A new study shows that the number of Americans without close friends has doubled in the last 20 years. “Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide” (Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, June 23, 2006). That's not really surprising to many of us. We know loneliness can strike anyone, anywhere, even in the middle of a crowded college dorm.
Imprisoned in my mind My first year of college I had a scholarship to pay for room and board, so I moved into the dorm of a small college less than 50 miles from home. I could go home on weekends, still see my church friends, and there were even a few people from my high school in college with me. What more could I ask for? My roommate, another freshman guy, was easy to get along with, though as time went on I didn't see him much.
By second semester he asked to move to be with his circle of friends. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the question, What did I do that made him want to move? The girl I liked at church had grown distant, and my calls to talk to her were taking on a desperate tone, even to my ears. The college assigned me another roommate, a prisoner on work release (study release?). He was probably in his 30s, and we didn't seem to have much in common. But he was only there during the day, since he had to go back to prison at night, so I rarely saw him.
For some reason those nights felt kind of strange. I was busy with my heavy load of classes and writing for the college newspaper, so it was okay that I didn't really have a social life, I thought. But I found myself listening to melancholy music (even one of my prisoner roommate's albums) and feeling intensely lonely. Here I was a college student, and I was feeling like a scared, abandoned, homesick little kid.
Feelings of abandonment
Loneliness is based on our genetically programmed fear of abandonment, says John Selby, author of Solitude. “Abandonment is experienced by babies as the most fundamental threat to their survival … Once we reach a certain age, angry outbursts do little good. And, in fact, little children, when left alone or with a relative stranger, must go beyond rage and enter into the next phases of abandonment feelings—sorrow, hopelessness, depression, despair” (1998, p. 29).
Over the years we are forced to develop, to a greater or lesser degree, coping mechanisms for those times of loneliness that come on all of us. Loneliness truly is a common human experience.
The earliest pages of the Bible reveal a lonely man and a loving God who said, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18 Genesis 2:18And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
American King James Version×). God provided the solution by creating a companion as the beginning of family and community. But there have always been times of transition—moves, deaths, disasters, divorces and other events that cause separations between people. And these have all inevitably brought times of loneliness. Moses felt it. Elijah experienced excruciating isolation. Even Jesus, while surrounded by 12 close friends, was abandoned at the end, and was never truly understood during His lifetime.
A different way to look at loneliness According to the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois, college students are particularly susceptible to these misconceptions:
• “Loneliness is a sign of weakness, or immaturity.
• “There's something wrong with me if I'm lonely. These should be the best years of my life.
• “I'm the only one who feels this way” (www.couns.uiuc.edu/brochures/loneline.htm).
These ideas are wrong and counterproductive, as I discovered.
Consider a different way of looking at loneliness. “We tend to do most of our growing only when provoked by pain, discomfort, or crisis of one kind or another … The feeling of loneliness, like any other pain we might experience, functions as an indicator that something is wrong in our lives,” writes John Selby. “Loneliness stimulates us to develop good relationships with others and ourselves, to create experiences that can prove ultimately rewarding in our lives … It pushes us out into the world to satisfy our interpersonal needs. Otherwise, we might retreat entirely into our solitary worlds and sever our connection with others” (Selby, pp. 28-29).
Loneliness is a signal and a catalyst for change. But which changes are effective and which are not?
“Solutions” to avoid
When our loneliness is from the loss of a friend or love interest, here's something to beware of: “Over the years, what I have found in my own life experience, as well as in that of my therapy clients and my friends, has been this: when one runs out and immediately finds someone to take the place of the old love or friend, this new relationship is doomed to failure.
“A 'rebound' relationship is not a solid relationship, but just an attempt to ease pain by substituting a new person for the one lost. The grafting process might temporarily ease the pangs of loneliness, but in the long run it interferes with emotional healing—and the new relationship explodes at some point, leaving us in worse shape than if we had faced our solitary condition honestly and alone” (Selby, pp.73-74).
While loneliness is natural, some of our natural responses are not effective, but just amplify the lonely feelings. “These behaviors include such things as watching TV, sleeping, eating, taking tranquilizers (or alcohol, etc.), sitting and thinking and doing nothing” (Dr. Sean Seepersad, webofloneliness.com).
So what changes do work to develop friendships and defeat loneliness?
The goal is “being with and a part of other people; enjoying their company, confiding in them or letting them confide in you, and working together towards shared goals. “Going to church, joining a club or group, chatting on line, calling a friend on the phone, or hanging out with friends are all means of socialization. These are the activities that banish loneliness” (www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=9776&cn=353).
Robert Putnam, professor at Harvard and author of Bowling Alone, says the solution is “getting more involved in our communities and spending more time with family and friends” (“You Gotta Have Friends,” Time, July 3, 2006, p. 36). He says Americans go on 60 percent fewer picnics today and families eat dinner together 40 percent less often than in 1965.
Other specific suggestions from a variety of sources are:
• Call, write and e-mail family and friends at least once a week. Share your feelings, concerns and goals.
• Invite friends and family to spend time with you.
• Have a party.
• Find out about service organizations and volunteer with the one you are most interested in.
• Get physically active—especially if you can play or exercise with others. Eat healthy foods and get enough sleep.
• Find a study or exercise partner.
• If you have to be alone, use the time to develop yourself, your knowledge and skills. You'll become an even more interesting person.
• Take a class or join a club and get to know people interested in the same subject.
• Remember that successful people find humor in past rejections—try not to lose your sense of humor.
• Introduce yourself to neighbors.
• Practice getting to know others and letting them know you.
• Close friendships develop gradually as people learn to share their inner feelings. Don't rush things or you could scare the other person off.
• Find a confidant and challenge yourself to trust that person, to share your goals and action plan.
• Value all of your friendships, instead of believing only a romantic relationship will remove your loneliness.
• If you are having trouble breaking free of loneliness or depression, talk to your parents, minister or other counselors to get help (sources: Counseling Center at the University of Illinois, StopLoneliness.com and MentalHelp.net).
Getting out of the trap
I was never so glad to go back home as after that freshman year! After that year I decided to transfer to a school with a one-year biblical program before finishing my degree. There, more than 1,000 miles from home, I discovered a warm, inclusive environment that taught me not only how to deal with my own feelings of loneliness, but to recognize and try to help others facing those feelings.
We can't let those feelings trap us. Act on the tips in this article. As the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois advises: “Don't wait for your feelings to get you going—get going and good feelings will eventually catch up to you.”