Tag Archives: loneliness

L is for Loneliness (and Logic)

Let’s try this again. Yesterday’s L is for post was an aberration. No other way to explain it.

Loneliness is such a difficult emotion. When we are feeling lonely, we are probably also experiencing so many other emotions at the same time: depression, anxiety, shame, frustration, for starters. And, behind all of these feelings is probably fear: fear of being judged, fear that we will never find our people, fear of rejection.

With all of these emotions swirling around inside of us and with a perceived lack of support, we often are reluctant to take the steps that are necessary for connection. When we are depressed and anxious our natural inclinations are to curl up further, to retreat more deeply into ourselves. We may even reject overtures of kindness as “pity asks” if we allow ourselves to believe what our emotions are telling us.

Loneliness is particularly difficult because as humans we are wired to be in connection with others, and yet we are also oriented to danger, evolutionarily speaking. We are constantly scanning our environment, looking for danger. This predilection is what kept us alive and kept the gene pool advancing. But this tendency to look for danger resides in our reptilian brain and kicks in without us even knowing, and it keeps us from reaching toward others.

How do we get out of the place of loneliness then? How can we trust that our friends are genuine and not just reaching out to us because they feel sorry for us? I once had a therapist ask me if I really believed that all of my friends were in cahoots to take me on as a “project.” She asked me if I truly believed that they only called and invited me places because they had agreed that no one else would if they didn’t.

The good news is, we don’t only have our reptilian brain, but also our pre-frontal cortex which is where logic and reason reside. Emotions are powerful, but so are our developed brains. I didn’t have to think very long to realize that was a very unlikely scenario. Did I trust my friends, she asked? What did I know about them? Did this strike me as even a remote possibility? Of course not. My friends don’t have time for such projects, nor the inclination to trick someone into feeling loved. The very thought struck me as absurd. And that’s the thing about emotions—they are generally based on a faulty belief, i.e. “I’m lonely because no one likes me.”

When we are confronted with these unpleasant emotions we can develop tools for coping. First, allow yourself to have the feeling. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, emotions come and go. If we can expand our ability to sit with them and to recognize that nothing terrible will happen if we allow ourselves to fully feel our loneliness, we develop resilience. And we learn that we don’t have to be afraid. The feeling might not be as bad as we imagined.

Next, access what you know. List your friends and all of the people in your life that like you. Coworkers, classmates, teachers, family members, book club members, running buddies. Your spouse. Let the names wash over you, feel the love.

Take action. Pick up the phone, send an email, go for a walk and wave at your neighbors (from at least six feet away and wear a mask). Write a letter. Put up reminders around the house that you are loved. Chances are good that your reaching out will touch someone else who might be feeling similarly. If we can remember that we are more alike than different, we will feel more connected. I know that taking action can be difficult, but trust me when I say that not taking action will not alleviate your loneliness. You have to put yourself among your people to find them, and sometimes you have to do it over and over and over again.

We don’t have to be ruled by our emotions, but neither do we need to fear them. Let yourself feel them, get acquainted, and then take charge. I’ll write more about learning how to recognize emotions and how to work with them in my next blog, M is for Mindfulness, so stay tuned. And for anyone who read my initial and awful L is for post, my most sincere apologies. I let my emotions run away with me.

 

 

F is for Friends (and Family)

(This is a long one, buckle up).

I am happy I waited (ok, procrastinated) on writing my F blog. I mean, so many F words have been careening around in my head these past weeks; I didn’t want to post a blog that would come back to haunt me. But I have to be real, too. I thought about an F word blog. So much is truly fucked up right now. I would have to be incredibly disingenuous to not acknowledge that a lot of life sucks at this moment.

And. Here we are. We can step into that choice I wrote about earlier. So, I chose to forego the F word blog and write about something more uplifting and hopeful. We can say fuck it, and then we can chose to do something about it.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog:  Friends and Family. I am so grateful for my friends (and family—I am so lucky to be able to call my family members my friends: brother, daughters, parents).

This morning I was up early, awakened by my anxiety, scrolling through the headlines (don’t try this at home), wondering what the F? I had the good sense to pivot to last night’s At Home SNL show before I succumbed to my ennui and inertia. Thankfully, I perked up at Kate McKinnon’s RBG workout skit and Weekend Update. I took heart in Tom Hank’s recovery (money and status notwithstanding).

I was busy envying Tom Hank’s typewriter collection when a message popped across my screen:  Easter at your doorstep it said. My friends had stopped by and left a homemade cinnamon roll on my front porch! And a satsuma! Happy Easter to me. I did not go back to bed, Dear Reader. Now I felt like I might be able to remain upright for the rest of the day. Not long after, my youngest daughter texted me a Happy Easter message, and I sent my eldest daughter video of our ancient cat, Mittens (he’s 19). We shared Mittens stories for most of the morning, back and forth with pictures and memories (yes, he’s still alive, but for how much longer?).

I opened my email to find the poems another friend had promised to send me, and Reader, I swooned to read her breathtaking words, so sharp, so wise, so heartfelt. I found myself on the back porch, Sarah McLachlan blaring on the stereo, tears streaming down my face. And suddenly, a large MEOW. Mittens had stalked me. The old guy can’t find his food dish to save himself, but he can track me down to shatter my reverie? And in the next thought, please don’t die on me buddy. We’ve become an unlikely pair of quarantine friends. Whodda thunk it?

The monotony of the past few weeks has been pleasantly interrupted time and again for virtual meetings with folks, groups of friends scattered across the country, with other pals nearby but oh so far, individuals and groups, former coworkers who have fallen solidly into the friend group, writing friends, friends made vis a vis the writing community. Friends from school. Regular emails from my Dad, texts from my sister-in-law who is at this moment taking care of her father through an illness unrelated to the pandemic in another state, chats and messages with my brother as he navigates the repopulation of his no-longer-empty nest as the college kids return, as if south for some interminable winter.

And between the online sessions (anyone else reminded of Hollywood Squares?), unexpected moments of kindness: salmon and grocery deliveries, neighbors with power tools and the willingness to use them to help me out of a literal jam. Friends making and delivering masks and coaching me through the final part of stitching them up.

So much richness. Such gratitude. And yet, there was a time when I despaired that I would be lonely forever, after what seemed at the time, a lifelong tendency toward false starts and unfortunate choices, not altogether bad, even rewarding in many ways, but not what I had imagined. Not always what was good for me, emotionally, financially, physically. Some choices drove wedges between myself and my family. Some choices healed those rifts. Some of the same choices divided me from friends, estranged lovers, and also brought change, second chances, and mended fences.

Building this community took time, long hard looks at myself and a commitment to be different, to be myself, to learn to like myself enough to make sometimes wrenching decisions. It also took a lot of therapy in order to tolerate the pain of many lonely days, depression, self-doubt, and anxiety. It took being brave, taking chances, reaching out, being vulnerable, sitting with my feelings, writing bad poetry (and some good). It took taking risks.

I remember standing in one therapist’s office and she told me to imagine I was on the edge of an imaginary cliff.  “Your life waits out there,” she said. “When will you be ready to jump?”

Eventually, I did jump. Into a vast sparkling pool of friends I call family and family I can call friends. Take a risk, friends. For yourself.

B is for Belonging, Bravery, and Blogging

B2020To follow up on the A is for Alone blog, I thought I would write a bit about belonging. I was just listening to Brené Brown talk on 60 Minutes about vulnerability and courage and connection. Her research on vulnerability and shame has proven that humans are wired for connection and we can connect with others if we are vulnerable. I spend a lot of time encouraging my clients to let themselves be vulnerable, reminding them that we are, in fact, wired for connection. I reassure them that if they allow themselves to be vulnerable and real and brave in the face of uncertainty and possible rejection, they will discover belonging.

This is a difficult concept for many, myself included. We hold ourselves back from belonging because we are afraid that there is something wrong with us, we assume that this horrible flaw, should it be discovered, will keep us in isolation and lonely (i.e. without a sense of belonging). We don’t want to risk opening ourselves up because we fear being rejected for that flaw, that terrible thing that could send potential friends screaming in the other direction. So, we remain isolated and lonely, wrapped in our invulnerability, closed off so no one can see us, really. But it’s a self-defeating cycle. By if we refuse to risk rejection, we cannot open ourselves to acceptance and belonging. And somehow it seems easier to be 100% lonely than to risk rejection.

We have to summon our courage, become brave enough to risk connection, if we hope to cultivate a community in which we belong. For myself, being vulnerable means writing. Writing often means taking huge risks, both exposing my innermost thoughts and feelings and putting them out there for anyone to read. It is especially nerve-wracking now that I am a practicing mental health counselor. But writing is where I find community. It is my identity, more than any other part of me.  And while it is scary to put myself out there, the alternative is to make myself smaller than I am, to hide my true self, and to feel more alone and disconnected in the world.

And now more than ever, we all need connection. So, come on. Get your brave on. You might just discover you belong.

A is for Alone

For most of my adult life, I have not much cared for being alone. I grew up in the country, away from other kids, no neighborhood gang to hang out with, no one but my little brother to play with, and while he is amazing to spend time with now, it was different when I was 8 and he was 3. I learned to entertain myself. I read books and wandered the woods around the house pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder or Sam from My Side of the Mountain, the kid who left home to go live in a hollowed out old tree stump in the Adirondacks at age 12 where he trained a falcon to hunt for him and taught himself to tan deer hide. But birds scared me, I had no idea how to skin a deer (nor did I want to), and the hollowed-out tree stumps on our property harbored far too many spiders and other bugs to make it habitable for me. But I learned in those long days of alone time that I could be good company for myself. That I had an imagination and could harness the power of my mind to entertain myself, to explore, and to learn new things.

Only as I grew up, did I begin to equate being alone with loneliness. We moved a lot as a family once I turned 12. I went to several high schools. I struggled to make friends. I lacked confidence. And then began the dawning awareness that I was, in fact, different in one fundamental way. I did not then have a word for what I was, but let’s just say I had some spidey sense that being attracted to other girls, sexually or romantically, wasn’t okay (it was, after all, the 1970s). I wasn’t okay according to our family’s religious beliefs; I wasn’t okay according to our culture; I wasn’t a typical girl in that I did not like typical girl things. I began to feel more and more alone, apart, separate. I began to hide who I really was. Which limited my pool of real friends and made me feel lonely AND alone.

I began the work, then, of trying to make sure I was never alone. Because in my mind, in the reality I had constructed, alone=loser. Not alone=not a loser. Many years of therapy and hard self-work later, I have finally unlearned that destructive lesson and gotten back to my child self, that confident girl who could entertain herself, be comfortable with her own company, relax into learning new things on her own, for herself, by herself. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t grow to love myself and my own company again overnight or even within a year. But I kept at it—I kept talking (and listening) to my therapists and teachers, trusting my own judgment, taking risks, being honest about myself with others.

In time, I learned that being alone was not a measure of how much I was loved nor a reflection of my worth. I learned what it means to have true friends, people who care and value me whether we are out for happy hour or thousands of miles apart from each other, people who I trust love me because I believe I am lovable. These lessons keep returning to me now, as I, a single divorced mother of two grown children, hunker down for the duration. Alone. But I am not lonely. I am loved. And so are you.