When my children were babies and toddlers, feeling suffocated by the chaos and endless demands of domestic life, my friend A listened unconditionally to my woes on the phone, and shared hers back. She had been there before when were ‘finding ourselves’, travelling in Australia, and talking endlessly, as we put childhood demons behind us and started afresh. At my wedding, she was my supporter and cheerleader, injecting her immense excitement and joy into this special day. And today, she remains a constant presence in my life, although these days we talk less, and geographically, it is not possible anymore, to just pop in for a cup of tea. Most importantly, I know she is there, and I owe this friendship a great deal in my happiness and wellbeing quotient. I hope I don’t ever take it for granted.
But what if you don’t have close friends? We know that we have an epidemic of loneliness in the UK. It is certainly one of the most talked about issues in counselling, and a trigger for many unhelpful escape strategies like overeating, drinking, compulsive shopping and internet use. In some ways, we have never felt so connected with others, constantly glued to our iPhones and other electronic devices, but time for meaningful connections has diminished with our ever busier lives. Loneliness can be hard to bear, especially when you feel maybe that you shouldn’t feel lonely – you are surrounded by people, but don’t feel connected at all.
We know that people live longer when they have meaningful relationships, these being incredibly important for our mental wellbeing. We put time and effort into health, exercise, work and family. It is worth investing in our friendships too.
If you are feeling lonely and want to connect more with others, here are 6 tips:
1) You only need a few
If you have two or three close friends who you can be yourself with, in my opinion, this is worth 1000 followers or friends on social media. To gain a friend, you need to be a friend first. If you are feeling lonely, scale down time spent on social media scrolling through feeds and having more superficial interactions, and scale up the time meeting face-to-face or talking on the phone to someone.
2) Embrace vulnerability
Many people are very scared of being vulnerable and trusting others. You might have received conditional messages growing up: about the way you looked, your interests or the way you behaved. You might have been bullied at school and understandably, this might result in you carrying intense shame and questioning your likeability. Therefore, you hide away and don’t put yourself out in the world. This leaves you isolated and lonely.
The only way we can connect closely with others is through our vulnerability. You might need to take baby steps towards doing this. Be brave and persevere in going out into the world. Maybe start with a shared activity or group, where the pressure to interact face-to-face is less intense.
3) Show persistence
You might have to do a bit of searching to find your ‘tribe’. We all need people who ‘get us’, the ones who share our interests, passions and little quirks. If you don’t have people on your doorstep to connect with, you might have to expand your efforts and go further afield. This is where the internet can really benefit us, as we connect with people the world over. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts don’t work out. See yourself as a curious adventurer who is collecting different experiences. Trust that friendships will come along the way in time.
4) Remember that most people are nice
If you have had a difficult childhood, you may not have experienced the best qualities in human nature first-hand, and will be anxious of rejection. You might expect more of the same.
There is a much hurt and anger in the world, but people are generally kind and like helping others. Many have had their own fair share of problems and experiences can be relatable. If someone seems to have a perfect life, with it ‘all together’, it is extremely unlikely to be true, rather an effective mask. The imperfections of human nature actually bind us together and can be an immense source of support and encouragement.
5) Don't take things personally
Don’t take things too personally and avoid analysis-paralysis. Sometimes, if a friend cancels it is genuinely because they are too busy or have their own struggles. Instead, actually recognise your own worth, rather than assuming the worst case scenario e.g.: ‘I’m unlikeable’. If someone repeatedly lets you down, maybe this isn’t someone you want to invest in a long-term friendship with.
6) Know your worth as a friend
Rather than focusing on your perceived lack, or comparing yourself to others, look to the things you have to give in friendship: your sense of humour, thoughtfulness, enthusiasm, quirky taste in music, love of tattoos, animals, or whatever it might be. Each of us has much to bring and share in friendship. It is worth taking the risk for access to the joy of meaningful connection.
If you are feeling overwhelmed with loneliness and these steps seem hard to even consider, it could be the time to think about getting further support through counselling.