings on my own. I’ve found these ideas to work for me. But what about you? What’s worked for you? Leave me some comments below—I’d love to hear from you!
Over the past few months I’ve been on a journey to narrow down my focus of speaking about loneliness. It's a big topic and while there are those who speak about the subject at large, I prefer to speak to college students.
College was when I first experienced full-blown bipolar disorder as well as the first time I felt severe loneliness. Part of the reason was because I went to a college where I didn’t fit in, but also my mental health issues kept me from feeling connected with others.
Reasons for loneliness among college-aged students can vary. Some are from overseas and going to school in another country may not be easy. For others, their mental health issue may keep them from finding connections. Or it's possible the school they’re at is among people they don’t feel comfortable: they’re a city person and they’re in a school in a small town, or vice versa.
Whatever the reason for the loneliness, it exists. And it’s prevalent among college students. So what are we to do about it?
The first thing we can do is have people speak up. And I’m not only referring to professional speakers on college campuses. I’m also including students. It’s may be easy for some students to hear a tale from someone like myself who is out of the realm of college age and dismiss what I say.
But, having a fellow student come out and proclaim their difficulties can have a much more powerful impact. Whenever we know the person dealing with a problematic experience, it can make us accepting to what they’re going through.
The second thing is to have more education about the agency that we, as individuals, have to combat and defeat loneliness. I’ve often believed that early in a student’s college career (or even before it), there should be education on mental health issues at school. Students should be aware that college can be a time of great transition with their mental wellness. And they may feel emotions and undergo new experiences in their mental health.
That said, loneliness should also be a part of that conversation. This is especially important for students who spend time overseas or who, for one reason or another, are going to be away from their peers. Yet, learning about how to find belonging should be something that colleges teach students.
College can be a tremendous time of change. Even if you’re not in school, the transition from high school to the full-time working world is a jolt. Thus, more awareness, by both peers and educators, is key to letting those in their late teens and early twenties know they’re not alone. And in doing so, we also should pass along means by which those in college can know that there are ways they can find belonging.
I've written about how I got into speaking on mental health, but never so much why. So why did I decide to put myself out there for others to get to know something that many consider a deep, dark secret?
I've always been somewhat of a confessional writer. In the early 2000s I published my horrible poetry and free-ranging rants on my music website, Action Attack Helicopter. I knew I wanted to share thoughts and ideas with others--I thought it might help someone although I'm not sure why. I suppose at some point I got some encouragement here or there from a friend and a few positive words of feedback. That was enough to keep me going.
Over the years I've had some zines and blogs and they also received very limited but honest praise. And I also didn't know what else to do--I felt there was a need to express myself. It's part of being a writer; that idea implanted in one's mind that one must share their thoughts.
It didn't seem too awkward, then, to transition into being more direct and honest about my mental health issues. No longer did I need to mask it in poorly written poetry or adequate prose. I wrote not only of my struggles but also of answers. I spent hours of time online and researched solutions to issues related to loneliness, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
It's not only about writing, though. It's easy to do that behind a computer, tucked away in my apartment. Yet, I want to speak about loneliness and depression. There are a few reasons why I actually get in front of crowds and speak.
1) I like the immediate reactions. It's wonderful to see people smile or laugh at what you say. Or it's an acknowledgment through a nod that they understand what you're saying. The ability to try and connect with others--and to know you're connecting--is a rewarding feeling.
2) It's a rush. Speaking makes me nervous and I imagine it always will. Yet when you know your topic and can channel it into energy when you speak, it's quite a high.
3) I can see the direct effect of lives changed. It's encouraging and rewarding to have that immediate validation afterward. It's awesome when someone tells you that what you said spoke to them and they can identify with it. That confirmation of what you did and that it had a positive impact on others signals to me that it was a job well done.
I'm not going to lie: it's validating to know I'm changing lives and affecting people. It makes me feel good. But that's something we all seek in our lives. We want to be happy about our existence. So yes, some of this is about what I get out of it. But if I'm going to feel good, I can't think of any better reason than because I'm helping others with my words and speaking.
How does one go from feeling nervous about public speaking to presenting a 35 minute talk on loneliness? Should you accept the challenge of becoming a public speaker your experience will vary, but here are the steps I took.
In high school I was in a couple of plays but always had small roles—just a few lines. I sang for my friends’ hardcore punk band on occasion, too. It was a real rush to feel so many people with their eyes on me. After that my performing life went dormant for a long while.
In graduate school in 2009 and 2010 I began to present at academic conferences on my masters thesis subject—1970s Christian scare films. Despite small audiences (as is the case at almost all such events), I discovered I enjoyed being in front of others. I liked sharing information about a subject in which I had an interest.
In 2014 I decided to break myself out of a depressive spell by taking a stand-up comedy class. I have always enjoyed watching stand-up and thought that I could do it. I performed at about 15-20 open mics and did a showcase for my class, too. While I didn't take to the comedy scene, I did know I liked being on stage with people watching me. In such a situation, I found it created a nervous ball of energy and anxiety that pushed me to perform with great passion.
The next year, 2015, I looked into giving historical tours. I took a class through a non-profit that offers such tours and learned a bit more about the history of Boston. After six weeks I graduated a docent and began practicing. And practicing. And practicing. I walked my tour route in Boston's North End many times. I practiced out loud in my room. I followed nine different guides on their tours so I could see what they did. I gave three practice tours to friends. When my time finally came I did all right. It wasn't the best thing ever but I enjoyed it. As long as I felt comfortable with the material, it went okay.
After doing that tour for three years I started working for another company giving a different tour. I learned to handle horrible situations: down-pouring rain, bratty children, fist fights, and drug addicts around me as I tried to tell tales. These situations built character and resilience.
I started going to Toastmasters about this time, learning the fundamentals of giving speeches. I realized I already had most things down well. I used Toastmasters to try out some ideas, though, including my first speech on loneliness. After about a year I left, knowing that I had gotten what I could out of it.
During this same time I made a goal to enter one storytelling event. I practiced my story to my cat and my mirror a dozen times or more. And when it came to my first story slam, I won the audience choice award. For the second event, I entered I won the entire story slam! It's taken me years to work on my self-esteem but I can finally say that this is something at which I excel.
When it came to learning how to understand the speaking business and find gigs, I listened to The Speaker Lab. It's a podcast for speakers and those who want to speak. I also read a lot of articles. I took a copious amount of notes.
I've learned that moving in a stair-step approach—taking on things one at a time—is also helpful. I can't imagine going from no public speaking to giving a 35-minute presentation. But adding one challenge and then another enabled me to build confidence. I may not be the best public speaker but I'm doing what I can to share ideas and help some people along the way. It didn't happen over night but the journey has been well worth it.
There has been a great deal written on loneliness in the workplace. According to some business experts, it is a plague affecting the American worker. Much of this has to do with the increase in telecommuting.
My problem with loneliness at work is feeling disconnected from my co-workers. One reason is because I work solitary jobs (tour guide, writer, solo librarian at a reference desk). Too, I have little in common with my peers: they are parents with long commutes or much older than myself.
At only one job since graduating college did I have a connection with others and that was when I worked at a record label. We all shared a passion for similar music and getting others interested in it. Yet, even then things seemed strained as I dealt with my depression and anxiety. Mental illness can easily cause one to feel lonely.
Still, the majority of the places I’ve worked I dealt with casual relationships. We joke with one another, talk about our families, share our thoughts on social and political issues, and at the end of the day we go our separate ways. I’ve always wished for closer connections yet they don’t develop. Without moving around to different jobs, it has caused me to not make as many friends as I’d like to.
So, how do we deal with these situations? How do we make friends when that all-too-often avenue of work doesn’t make itself available to adding new relationships where we find connection? There are other means available.
I haven’t felt the acute solitude in my career described in some of the articles about work and loneliness. A big reason is because I don’t telecommute and I have co-workers in my office. Yet the loneliness I feel is much more subdued and it’s possible I’ve internalized it by this point. I’ve accepted that I will only have superficial contact with others at my jobs.
As I recently started a new job I hope to change this, though. It’s through being open and expecting the best that I will try to make this happen. I hope you can do the same should you find yourself feeling lonely at your job.
1. No one is going to save you from your loneliness; you're going to have to put the work in
In 2005 and 2006, during my first bout of extreme loneliness, I wallowed in it. I wished for interactions with others but didn't make any effort to establish them. I made a lot of excuses due to my schedule (I worked evenings) but did very little to try and connect with others. Making these connections was more difficult for me given where I lived. (At that time I lived in South Bend, Indiana, which didn't have a lot to offer) I was often depressed, too. Still, there were options for me but I didn't advocate for myself to pursue them.
2. When you do reach out to find connections, you may have to try a long time and a lot of places
I've tried many ways to meet people: volunteer at organizations, connect with co-workers, meet friends of friends and join their circle. You name it, there's a good chance I've done it. I did pick up friends along the way, though. It doesn't always happen in one fell swoop. You may find a connection from a friend of a friend and another relationship through a job. There's rarely one moment where you find your best friends and that's it. It can take a while and require tackling your loneliness from many angles.
3. Loneliness can teach you things that are beneficial, i.e. it can be good for you (for a time)
For more on that you can see my post here or my video here. But suffice it to say, there are lessons of strength, resilience, and confidence that one can take away from extended periods of loneliness. That doesn't mean it's something we should strive for. Yet considering it will likely happen to us at some point in our lives, we may as well find some things to appreciate about it.
4. You will make it through your loneliness
For every time I've spent feeling lonely, I have come out the other side. When I lived in South Bend and was lonely, I found alleviation when I moved to Seattle and had a bunch of friends. When I was lonely upon moving to Boston, it lessened by finding a good partner who provides me with most of the companionship I need. The times when one is lonely can seem to last forever. Life can stagger and pass in deep pauses, but those periods of loneliness can be overcome. Those pauses will once again give rise to a murmur of connection with other human beings. It's a type of connection that brings some reassurance and meaning. While you're in those time devoid of connection, use them to your advantage to better yourself and make those attempts to reach out. You will make it through.
Feeling depressed and lonely is a difficult place to be. Loneliness, especially, is a solitary trial, something that alienates us from others. We see those around us who appear happy and think, “What is wrong with me that I can’t be like them?”
It can bring some relief, though, to remember that I’m not alone in these struggles. And it’s not only friends or co-workers who deal with these feelings of loneliness or great sadness. Successful individuals, too, are trying to get by with these emotions. While I’m not happy others are suffering, knowing that there is a wide range of people dealing with what I’m undergoing can make me feel not quite as bad. I can say to myself, “If they’re dealing with this and achieving some of their goals, perhaps that’s possible for me, too. There’s no logical reason why that shouldn’t happen.”
But this also works the other way. When friends and family are working through issues of melancholy or feeling disconnected, we can support one another. Even if we’re both not feeling well, there can be attempts to hold one another accountable to do the things we need to do to work toward getting better. In the same way, having gone through difficult times and emerging on the other side means we can help those who need it.
For years (in fact, most of my teens and twenties) I never thought I’d emerge from the dark cave of depression in which I found myself. And yet, after a lot of therapy, medications, writing, and so many other attempts at mental wellness, I’ve found some calm (for the most part). And now I want to use that to help others and remind them that it is possible to get through unwanted times of emotional pressure. Whatever you’re going through, and no matter how bad it feels, other people have been there. We want to do our best to remind you you’re not alone and we’re here to help.
I tuck myself away from people quite often—not the best way to deal with loneliness. But I do so not to escape socialization (at least not entirely), but rather to work. Yet, there’s a part of me that can’t deny that a lot of this is because it’s safer to work than to socialize and try and meet other people.
I write, edit that writing, and then write some more. It’s reviews for Razorcake, the punk music magazine I’ve been with since 2005, or entries for this here blog post. Sometimes I’m editing a book or longer piece I’m putting together for another publication.
With writing and giving talks, with the extra jobs I take on (I currently have four part-time jobs), it’s all about keeping busy. I do this for two reasons: when I’m occupied with work I don’t think about how lonely I am, and also because time is of the essence.
Work is reliable. It rarely lets me down and the only person I have to please is myself. When I am deep into my writing or editing I feel productive and accomplished and that is a wonderful feeling. I also don’t have to acknowledge my loneliness, which can often leave me depressed—a road down which I don’t wish to go.
The past few years I’ve recognized that I’m getting older (just shy of 40). There are still too many people to help and things I want to do in my life. This includes spending more time doing something I enjoy: speaking about my mental health. There’s something about having a few suicide attempts in my life that cause me to want to work even harder at living in the moment and do even more.
I try and find time to slow down. I do this by exercising at the gym or doing yoga. I read, although lately I find it more difficult to find a good book. I enjoy vacationing and seeing historical sites, museums, and the outdoors in all its splendor.
Yet I can’t seem to slow down. And I know I need to. I need to find time to make friends and get to know others. It’s easy to stay in what makes one comfortable, especially when I can mask it as helping others. I’m putting them before myself and that can feel like a more noble route to take. Yet I don’t always follow my own advice about loneliness because it takes time too long to implement those practices.
None of this is to say I’m going to stop with my writing and speaking. Yet I have become more aware as of late that it’s important for my health to make connections with others. That can bring me joy in a different manner. A well-rounded approach to happiness is something that we all can use. So I’m doing my best to begin to attempt to go from “can’t stop, won’t stop” to “maybe can stop, should probably stop from time to time.”
,There is a lot of stigma associated with the word “loneliness” or saying “I’m lonely.” But loneliness strikes everyone at some point in our lives. It's challenging to take one's self out of a comfort zone and be in situation where we may know few, if any, people. For college students, being a young adult is already a time of questioning one’s self, meaning we may not feel as though we belong. Yet that is what we’re all seeking, especially when we’re unsure of ourselves.
Setting up a system whereby students become informed of their need for belonging and how to find that presents a positive notion. It says: here’s this thing you want and now let’s talk about how you can get it. This is in opposition to the way that loneliness often comes across. It's often seen as a dreaded state to avoid and connected to depression and inadequacy.
Yet everyone desires to connect and belong. Framing an attack on loneliness in this manner seems a more likely way to get students to interact with programs at universities. “How to find connection and a sense of belonging” versus “How to stop feeling lonely.” While the phrasing could be slightly different with each of those, the sentiment is the same. Having more people say “I’m lonely” along with rephrasing it as being about connection and belonging would find more success in aiding students who may be dealing with both loneliness and wanting to belong.
In my times of loneliness I discovered some qualities about myself that I wasn’t expecting. One thing I learned is how creative I can be. When I dealt with my loneliness I knew I had to find things to keep me occupied. I started going places on my own—not only on vacation but around Boston, where I live. I started visiting historical sites and not allowing my lack of friends to keep me from living life. One semester of grad school I went to look for different breakfast places around the city to eat at on Saturday mornings. It gave me something to do and exposed me to new parts of the city. Another time, I looked for the best burritos in the city.
Through my loneliness I also learned more about myself, mentally. I realized when I needed to exercise and release my life of tension and stress. It also allowed me to be around others, even if I didn’t have conversations with them. I would often leave feeling better. I forced myself to meditate more often because even though I thought it was boring, I ended up often feeling better after that. After these experiences with my loneliness, I realized I was stronger than I ever thought I could be.
I first had experiences with loneliness in high school and between my low-self esteem and immaturity I was often crushed by it. Years later, after a growth in my confidence and maturity, I acknowledged I was stronger than I may have otherwise thought. And that was encouraging to me. I could see that it wasn’t only about loneliness. I had strength to tackle other big struggles in my life.
Loneliness isn't something I wish upon others. Yet at the same time I can’t imagine my life without it because it’s made me into the emotionally resilient person I am today. We know loneliness is going to hit us all at some point. But it’s reassuring to know that with the proper mindset and practices we can emerge from it as stronger individuals.
When one is lonely, it can often feel overwhelming and all-encompassing. Yet, surviving a period of loneliness can serve as further proof that one can do things once not thought possible.
When I moved to Boston (where I currently live) in 2008 I didn’t know anyone. I moved to the city for graduate school having never visited. I felt lonely quite often and spent a lot of time hanging out by myself. It seemed so difficult to make connections and I didn’t feel as though I could find anyone to befriend.
I’ve always felt like someone who didn’t quite fit in. I came to graduate school for a masters in American Studies. There I believed I would find activists, punks, anarchists, and others akin to where I stood, politically and socially. It was disappointing to discover that none of these descriptions fit my peers. I had a difficult time finding much of anyone with whom I could bond in such a big city, which seemed like adding insult to injury.
Graduate school and working part-time also sucked up a lot of my week, keeping me from being able to make new friends. Despite our differences, I gravitated toward my graduate peers but often felt loneliest when at parties with them. I was older than many of them and had difficulty sharing my past with them: punk rock shows and radical politics.
Yet, as time went on, I survived. I’ve picked up a few acquaintances and friends here and there and having a partner has gone a long way, too. I didn’t think I could survive those lonely experiences, but I made it.
I have more strength than I ever knew I had. I am resilient in the face of not just loneliness but now know that if loneliness doesn’t get me down there are other issues in life I am certain I can break through: depression and anxiety, for example. Besides, if I could get through such lonely times, I knew I could deal with loneliness should it hit me again.
When loneliness occurs, it’s good to know that you have a well of strength from which to draw to help you through what can be a difficult time. During my long times of loneliness, I turned to meditation and reading self-help for some solace and ideas of how to deal with what I was experiencing. As much as it was possible, meditation taught me to be okay with myself and my condition.
I wouldn’t suggest subjecting yourself to loneliness as a means to build resilience. Yet it gives a great amount of agency to someone suffering loneliness to know they have power over it. In learning how to deal with lonely experiences, it can empower the individual to the point where it creates self-confidence.
For example, when I was in states of loneliness, I realized no one was going to take care of me when I was ill. I had to go to the drug store and get medication or drive myself to the doctor. This showed me that even at a weak point I was capable of accomplishing things for which I had in the past relied upon others.
I put myself in a situation in January 2009 when I traveled alone to Iceland. It was scary because I didn’t know anyone. I couchsurfed with strangers, and ended up having a great time. I learned that I can plan a trip to a foreign country and be social and meet others. This experience showed me that if I can meet people in another nation with a different culture and language, I can meet people at home. Once again, being lonely but forcing myself to do things, gave me self-confidence to know I could do even more in my life.
Given what I’ve written about loneliness, it might come as a surprise I would say one can find any benefit from it. But I very much believe you can. As Marissa Korda, the founder of The Loneliness Project, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper: “Loneliness as just a normal part of being human. It comes, it goes, it’s something that we experience and it doesn’t need to be as isolating as it is….It’s not realistic to expect that we can cure loneliness and I don’t think we should—it’s part of being human.”
Too often, there is an all-or-nothing take on loneliness and a level of fear-mongering associated with it. It’s an “epidemic” and a “health crisis” that must be “defeated.” They way some write of it nowadays it sounds as if we’re dealing with the Black Plague. In reality, you might as well attack guilt or fear since loneliness is as real and prevalent as those feelings and experiences.
My times with loneliness have shown me that it can be something that is helpful and from which to draw strength. Given its inevitability, it’s important to see what we can learn from it and what lessons it might provide us in our journey as human beings. Thus, in my next few entries, I will write about what I’ve learned from loneliness and what you can get from it when it hits you. There’s no reason to sit and take it—there are methods by which you can get out of loneliness. But while it’s happening, reminding yourself of the benefits can ease the emotional pain it can cause.
I’ve found that the worst part about loneliness is being aware of it when it’s happening to you. Thinking about it can make it worse. That’s why I’ve found the best thing I can do is to keep busy. I tend to work on activities or take on extra jobs (I like feeling productive). But for those in college, my suggestion is to dip a toe in the waters of clubs and organizations.
Think of things you’re passionate about: writing, acting, exercising, film, etc. There are often clubs on campus for those sorts of things. And if there isn’t you can usually start one, either formal or informal. Your university’s website will often list official clubs and student organizations. Getting involved with these groups will not only keep your mind occupied but will also enable you to meet new people.
This way of making connections goes back to John Cacioppo’s EASE method, so the premise is the same. Think about what activities you like and create a list. Then decide what you have time for and what you really want to do. Any time you can spend bonding over similar shared interests is a way to grow closer to others.
Since I never felt I fit in on my tiny, rural college campus, I spent time at the nearby state school. I went to concerts there and got to know people in that music scene. In the end, that was the best way for me to make close connections in the midst of a college setting that otherwise left me feeling lonely all too often.
One of the great things about college is the wide array of activities available. These might include movies, lectures, theater performances, and volunteer events. Many are either cheap or free. If possible, make a point to attend at least one of these every few weeks. Mark it on your calendar and stick to it, even if you don’t always feel like going.
Such events are perfect opportunities to get to know people with whom you want to hang out. Go to an event and then get some food or coffee afterward. That bond of having the same experience will give you something to talk about.
I did this at college on occasion, but I often found myself uninterested because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the one punk kid at an otherwise pretty conservative school. Yet, at some point my freshman year a guy in my dorm invited me to play pool with him. It ended up being a good way for us to connect and build a friendship. I wouldn’t have expected to like pool but I did. And it helped me make a new friend.
Many of the activities offered at college take place on weekends, so a piece of related advice: don’t go home when your classes are over for the week. Some students will do that their freshman year, usually because they have a partner back home. Many times those students have difficulty making new friends.
I went home a few times my freshman year to see people I knew from high school or go to a show, and that’s understandable. But if you’re going home every weekend (or most of them), it makes it difficult to connect. Building relationships (and escaping loneliness) takes repeated shared experiences with others. That can only happen if you’re on campus.
Loneliness at college is all too often made worse by mental illness. When I was in college my bipolar disorder emerged. I had very low self-esteem and didn’t believe there were many (if any) people who wanted to be my friend. Combating serious depression and chronic low self-worth can take a toll on one’s mental health. It makes it all that much more difficult to get out of one’s lonely shell. So, if you’re having chronic depression or other mental health issues, address those. Seeing a therapist at your school's counseling center can be a good place to start.
Handling feelings of loneliness at college often goes back to what John Cacioppo said about “expecting the best” when trying to break out of loneliness. Ask someone from your dorm, that person you chatted with at a party, or someone from one of your classes if they want to hang sometime. It doesn’t have to be a weird date—ask them if they want to study together, go to a concert with you, or get something to eat. And then try your damnedest to be optimistic. I know it can be difficult because it’s all too easy to be cynical. Yet people are making connections all the time and there’s no reason you don’t have to be one of them.
And do yourself a favor: take some time off from social media. Or at least don't check it quite so often. Based on what your friends are posting on Instagram and Snapchat you may think they’re all having a fun time without you. Perhaps they are, but it’s also likely they feel lonely at times. But few people are posting pictures of that.
I’ve learned that if you want accountability for things you want to change in your life, it’s important to let other people know about it. For example, I want to start doing more public speaking about mental health, so I’ve told friends and family that’s a goal of mine. It works the same way when you want to overcome any issue: share it with others and people will follow up with you on it. They can keep you accountable. As I mentioned in the last post, you’re not alone in this. So, if you feel comfortable doing so, share with friends or family how you’re feeling. If nothing else, write about it in a journal. You’re feeling lonely. That’s okay.
Now for a basic piece of practical advice on how to open one’s self to a possible avenue of making friends in college: leave the door open. I lived in a dorm for three of my four years at college. I felt out of place for most of my college experience, but I learned early on that leaving the door to my room open encouraged others to be social. Of course if you need some privacy to study or make a phone call it’s understandable to close the door. Yet it surprised me how many people would stop by and say hey or ask if I wanted to go to lunch or dinner. I’m well aware this may not lead to meeting your best friend, but every chance you have to spend time with new people is at least another possibility.
There is still a lot of stigma attached to saying you’re lonely. This is especially prevalent amongst teens and those in their early twenties. While it’s becoming acceptable to share one’s struggles with mental illness, few want to admit that they don’t have the connections they desire. But statistics show college students aren’t alone in their loneliness. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times: “In a  survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent said that they had ‘felt very lonely’ in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”
The important thing to remember is you’re not alone. It can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you to not have as many friends as your peers seem to have (although looks can be deceiving). It’s hard to be patient when you’re going through so many changes anyway: the attempt to find friends seems like one more thing to deal with. Time can seem to drag while you wait to make those close friends everyone told you that you’d make in college.
Take solace in the fact that there are others like you out there; your fellow students who also want to make friends. You never know which person it is in your group for a class project who may become your new friend. Or someone who lives on the same floor with you in the dorm.
Being accepted to a college is both exciting and terrifying. It’s a relief to have some direction in one’s life but for many people it’s scary because you may not know anyone at your new school. I was anxious about going to a big school where I wouldn't have friends. So I only applied to the college my sister attended because I knew I’d at least know her and her friends, even though they were all seniors when I was a freshman.
In a new situation, loneliness can be prevalent. Many students are taught that college is “the best four years of your life,” which, I can assure you, was not my case (nor the case of many others). Some students are under the misconception that making friends in college is quick and easy. Yet that can also be far from the truth. To meet people with whom I felt as though I could identify, it took me almost to the end of my freshman year—and it’s not as though I went to a huge state school. My university had 1900 students.
There are a lot of issues that come into play with loneliness at colleges, though. One is social media, but there are also issues of anxiety amongst teens. It can be scary to put one’s self out there and try and make new friends. Homesickness also plays a role in making life more difficult for those away at a new learning institution. In following entries, I’ll be looking at issues of loneliness at college and what students (and parents) can do that might ease it.
In May the health insurance company Cigna produced the results of a study on loneliness. The most surprising piece of information was the group that suffers the most: young adults.
At first thought it doesn’t seem logical that those in their teens and early twenties would have such high rates of loneliness. Yet, the current train of thought is that loneliness amongst youth is due to a couple of reasons. First, youth haven’t developed an understanding of picking up on social stimuli. In other words, the more one pulls into loneliness, the lower their self-esteem can go. Others (friends, family, acquaintances) can try to draw the lonely individual in to relationships. But this may lead to the individual being more resistant to that attempt. Youth have a difficult time of understanding the sincerity of positive connections. This causes them to draw further into their loneliness.
I speak of this from personal experience, too. I went to a small liberal arts university that was fairly conservative. To put it in musical terms, my school was very pop radio and I was more punk rock. I did have some connections and friendships, but when I received an invitation to a party, I often declined. Granted, much of this was due to my depression (which I’ve covered before). Yet the two fed off one another. I couldn’t comprehend the idea that others had a genuine interest in being my friend and so I withdrew further. It took years of therapy and coming to accept I was someone worth loving for me to believe others when they asked me to do things with them.
The other primary issue with youth and loneliness is the internet, especially social networking. Some teenagers find the web to be a good place to escape from society. (This isn’t relegated to teens, of course.) The possibility to avoid awkward social interactions and use the internet, instead, is appealing. Witnessing others living curated lives can be deceiving, though. When one views others engaging in fun occasions, it can leave the lonely teen feeling as though she or he is even further engulfed in loneliness. As one article stated: “Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying.”
Utilizing the web isn’t always a bad thing. As Rebecca Nowland, Elizabeth Necka, and John Cacioppo point out: “When the Internet is used as a way station on the route to enhancing existing relationships and forging new social connections, it is a useful tool for reducing loneliness…. This suggests that lonely people may need support with their social Internet use so that they employ it in a way that enhances existing friendships and/or to forge new ones.” (“Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World?” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2018, Vol. 13(1) 70– 87).
Thus, like most things, it comes down to how we use it. The fast growth of the internet and our readying acceptance of everything associated with it has caused us to leap first, without looking. My hope is that, through the work of schools, parents, non-profits, and the mental health community, we can teach everyone—and especially teens—good boundaries in their use of the internet so to avoid the frustrations of loneliness.
Given the highlighting of loneliness over the past many months, I’m not surprised that someone would come up with a religious response to the issue. Recently a FOX News blog post ran on their website titled “God may have put you in a lonely place for an incredible reason”. The article begins with background information on the current state of loneliness in our culture. Then the author, Pastor Rick McDaniel, dives into the meat of his essay.
His argument is that it’s during our lonely times we can turn to god. McDaniel describes this as a great opportunity to be closer to this supreme being. Throughout the article McDaniel confuses the idea of being alone and being lonely. He speaks of loneliness as being a situation without having anyone around. Instead, as I’ve highlighted before, being lonely is about not having the connections you want.
McDaniel writes that loneliness can develop our character. The only example he gives is that our patience can increase while we wait in our loneliness. Speaking from experience, I can assure you there are many less painful ways of learning patience. I wouldn’t suggest someone become lonely as a means to learn that ability.
McDaniel also states that loneliness can inspire us to become creative. Yet here he once again confuses being alone and loneliness. He seems to think it is when we are alone that we find we can tap into our creative juices and birth great achievements. Solitude does allow us to work well. I’m writing this while I sit alone in my apartment, but that won’t take me out of feeling lonely. The act of writing a piece about loneliness won’t bring me the connections I desire.
Finally, McDaniel expresses the idea that loneliness can create in us a desire to serve others. It’s not clear to me why loneliness is necessary to serve others. Here, once again, he confuses loneliness with being alone. I can understand how in solitude one might reflect and realize the needs of others. Yet, one doesn’t have to be feeling disconnected from those around them to have the desire to serve others. I would hope that might come from empathy toward others and love for our fellow human beings.
In McDaniel’s article, all his responses point back to going to god for support and finding solace there when one is lonely. This, unfortunately, leaves many individuals who do not believe in god without a solution to their loneliness. I can appreciate someone offering their two cents on the issues of loneliness. *ahem* Yet people in positions of authority peddling out useless advice that offers an incorrect understanding of the concept about which they’re writing are no help to anyone. If anything, they’re a hindrance to those who might be trying to find a way clear of their loneliness.
Besides writing my own blog, I follow the work of others who deal with the topic of mental health, including depression and loneliness. Here are a few I want to highlight.
Jordan Brown – Jordan is a recent graduate in social work who is one of the top mental health writers on Medium. He writes encouraging, thoughtful posts that come from a very personal place. Jordan truly has a heart for helping others with their mental health and it shows in his posts.
Mike Veny – Mike’s message is a powerful one about how he’s overcome suicide attempts and being expelled from schools as a youth. He’s now a top mental health speaker and someone whose success as a speaker I admire. He works to overcome the stigma that all too often comes with depression.
UnLonely Project - The UnLonely Project has been featured on the Today Show and in Psychology Today for their work on combating loneliness in our society. They also have a streaming film festival of short films that deal with the topic at their website. Their work seeks to give tools to those dealing with loneliness and tie it in with the arts as a means to combat the issue.
NAMI Blog – This blog for the National Alliance on Mental Illness covers a range of topics on mental health. These include insurance, depression amongst teens, and self-care. The blog is updated multiple times a week with posts that are easy to understand and which are quite helpful.
The Lonely Hour – This podcast is an examination of loneliness and solitude by host Julia Bainbridge. It’s not a bummer, though. Through interviews she explores various aspects of loneliness: whether it’s brought about by the loss of faith or a life of addiction. It’s an honest and thought-provoking exploration of loneliness.
Over the years, I've found that loneliness affects people in one incredibly dramatic way that often goes unaddressed. I've seen in the lives of both friends and myself something that shows the power of loneliness in causing fear. And that is the prevalence of individuals entering relationships that are detrimental to them because they're scared of being alone.
The fear of loneliness is striking. It can be terrifying to imagine ourselves in an isolated state. Few like the idea of being away from any loved ones, and especially that notion of experiencing hurt with no one around to help.
This concern can cause both men and women to enter into relationships with a less than ideal partner. No one person will match us in every way. Yet, there's a distinct difference between someone who isn't quite a perfect match and someone who is cruel.
Unfortunately, I've seen some friends (and myself) enter into abusive or misaligned relationships. Often times, one party (or both) are fearful of solitude. It might be they're afraid they will never find the right partner. Thus, they settle for individuals who are emotionally unavailable or whom they find unattractive. One person may think they can "change" the other person.
Besides these concerns, most people do want a romantic connection with someone else. And our society makes sure to remind people that a relationship is a be-all and end-all. If you're not in a relationship you're often viewed as defective or having personality issues. It can also be difficult to feel like the "third wheel" or having to do things alone, such as eating at a restaurant (although I have mad respect for those folks).
So how does one deal with loneliness when that is the option compared to being in a bad relationship? Check out my tips on getting out of loneliness. Also, I've found it helpful to remind myself that there are a lot of other people out there. One's options for finding a partner are many. And most of all, life is too short to be in relationships where you're not content. Everyone deserves to find happiness and healthiness in their lives. This includes in their relationships.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.