When I walk outside in the evening I am totally one of those creepy people who will glance in open windows and people watch. I’d argue that if you leave your blinds open and lights on when it’s dark, you’re basically inviting me to observe your evening activities. Every time I walk through my neighbourhood in an evening my heart also hurts a little. There is a profound awareness of how so many people are existing in close proximity, yet entirely alone and disconnected from each other. Part of me wants to start a community fire pit where we can sit and share stories and connect and be seen together. But there’s probably a stupid bylaw against that.
Newer research on loneliness has been popping up, suggesting that loneliness is linked to an array of negative health outcomes, and positing that it is in fact a public health issue that needs greater attention globally. Our increasing dependence on technology and connection that is void of human contact like eye gazing, actual spoken words, and human touch, is having adverse consequences for both mental and physical health. Our bodies need human connection to thrive, and many of us aren’t getting enough of it.
England has recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness (I know, the name is brutal – but the position is invaluable) with the intention on finding ways that the government may assist in providing solutions to pervasive loneliness in society. There is growing recognition that the way our society is structured may be contributing to the problem, and this is an effort to help create new programs and initiatives to combat this.
If any of this resonates with you, if loneliness or disconnection is part of your narrative – there are a few things I’d like to say about this…stay with me.
1. You’re not alone in your loneliness. Now this might sound a bit paradoxical, but it’s true. Loneliness lies to us, it makes us believe we’re the only ones disconnected and home alone on a weekend wishing we had someone to call. This is total bullshit. There are so many lonely people wishing they had community. If my small caseload is any indication, the numbers are much higher than you’d think.
2. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re not lonely because you are defective. Or unworthy. Or not loveable. You’re lonely. There are probably a myriad of reasons for this, too many to name here. But your value and worth as a human is most definitely not one of them. Just because you aren’t seen and known deeply doesn’t mean you aren’t worth being seen and known deeply. Keep hanging on.
3. Your body needs contact with other humans. I just read something yesterday (and classically can’t remember where to find the reference) that spoke of how regular contact with other people, not necessarily even deep meaningful friendship but just contact, increases positive health outcomes and longevity. Saying hi to the same person on the bus every morning, seeing the same barista at Starbucks every Tuesday, or smiling at your regular grocery store clerk is good for your well-being. If you don’t have people who deeply see you and know you, perhaps you might start with being seen regularly somewhere?
I remember when I moved to Winnipeg, feeling deeply alone and unrooted. Nurturing a familiarity and friendliness at my local grocery store was one of the first ways I began to feel grounded and like I belonged in my neighbourhood. It took years to form meaningful friendships here, but those regular contacts early on helped form a sense of rootedness that was helpful and healing.
4. You have to show up. Ugh. This one. It’s hard and shitty and scary and it sucks. Loneliness can result in negative beliefs about ourselves (see point 2), and that makes it easier to hole up and avoid people. Because we probably are shitty humans who nobody likes anyway, or so it goes. Except that those things aren’t true. If you’re lonely and longing for connection you’re going to have to actually show up where people can see you and get to know how awesome you are. That might mean you join a book club or a bowling league or a Meet Up group (www.meetup.com). Or maybe you volunteer or text that co-worker or organize a potluck even if you’re terrified.
5. Proximity and frequency are helpful at building relationship. The more we see people, and the closer we are in proximity to them, the more likely it is that we’ll connect. So going to that running group once might not be quite enough to really build into anything meaningful. Committing to a regular practice of showing up is necessary to create community and belonging. Think of places where these already happen, like school or work, and how you might be able to build off of things that are already there.
6. It takes time. Really meaningful and safe relationships don’t always happen overnight. Sure, there are some stories of folks who connect and become BFF’s in the span of a few weeks. But for anyone who is a bit wary of people, or who holds any sort of relational wounding – safety and trust in relationships might take longer. Learning to be patient, and to celebrate small steps along the way are important parts of the journey.
7. You win some, you lose some. Not everyone you want to be friends with will have the space, energy, time, or interest in returning friendship. This doesn’t mean you’re not worth friendship. It just means that things don’t always work out the way we want. I think of a friend of mine, she’s a natural friend maker, one of those people who builds community and rallies people with ease. Her friend roster is packed, and she legitimately doesn’t have room for more deep relationships. I can guarantee that there would be folks who see her, and want to be her friend – but she’s just one person, and literally can’t accommodate any more relationships. You might know people like that too. Fret not, there are other people who have relational capital to offer. Keep looking.
8. Adult friend making is hard. Full stop. It just is. Don’t expect to be ‘good’ at it. There’s no secret that you’ve been excluded from. We all needed a course in university called “Friendmaking 101” because it’s difficult to build community in adulthood. It’s hard. But it’s not impossible. And? You can do hard things.
Loneliness is a shitty experience. But it doesn’t have to be the end of your story. If you don’t have the connections you need at the moment, please. keep. going. It might feel impossible, but there are so many lonely folks out there looking for community and belonging. If you’re struggling to start, then start small. Smile at your grocery store gal, or chat with the person in the elevator. If you’ve tried and it hasn’t worked, see point 7. Just maybe it wasn’t you.
Loneliness hurts. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Keep writing.