I’ve often been a cynical person who also deals with depression. For a large part of my life I’ve also had issues with low self-esteem and being critical of myself. This is a harsh dynamic to handle if one also wants to break free of loneliness. And these issues—cynicism, low self-esteem, and self-judgment—have all too often kept me from making connections.
I have a history of volunteering or joining organizations and then I have not made an effort to get to know others. I would hang out by myself or not start any sort of conversation beyond the minimum required to do whatever task I had to do. I wanted to get in, do the thing I was there to do, and then expected that somehow I would magically have friends. I made that first step in the EASE method, extending myself. Perhaps I had even sought out others, but then didn’t expect that anything good would happen.
Looking back, much of my problem was my depression. After experiencing it for years, it had beat down my sense of self-esteem. On too many occasions I believed that I wasn’t good enough for others and that no one liked me. These thoughts weren’t true, but I had been telling myself these things on an almost daily basis for over twenty years. It was a hard habit to break.
What can one do (and what did I fail to do) to expect the best? First, acknowledge that there may not be success all the time in attempting to make connections with others. It’s possible that not every opportunity will be fruitful. But, we won’t know unless we try. So even if we expect the best, meeting our best friend forever may not happen with the first person with whom we speak. But it also could happen. The lesson is to try.
Second, keeping an open mind when going into situations where we put ourselves in new surroundings to meet people is essential. One friend I made from my experiences is not someone with whom I may have expected to be friends. But I found I clicked with her spirit of adventure and sense of humor. We bonded over shared academic interests. But this all occurred working at a non-profit store that sold art from artists in developing nations. I wouldn’t have expected to meet someone who became a good friend in that environment. Yet I was quite surprised because I did keep an open mind at that time.
All too often I have gone in to volunteer settings thinking that I won’t find people with whom I will want to connect. This is often because of the type of activity I am going to do. While I hope I could’ve been more open minded, that’s also a sign that I should have created an action plan more in line with what I enjoy. Once I found activities that matched what I wanted to do and that would put me in a position of meeting others, I now know it’s key to make sure positive expectations are there. In my struggles with loneliness, this has been the most difficult part for me, and something I know I will need to address should my loneliness hit again.
I’ve dealt with loneliness at various points in my life, but each time I’ve failed to seek out others who may share my interests. Part of this is due to the fact that I wasn’t aware of the concept of setting up an action plan. If I had known about that, I imagine I would’ve done a better job of finding a place that I felt I may have a chance to meet others.
I did things that I thought I would enjoy (leading historical tours, writing classes). Yet they weren’t opportunities that allowed me to interact with many people. They are activities that are solitary in nature. I should have thought about activities that were both things I wanted to do and that were in a group setting that would’ve allowed me to meet new people. I did try this on occasion, such as my stand-up comedy classes. But I didn’t find that the individuals had much in common with me beyond the fact we were taking the same class.
On occasions I have met people who I may share some things in common. Yet what kept me from succeeding with attempts to meet others is my lack of optimism that there were possibilities of friendship. And that has to do with the final step in the EASE method, expecting the best. I’ll write about that in the next entry.
When I was looking for ways to break out of my loneliness, I never put together a plan on how to do so. It never even crossed my mind. I can’t help but think that if I had created a strategic plan I might’ve had more success in making connections.
While I didn’t consciously have an agenda, I was consistently trying to think of things to try. At first this involved volunteering places, but they weren’t necessarily things in which I had a huge interest. I limited myself to what I thought were places I should volunteer: soup kitchens and a non-profit store that sold art from artisans in developing nations.
Later I thought about things I enjoy doing, but they were often solitary type things: six-week writing classes, stand-up comedy classes, or leading group tours. I found that many of these involved coming in, doing the activity, and leaving. While I hoped for connections through these opportunities, I didn’t find it. I also found that many of these individuals had families or lived in the suburbs (and I don’t have a car). This made it difficult to get together.
I think part of my difficulty with meeting people was not knowing myself well enough to know what I really enjoyed. But my other issue with not making the connections I desired involved the next two steps in the EASE method: Seeking Others and Expecting the Best.
For reference on what the EASE acronym stands for, see my last post. In the next few entries I’d like to look further into each of these steps and show examples of what I did in my personal experiences for each one. As I mentioned, in my experiences with loneliness, I’ve at times utilized the EASE method without even knowing about it.
The first letter in EASE is Extend. The primary way I’ve attempted to dip my toe in being social is through volunteering. I’ve volunteered at a lot of places over the years: soup kitchens, a non-profit store, tour groups, etc. Some of these things were one-off deals. I met a lot of different people, almost all of whom were friendly and approachable. I met a person or two whom I became actual friends with and still am to this day. Still, I found most of the attempts to be sorely lacking of what I hoped for.
Yet, the important thing is that I was making an attempt. I wouldn’t have even made friends with those few individuals I did meet if I hadn’t taken a chance to put myself out there. And the brief interactions through volunteering were opportunities to get out of my head, have some much needed social interaction, and feel less lonely for a little while.
Over the years, in my attempt to find friends through volunteering, I’ve often been frustrated due to not feeling like I fit in amongst these organizations or people. What I didn’t know about was the second step in the EASE method, creating an action plan. I’ll talk more about that in the next entry.
Four steps to escaping loneliness
I’ve covered some of this in my videos, but to put it simply, one has to make the effort to get out of feeling lonely. And if depression is also in play, that can be difficult. For some people, including myself, I had to get to a good place, emotionally, before I was ready to tackle my problems, including loneliness. Until I could get out of the depths of despair, I wasn’t ready to approach any other issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, or loneliness.
For some, perhaps their depression is more short-term and they need to ride it out while using coping skills to aid them during such a time. But for those of us who deal with chronic depression, seeing a therapist and medication may be necessary. Personally, once I was in a better head space, clear of the heaviest pain of my depression, I found I was ready to handle my loneliness.
If you’re dealing with depression and loneliness, it can be hard to break free of that place. But it is possible. I started working on reaching out and without realizing it, I was, to some degree, following the advice of the late John Cacioppo, a researcher of loneliness. He created a method called EASE. It stands for: Extend, Action Plan, Seek, and Expect. While you can read more by clicking the link, the basic gist is this:
Extend – Make an effort to put yourself out there, even for just an hour. Dip your toe in the water by volunteering or making small talk with a neighbor. This doesn’t have to be life-changing, just something simple that shows you’re making an effort.
Action Plan – Think about things you might enjoy doing and your strengths. Also, what do you have time to do? Come up with some places you may want to volunteer at, or activities you’d like to do (an intramural sports team, for example). In creating a plan, you put yourself in a position of power.
Seeking others – Once your action plan is in place, seek out others who may share your interests at the places at which you’ve chosen to take part. Start a conversation with them.
Expect the best – Taking charge of one’s mindset and expecting that good things can happen can be difficult, especially for those of us who are rather cynical or suffer from anxiety. However, studies have shown that when we open ourselves up to the possibility of connections, it can help. Expect good things and you might be surprised what happens.
To be lonely doesn’t always mean you’ll feel depressed and vice versa. There have been times where I felt lonely, but only experienced a general sadness. Sad at my condition, sad at what I thought was my inability to make friends, and sad that I wasn’t a better person—one who could make friends. Yet, those feelings didn’t necessarily lead to depression.
There were other times where I was lonely and depressed. But in those situations, the depression was there first. I often didn’t want to be social with others for whatever self-defeating reasons I had. It may be I didn’t think I was good enough for others to want to spend time with me. Or it may have been I was anxious that I would say something that would make me look dumb around others.
Being depressed sapped me of the energy to get outside of my loneliness and make connections. This caused me to become even more lonely, and it acted as a feedback loop, a never-ending cycle from which I couldn’t escape.
If loneliness persists for enough time, it can lead to depression for many individuals. So, if one is feeling lonely, it’s important to reach out to others and build those connections before depression comes about. It’s also another reason for us to reach out to our neighbors, friends, and family, who may be lonely. In doing so we can stem the depression that may come about due to extended periods of loneliness.
So how does one get out of loneliness if they’re depressed? I’ll cover that in my next post.
Back in April of 2018 I shared an article about my suicidal ideation. I was impressed with how many people appreciated it and what a response it got. One of my friends asked me the question below and I thought it could be helpful to share a response with a wider audience.
I’d be curious to hear more about how you overcome your darkest thoughts and any suggestions you might have for the family and friends of those who feel depressed/suicidal.
I realize it can feel scary and leave one feeling helpless to watch a loved one go through suicidal experiences. The best thing I can do is remind myself that my mind is not telling me the truth. Additionally, whatever I'm feeling is something I've overcome and dealt with before. I find it helpful to deal with facts and truths that are unshakeable. I'm usually looking for stability and security when I'm unsure of myself and suicidal. So, if someone can give me something that is surefire, that's a safe feeling to me. Of course, all of this is built upon years of therapy and medication, so experiences you have with loved ones may vary.
If nothing else, you can encourage the person to take some self-care and see their therapist if they have one. And of course, just listening is helpful, too. It can be really difficult to get through dark times (both as someone suffering from suicidal ideation and as someone trying to help that individual) but I, as well as many others, are proof that it can be done.
UnLonely Conference Recap
To many people a conference on loneliness doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world. Yet, there are many folks, including myself, who find this part of the human existence to be quite important. So much so that dozens of us met for an afternoon of panels at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York City on Wednesday, May 9. Put on by the UnLonely Project, attendees included those from colleges, major corporations (such as Prudential and News Corp), The New York Times, and organizations that cater to seniors and military veterans. Co-chaired by Jeremy Nobel of Harvard University Medical School and Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University, the conference presented three panels.
The first focused on signs of optimism, looking at some promising attempts to combat loneliness. For example, AARP in Georgia creates activities to connect seniors to the arts (in this case, painting). Prudential Financial asks questions about loneliness as part of their view of employees' health.
The second panel looked at some of the obstacles faced in dealing with loneliness. This included issues with home care workers who work in isolation with ill patients and attempts with students at New York University (NYU) to find connections when starting school.
The final panel looked at whether innovations offered can be catalysts for large-scale changes in combating loneliness. Are there models that can be enlarged to tackle this issue? While the question has no definitive answer, panelists agreed it’s imperative we try.
The panels covered a range of groups affected: business, military, and seniors. But my personal interest in loneliness is with college students and I came away with a lot to think about. I thought about my experiences in college and grad school. I often felt as though I didn’t fit in, which left me feeling quite lonely. There is still so much stigma attached to loneliness that it spurs a basic question: How do you break through with those who may not want to identify as lonely? It’s possible an answer to this is to speak about connection and belonging with students as opposed to using that seemingly taboo word, lonely.
Allison Smith, who works with student health programs at NYU, raised another useful point. She spoke of how important it is for individuals to take the lead in discussions with loneliness. Universities should allow for places for this to happen but not force students down a specific path. This reminded me of the value of student-led mental health groups such as Active Minds. These organizations, and not college administrations, should be leading discussions on loneliness.
I also appreciated Smith’s comments on allowing places on campus for those who don’t fit in to traditional clubs and organizations. I know that in college I would’ve appreciated more options for people like me who didn’t identify with much of anyone at my rural, conservative university.
There were so many good points made throughout a half day’s conference that I hope the program is lengthier next year. Loneliness is a part of the human condition that is being brought into the forefront in our society. Yet there’s still a lot of discussion that needs to happen so that, as Jeremy Nobel said, we move this conversation from knowledge to action. The UnLonely Conference is a good start.
Odds are that you will feel lonely at some point in your life. Statistics vary widely on what percentage of the population regularly or frequently feels lonely, but it appears the number is between 25-45% of Americans.
The health effects are serious as well. Being lonely over long periods of time is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Those who are chronically lonely have the same mortality rate as those who are obese.
Even if you aren't dealing with loneliness, chances are you know someone who is. And their well-being (both mentally and physically) can have an impact on you. As you grow older, you will likely lose more family and friends, and therefore may find yourself isolated. I don’t say this to cause fear, but to convince those of you who want to turn away from the importance of this issue. As life expectancy increases, it's logical to conclude that the possibility of having fewer friends and family will come into play.
Loneliness is also an issue for youth. There are many possible reasons for this (which I will explore in future posts) but for those of you who are young and reading this, or who have children in their teens or early twenties, it's something to be aware of.
What this comes down to is that even if you aren't feeling lonely, there's a good chance you will at some point in your life. Or someone you care about and love probably is dealing with loneliness. And if after all those numbers you’re still the type of person who says, “I only care about the bottom line,” then know that this is a health problem that costs us significant amounts of money due to premature deaths and unhappy workers who aren't as productive.
Loneliness isn’t about the number of connections, it’s about the quality of them. For me, I don’t have a need for a great deal of relationships—one or two people who I see frequently will suffice. However, it’s more important that they’re connections where I empathize with the person deeply and see them regularly. Thus, in my case, a close relationship with a partner can suffice.
Loneliness is different than being alone, then, in that I can be around others—at a party or at work—and still feel lonely if those connections aren’t meeting my social needs. However, I can be alone and not feel lonely. In fact, I often am. When my partner is out with her friends I rarely feel lonely because my social needs are, at large, being met. Thus, I can be alone and not feel lonely.
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.