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People are more lonely now than ever, according to multiple studies. It’s a struggle to connect for most of us. Demands on our time and attention, the must-have technology, political polarization, and changing times all play into our loneliness. Yet some can pull out of being lonely by making time for social interactions. Sadly, many are still stuck in chronic loneliness.
What is chronic loneliness?
When you move to a new town where you don’t know anybody, you may be lonely till you get a social life up and running. But suppose you’re in your home town, you just retired, and you no longer have access to the people you worked with, who were just about the only ones you know. You try the suggestions about getting out and finding people and yet you have felt lonely for a long time. There’s something that keeps you from connecting with prospective friends.
That’s chronic loneliness, for our purposes.
When the usual advice won’t work for you, you may have another problem that gets in your way, causing loneliness. It may be as simple as shyness or as complicated as a personality problem, anxiety, or another problem. Fortunately, people every day work around these problems to connect to other people and you can, too.
If you’re shy, you probably already know that you’ll have to “fake it till you make it.” If, like me, you stink at small talk, make the other person talk by asking them stuff that takes sentences to answer. Don’t let them off the hook by giving them questions they can answer yes or no. This way you know who you’re dealing with and they feel important so they like you. It’s a good way to survive a party.
You can be a voice in the crowd, too, if you’re shy. In a group setting, you can talk up but make it not about you. Occasionally answer a question, or make a suggestion. Over time, people will know what to expect from you and may make overtures.
When you get the attention of someone interesting, try being an ally and see where that takes you. They may know more interesting people to introduce you to. It might work out. If not, at least you have new acquaintances and you never know when that might lead to a good thing.
Beth lives alone in a subsidized apartment in an elders-only building where there are friendly neighbors and activities in-house. She stays home alone in case her estranged family members call.
She has one hobby that she enjoys: crocheting. But if she catches herself enjoying it or thinks it turned out nice, she destroys the project. She also snaps at the neighbors when she is afraid they’ll like her too much. She only wants to hear from her family, whom she offended into silence quite a while ago in a fit of rage. Beth is very lonely.
Anxiety and depression
Imagine feeling like everybody knows you’re not well in the head. If that’s what you believe, it becomes real to you. Depressed people often feel alienated from everyone because depression distorts your thoughts to be more negative.
From there it’s only a quick step to feeling like you shouldn’t be among others. Going to the grocery store is horrible because there’s too much to look at, too many people, and you can’t keep your head together. On a bad day you might have a panic attack, feeling like you’re going to have an embarrassing death right in the checkout line.
Too many people who are depressed don’t realize it. It can creep up on you and before you know it, you’re seeing life through poop-colored glasses. Only when you break down sobbing in the boss’ office do you realize you have a problem. And the problem is only compounded by having to leave by the secretary with a puffy, red, tear-stained face that will feed the rumor mill for a week.
Anything that interferes with reading and reciprocating social cues, such as autism spectrum traits, can massively set a person back socially, making them chronically lonely. It’s very hard to deal with people you can’t quite understand and who get angry with you for no discernible reason.
Likewise, physical differences, such as use of a wheelchair or anything that looks different, such as stiff, curled hands, may put people off too. They don’t want to shake hands and hurt the person. They don’t know how to talk to someone in a wheelchair. (Despite the fact that communication isn’t always affected by the thing that put the person there.) Sometimes it’s the other’s fear that cuts you off.
Isolation in old age or disability will definitely cut into your opportunities for a social life as well. These groups may be disadvantaged by lack of money, transportation, and nearby opportunities to talk to others.
Where you might go for help
These are just a few examples of things that might cause you to suffer from chronic loneliness. If after reading the examples, anything reminds you of a feeling you have, a situation you face, or a thing you lack that cuts you off from others, you might want to get help.
A licensed therapist is not just for people who are suffering from crippling personality problems, anxiety, depression and other mental conditions. But therapists can also help if you’re just shy, or anxious, or down. They’re experts at teaching skills like getting acquainted with people and walking you through the process. A good life coach can also help you set up strategies.
You can certainly do it yourself if you have enough clues to see a way to your goal. With a SMART goal and some baby steps, you can try out a strategy and see how it works, and repeat if it’s worthwhile.
If you’re an elder who can’t get out much, or you have a disability, it’s worth checking on services to people in your situation. See if you can use a bus or if a volunteer can come to take you to the grocery store.
Call your church if you’d like to go but can no longer get there yourself. Maybe it’s worth it to the church to get you there. So many are nearly empty now. Maybe your Independent Living council will connect you with some supports to get you circulating again.
Not everyone is ready to just hop out there and join three organizations and volunteer at the hospital hoping to find a friend. Not everyone is able to make that work.
Think about what makes it hard for you to get yourself out there and list the obstacles. Then address them. If it’s resources you need, ask around and find them. But if you are stuck with chronic loneliness and the usual tips aren’t doing it for you, consider it a training deficit and go learn how to adapt and make them work for you. Comments?