When I was seven years old, my parents sent me to a school across town. While it was an excellent school that provided great opportunities, I struggled to fit in and make friends. I’m an introvert and the other girls had known each other for years. Their families were friends and they’d played together since infancy. I felt isolated at school but didn’t tell anyone because I knew my parents loved me and wanted the best for me. For the next couple of years I lived a kind of double life, playing with neighborhood friends in the weekend and making the best of things at school during the week.
Two years later our class had moved up to Intermediate level (Lower High School) and a new intake of girls started. I was no longer the new kid on the block and I quickly connected with a group of girls who became friends for life.
Approximately twenty years later I found myself in a marriage that was crumbling and all of a sudden, the feelings of isolation and loneliness I’d felt as a child in a new school flooded through me again. I felt like a failure and a misfit. I shut my emotions down, didn’t tell anyone what was going on and pretended to the world that all was fine. Once again, I was living a double life – pretending to myself and others that all was fine when it wasn’t. It was one of the loneliest times of my life.
Research shows that almost half of all people feel lonely and isolated at times in their lives. There are many reasons why you can feel lonely and isolated from the people around you:
Feeling lonely and isolated doesn’t just make us feel bad, it can harm our bodies. Loneliness increases blood pressure and cholesterol, it puts stress on our hearts and suppresses the functioning of our immune system. Over time, loneliness increases our risk of developing illnesses and diseases. Studies have shown that chronic loneliness can increase our risks of an early death by 14%.
Right now I’m settling into a new town where I know very few people and once again I have moments of feeling alone. But this time I know the steps I need to take to overcome my loneliness. These are:
Step 1: Be honest about how you feel. Even if you cannot change a situation right away and have to keep up outward appearances for a time, allow yourself to feel your loneliness. Most of us try to cover over our loneliness by keeping busy or watching TV or reading so we don’t feel it. But these strategies don’t work in the long run. Find time to be by yourself and allow yourself to feel your loneliness without hiding from it. Write down what you feel or have a good cry – be honest about how lonely you feel. You will find that once you acknowledge your loneliness, you will feel better in yourself and your emotions will feel less overwhelming.
Step 2: Don’t isolate yourself – reach out to someone else every day. Even though this is might be the last thing you want to do, reaching out to others will reduce your feelings of loneliness. Look for opportunities to be kind or to help other people. I’ve found that asking another person how things are going with genuine interest, always reduces any feelings of loneliness I’m struggling with. Reaching out to others connects you to them and connection is an antidote to loneliness.
Step 3: Replace negative self-talk with words that build you up. Remind yourself that you are a good person, no matter what is happening in your life or what mistakes you’ve made. Make a list of the good things you’ve done over your life and the things that make you special.
Step 4: Meet new people. Find groups of people with common interests. Over the years, I’ve joined hiking groups, photography groups and book clubs in order to meet new people. I may not always remain with these groups for very long, but I usually meet one or two people that become friends over time. I’ve also invited people I don’t know very well to have a meal or a coffee with me.
Step 5: Look for one person you can share honestly with about your situation. It might be a friend or family member you trust, or it might be a professional counselor. It doesn’t matter who the person is as long as its someone you can be honest with and trust to keep what you say to themselves. There have been times when I’ve spoken with a friend by phone or by skype because there hasn’t been anyone nearby, but I’ve always found someone I can talk to about how I feel.
It doesn’t matter what has caused your loneliness, the reality is that you have to deal with it. Only you can take responsibility for your situation and find ways to meet your need to be connected meaningfully to others.
When have you been lonely in the past? How do you deal with loneliness? I’d love to hear about your experiences and learn from you.
Image by Lilivanili