“I’m lonely,” a woman told me. She describes how she longs for meaningful friendships but doesn’t know how to make those happen. With tears, she explains how she looks around, and it seems everyone has someone but her. She feels desperate and is void of any hope that things will change. She says she knows and interacts with many people but feels powerless to move from friendly small talk to true friendship.
There will be times in our life when making friends will be required, and there aren’t always easy onramps to develop those relationships. Life changes, such as when you move to a new city when you graduate college or change jobs when your children no longer play sports, or maybe they move off to college. There are many times we need to find ways to make new relationships with others, and it isn’t always easy. We have all just emerged from a global pandemic where it wasn’t safe to be around people. Most of us are out of practice, leaving us feeling lonelier than ever. A 2021 study revealed that Americans report fewer close friendships, talk to their friends less, and rely on their friends even less for support. A majority of those surveyed responded that they feel severe or moderate loneliness. So how do we suddenly change our mindset and reach out to people we don’t know?
When we were younger, friendships seemed to come to us. We played with the neighbor kids, you were forced to be friends with the kids in your classroom, or maybe you played a sport or did theater and found a group of instant friends who shared the same interests. But as an adult, how do you go about finding your people? How do you move past small talk? It is tricky and is a skill that isn’t natural to many of us. But here is a secret, we are all in the same boat. Or at least the majority of us are.
Loneliness Buster #1: Look around. You are not alone.
36% of people surveyed reported feeling lonely frequently or all the time. This included 61% of young adults aged 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children. When it feels like you are the only person who feels lonely, look around and try to see all the lonely people around you. That girl sitting alone at the Chick-Fil-A, the man alone at the coffee shop, the woman next to you in spin class. When your mind tells you that you are the only one who feels alone, it is simply lying to you. Resist the downward spiral of self-despair and negative self-talk if you can. If this is too difficult to do on your own, find a counselor to help.
Loneliness Buster #2: Prepare for 20 seconds of insane courage
Inspired by the movie, “We Bought a Zoo,” where Matt Damon’s character talks about how 20 seconds of insane courage and bravery changed his whole life. He explains that he checked his watch and challenged himself to walk up to a woman, who later became his wife, and speak to her even though he knew it was crazy. It’s a sweet scene with a powerful message. Would you step out of your comfort zone and do something hard for 20 seconds if that something might change your life? 20 seconds. Are you willing to sweat for 20 seconds if those 20 seconds of bravery made a difference?
Loneliness Buster #3: Reach out even if it’s the last thing you feel like
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you take the leap, where you are required to defy gravity. Social anxiety is real, and each of us feels it differently. Feeling your heart race and your hands get sweaty right before you are about to talk to a stranger is an experience shared by many. It is uncomfortable to feel this way.
If your anxiety paralyzes you and keeps you from the life you wish to have, it may be time to seek help. Social anxiety can be felt so severely that you can’t interact with others, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes 20 seconds of courage isn’t enough, which is ok too. However, seeking help for anxiety is courageous, too, and it may be just what you need to be able to get unstuck and enjoy life again. If you have symptoms that lead you to drop out of school, become unemployed or leave you completely isolated, it’s time to find a counselor or talk to your medical provider.
Loneliness is felt by so many in our country right now. It is difficult to conquer and even more difficult to endure. Take the risk of inviting others into your life. It’s a horrible, scary and terrifying thing to do…but it will pay off in the end.
If you need support and would like to speak to a professional counselor about topics such as the one featured in this blog and are in the Chicago area, please contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000. We are at 6819 West 167th Street in Tinley Park, Illinois 60477.