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"I have no one to talk to here, and I just feel so lonely and depressed," sobbed a longtime friend while we were talking on the phone one day. Eight months earlier, her husband’s company had relocated them from Illinois to Florida. She was a graphics designer who had her own home business.
“Since I work out of my home and don’t have an office to go to, I was hoping our new church congregation would be a good outlet to make friends,” this woman continued. “But after all these months, we still feel like outsiders at church. Most of the people there already have their friends, and they pretty much stay within their cliques. Hardly anyone has made an effort to get to know us. When I try to initiate conversations with others, usually they only give me a couple minutes at the most, and then they’re rushing off to be with their group of friends. After church, I can pretty much tell you which couples are going to go out to restaurants together—and we’re never included.”
Many of us have encountered cliques and felt just as excluded, disconnected and lonely as my friend. But of course, there are many other types of circumstances that can bring on loneliness. You may be suffering the loss of a spouse by death or divorce. You may be shy and not feel confident interacting with others. You might be so busy with your career that you don’t devote a lot of time to relationships. You may live in a remote area, far from neighbors, and not have many visitors. There may be unresolved issues or misunderstandings that have alienated you from friends and family. Perhaps your kids have grown up and moved away and that has left a terrible void in your life. And sometimes you can feel lonely for no apparent reason; you just don’t feel like you can connect with the people around you.
“Loneliness touches everyone’s life to some degree,” observes John Woodward, Ph.D., one of the nation’s leading researchers on loneliness and a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska. He defines loneliness as “a feeling of isolation and separation from others.” It can result when a person is physically isolated from family and friends, or when a person is in a room full of people and feels totally disconnected. Loneliness can range from mild to severe and occur only occasionally or be a chronic problem.
Certainly God created us to be social creatures. All of us need a certain amount of “people contact.” (Some need more than others, depending on how extroverted they are.) So how do you cope if you’re in the unfortunate situation of feeling detached and lonely? Here are five suggestions for confronting this very heart-wrenching, yet common, human emotion.
1. Admit you are lonely
It may not be easy to admit you’re lonely. After all, we live in a society where popularity is celebrated and encouraged. To admit you are lonely can seem like you are conceding to being unpopular and unwanted. Yet it is important that you acknowledge to yourself how you are feeling. Doing so will help you figure out what you need to do to overcome this problem. If you don’t, you’re in effect saying these issues don’t exist, and then they won’t be dealt with.
You may also want to confide in a family counselor, pastor or other trusted person. Several months after my friend called me in tears, she phoned again to give me an update about her situation. She had made some friends at church! What had happened, she related, was “I picked out one of the ladies at church who I thought would be understanding; and without attacking anyone, I told her how I was feeling excluded. To my surprise, she told me that sometimes she feels left out too. That did wonders! After that, she made a special point of introducing me to people at church, getting me in on conversations and even inviting me and my husband to some get-togethers.”
If your loneliness is related to particular circumstances you are dealing with—perhaps you just lost a loved one, you recently moved to a new area, or you’re struggling with “empty nest syndrome”—you might want to open up with someone who has been in a similar situation. That person may not only make a good sounding board, but may be able to help you figure out some ways to diminish the lonely feelings.
2. Be friendly
It sounds simple, but one of the best ways to combat loneliness is to be friendly and approachable. Others will be much more drawn to you if you smile when you see them, make good eye contact, focus on positive conversation topics and show a genuine interest in what they have to say. If you’re in a room full of people and nobody’s approaching you, then be willing to be the one actively seeking out others and starting conversations with them.
Try to be friendly to everybody, but focus your attention on those who look lonely, withdrawn or “lost in the crowd.” This is especially good advice if there are cliques at church, work or school that make you feel excluded. “If you feel left out, chances are there are others who feel the same way,” says Mary Halpin, Ph.D., a family counselor in Deerfield, Illinois. “Reaching out to others who are lonely can help you relieve your own feelings of loneliness.”
Strive to be the kind of person who seeks connections with those of all social circles. It’ll rid you of your loneliness and set the right example of not being cliquish—and you’ll make others feel less lonely, too.
3. Cultivate new interests
Explore some new interests, hobbies and pastimes. Sign up for a class at your community college or community recreation center. Volunteer to be a tour guide at your city’s art or history museum. Join a bowling league, garden club or bridge club. See if there’s a book discussion group you can be a part of at your local library. If you have kids in school, get involved with the parent-teacher group. If you’re interested in scrapbooking or antiquing, ask your network of acquaintances to see if there are people who can show you the ropes or want to get involved in these hobbies themselves.
One woman who recently moved to my community started a morning walking club to get to know new people and get some regular exercise. She invited mothers she met at her son’s school events and told them they could bring their friends too. Each morning the ladies walk about five miles together, and they’re all becoming really close.
Another woman I know overheard some ladies at her church talking about how they were interested in making homemade soap. My friend took the initiative to learn how to make soap on her own and then invited these other women to make soap with her one day. It turned into a monthly get-together where they make a batch of soap together, share a pot of coffee and have lunch.
Any of these kinds of activities can be ideal springboards for meeting new people and allowing you to develop new interests, which may serve as common ground with which you can connect with others.
4. Don’t let long-distance friendships slide
Whether you’ve recently relocated to a new area or you have lots of friends who have moved to different parts of the country, don’t let long-distance relationships fall by the wayside. Phone calls, letters, cards and e-mail messages from far-flung friends and family can go a long way in keeping loneliness at bay.
In many ways, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch. Nowadays, most phone companies offer unlimited long distance calling plans. You might want to pick regular days and times to call out-of-town friends and relatives each week. You may even want to consider getting an account with a social networking site like Facebook. It’s an easy way to share photos with friends and keep up with what others are doing. And who knows, you may be able to reconnect with some long-lost acquaintances.
5. Draw close to God
Most importantly, seek God’s help with your situation. If you think you are lonely because you’re too shy, ask God to help you overcome this shortcoming. If you feel detached from others because of a misunderstanding that took place, ask God to give you the right mindset, strength and the wisdom to be able to go to your friends and talk things out. Take your concerns to God in prayer, and you will not feel like you are facing the tough times alone—because you truly won’t be.
The fact is, sometimes God allows us to go through difficult, lonely periods to get our attention. It’s when we are at our lowest points, when we feel that we have no one else to talk with, that we often seek God the most fervently. That’s when we have the opportunity to sort out our thoughts and realign our priorities—to ensure that God is the number one relationship in our lives.
God will certainly help us get through lonely times, and He will provide us with the human companionship that we all need. But we need to make sure we are truly putting Him first. At the same time, we all need to remind ourselves that as long as we have a close relationship with God, we will never be completely alone.