• Some of us struggle to build fulfilling relationships, or maybe we even struggle with social anxiety

  • The result can be loneliness, says counsellor Gabriela Morris 

  • If you are struggling with social anxiety or interpersonal relationship problems, find a therapist here

It’s not surprising that many people feel lonely these days; I have clients of all ages who feel the pain of loneliness. Some of my clients find themselves in the situation with friends moving away, or perhaps they have graduated from university and they are entering working life; others are experiencing the great loss of losing a partner and facing a future that suddenly looks much more lonely. 

Sometimes lonely feelings can be attributed to our circumstances, but at other times it's more nuanced than that. Have you ever asked yourself the question: how many people do I really know who I can call at any hour of the day? Maybe it feels like you are always the person that people come to but if you need to talk to someone, no one is there for you.

In person-centred therapy, the client is the expert on their life, and deep down knows best what steps they need to take to fight feelings of loneliness. There is no point in suggesting to a client what they should do, or what hobbies they should try. The desire for things to change can be almost as painful as the pain of loneliness, but it gives you a necessary urgency to start changing your old ways and looking for things that will expand your opportunities to meet new people.

Here are some things to consider that will help you build better relationships.

Learn how to communicate your needs and set boundaries

Many of us have difficulties with setting boundaries and communicating our needs. Communicating your needs and voicing when you are feeling hurt makes others aware of our expectations from the relationship. In order to work on your boundaries with friends, you need to accept how their company, or lack thereof, makes you feel.

If you clearly communicate your needs and feelings, people will be better equipped to treat you in a way that helps you feel more connected and understood. Similarly, you will be able to be a better friend to them by knowing where their head is at.

In therapy there is space for clients to voice their struggles and reflect on their own experiences. Once you are aware of the negative patterns adopted over the years and the reasons behind them, only then can you start applying a more healthy approach, eventually leading to positive changes.

Take responsibility for your perception

You are in control of your happiness, of how you perceive things and how much you let things affect you.

I often refer to the “circle of control”: 

  • The very outer circle is called the "circle of concern", including things you have no control over such as the weather, traffic, death and more 
  • The next circle in is called the "circle of influence", where you have only some control, for instance, whether you get promoted, whether people like you or not etc
  • The middle circle is the "circle of control", and this includes things you can actually control, such as your actions and behaviours, decisions and choices

In order to drive somewhere, you need to take control of getting a licence, a car, insurance and petrol. You prepare so nothing can possibly go wrong. By doing your best to prepare, you are more confident and in control. You are in the driving seat. This is what happens in therapy, exploring and reflecting and preparing you to take that control, to be able to decide more confidently based on what you’ve learned, using that awareness to take the right path.

I once saw a graffiti that said: "You are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic". This is perfect example of how we can choose to look at the problem, instead of believing our first thought or an idea, question it.  Why am I alone at home the whole weekend, while others are out enjoying themselves?

Did you decline an invitation? Did you lie and say you’re busy? Are you terrified of rejection, so you’d rather not ask if the friend wants to do something?

Think about it and it will become clear, why you are where you are. If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you might want to consider whether you are struggling with social anxiety.

Understanding social anxiety

Social anxiety is very common. For some people, lockdowns were a relief – they didn’t have to socialise, make excuses or go through the stress of letting someone down after a promise to turn up.

Social anxiety is something we can work on in therapy. Social cues and verbal communication are so important in forming new friendships and maintaining existing ones, and your anxiety can wrongly make you appear cold, disinterested and even mean. The other person is not aware that the behaviour is caused by anxiety.

It helps to talk about your feelings, getting it all out and trying to make sense out of it.

People who have social anxiety often have these things in common:

  • They imagine embarrassing themselves
  • They avoid situations in which they will be judged
  • They only feel comfortable with a few specific people
  • They worry that other people will notice their fears
  • They experience specific social fears
  • They criticise their own social skills
  • Their thoughts may become self-fulfilling prophecies

It may help to know that you are not alone, and many other people are fighting their own inner battles. Avoiding social situations may seem like good idea but comes at a great cost as it can hold you back and stop you from reaching your full potential.

Remember to turn down your inner critic and not to take its every word at face value.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, keep moving forward, but at your own pace.

Try not to carry other people’s baggage. People will always have opinions and judgements about you, but it belongs to them and therefore it is a reflection on them. In other words, try not to adopt somebody else’s opinion about yourself as a fact.

True friends and people that care will stay and will like and respect you for who you are. They will be there for you on good and bad days. You will feel safe to talk to them about your problems. They will support you, while still encouraging you to be better. They have a faith in your abilities and personal potential.

How therapy can help

The most important thing to do is find the right therapist for you. Not every therapist will be the right fit.

Therapists are human and come with their own experiences and each have different ways they relate to their clients. I would encourage you to communicate your feelings as soon as possible, as it can lead to deeper exploration with the therapist and a better healing journey for you.

Once you manage to find a good therapist you have already found a human that cares about your wellbeing as much as you do.

They’ll turn up, model healthy boundaries and most importantly hear you out. They will encourage you to talk about anything you need to without a judgement.

You will feel safe to disclose anything that has been weighing you down, but felt you were unable to talk to your peers about. The confidentiality within the session will make you feel safe and comfortable to discuss what is on your mind.

You will learn how to trust again and get an opportunity to work and reflect on your self-worth.

In time you will recognise healthy and unhealthy relationship patterns and recognise which friendships/relationships are worth investing in.

You will become aware of what has been stopping you living your best life and how much of that could be a self-sabotage.

You are the most important part in creating a good therapeutic relationship with the therapist and that is necessary for therapeutic change or healing to happen.

You are in control of how many sessions you would like to commit to, and, maybe for a first time you may experience a healthy ending.

Gabriela Morris is a verified welldoing.org counsellor in Dorset and online

Further reading

Is therapy right for me?

How can I overcome social anxiety and self-consciousness?

How social anxiety and a fear of blushing have shaped my life

How being lonely is different to being alone

6 ways to nurture your friendships