After months of staying away from friends and family, it has become second nature to remain socially distant. Being well practiced doesn’t mean that it’s easy, though. One of the most universal human conditions is becoming increasingly common among people doing their best to stay safe: loneliness. And despite its prevalence, loneliness is one of the most challenging emotions to manage. It can manifest in lots of different ways, including irritability, guilt, fear, or anger.
Humans are built to be social. Our connections help build confidence and resilience, and support networks rely on community to be at their centre. When the world shifts so dramatically away from social connections, we suffer on lots of different fronts. While we’re still working through the impacts of COVID-19, there are still some ways to cope with loneliness that don’t involve breaking the rules or taking on unnecessary physical health risks.
First off, loneliness isn’t just being away from people. It can also occur when you don’t receive the kind of support or connection you need from the people who are around you. That could mean your parents, partner, workmates, or roommates.
Ask Yourself Why You Might Be Feeling Lonely
First, ask yourself why you might be feeling lonely. Are you spending lots of time in the same space as your partner and still not feeling socially and/or romantically fulfilled? Has it been too hard to reach out to others when you’re feeling isolated? Are you missing physical intimacy? These can be challenging questions to answer, so consider reaching out to a counsellor to work through them. Finding some clarity on the “why” behind the feeling can lead to the actions that will help alleviate it.
Next, have a plan in place for when loneliness strikes. For some people it’s weekends or evenings once work is done. For others it’s during their daily routines like showering or making lunch. Keep track of when bouts of loneliness tend to hit and make a plan to change the pattern. This looks different for everyone, but here are some examples:
- Make a phone date with a loved one or friend for Saturday afternoon.
- When it’s time to wind down for bed, put on some music that you associate with good memories.
- Take an online class or tutorial for a hobby you’re interested in.
- Set up a system with a friend where you send a code word for feeling lonely and they send back something to boost your spirits.
- Tell your partner when you’re wanting intimacy (emotional or otherwise) and suggest an activity. This could be cuddling, playing a game together, watching a movie, or anything that would bring you closer together.
Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others
Another helpful practice is to avoid comparing yourself to others. Nobody ever puts the whole story out there. Whether you’re chatting to a friend on the phone or catching up on social media, the public-facing filter is always there. Every single person has a vast private life that they don’t share, and comparing your reality with the filtered version of others’ is a no-win situation. The feelings of inadequacy, FOMO (fear of missing out), or otherwise aren’t based entirely on facts. These feelings are like jelly: you can hold them, but they don’t hold up under much pressure.
Patience & Compassion
When the going gets tough, try to have patience and compassion with yourself. As normal as it is to seek validation and love from others, one way to ease feelings of loneliness is to practice those things with yourself. Directing kindness inward during hard times is the ultimate power move. You get to say, “this is my journey and I get to do it at my own pace.” You can offer yourself the permission to take your time, to explore the reaches of your own emotions, and to seek the things and people that make your life what you want it to be. Recognizing how hard you’re working, how much gumption it takes to move forward, is a powerful truth to tell yourself. You deserve to feel that.
With a focus more on the external impacts on loneliness, the Canadian Mental Health Association has some great tips on how to build relationships and social connections that work best for you:
- Be strategic. Think about the types of relationships you want. For example, if you prefer talking with others in small groups, look for opportunities to meet people in smaller groups. If you’re looking for support and understanding around something specific, look for related groups or organizations. Use your interests or skills to your advantage: join a sports team, take a course, or join a club to meet people who already share your interests.
- Take it slow. Building confidence is an ongoing process. Give yourself manageable challenges. If you feel very isolated, simply learning to feel comfortable in public spaces like a busy coffee shop might be a good first step.
- Be active—and patient. It takes time to build relationships. It can be a bit scary at first, but try to initiate conversations or suggest opportunities to spend time with others. Accept that it may take time to feel connected and feel like you’re part of the group.
- Accept that you won’t be everyone’s friend—and that’s okay. You probably don’t get along with everyone you meet (and some people may not get along with you). This isn’t a reflection of your value or worth. It just means that you haven’t met the right group or individuals yet.
- Aim for healthy relationships. If you find that you are the one who isn’t heard in your relationships, building assertiveness skills can help you articulate your needs respectfully. The other person is an equal partner and their needs also matter. If you make it all about you and your needs, your relationship may suffer.
- Identify and work around barriers. Is there something standing between you and the relationships or activities you’d like to pursue? For example, childcare can be a barrier for new parents and transportation or mobility concerns may be a barrier for older adults. If you can’t find a solution easily, ask for help. A family member might be willing to help with childcare, and a community organization might help with transportation.
- Build family relationships. If you have a helpful and supportive relationship with family members, think of ways to increase connections. Geography and other factors might mean that you don’t often see each other in person, but phone calls, video calls, email, and other forms of communication can help you stay connected.
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