Thirty women assembled for the first meeting of small group I was helping facilitate; the crowd was comprised of singles, wives, and moms, ages 25-55, of various backgrounds. Before each person was a sticky note and a pen. We instructed the women to write a single word to describe themselves at that moment, place the note on the back wall, and return to their seats. The responses were disheartening:
- 1- Excited.
- 6- Tired/Exhausted.
- 23- Lonely.
Lonely. In a setting that was designed to foster community, most of its members felt lonely.
In a small group. In a gathering of friends. In the counseling office. Lonely and alone are the words I hear most often.
Loneliness is a feeling that is experienced in a crowd of people and in a room all alone. It is experienced in the distance and disconnect brought on by any number of physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual factors. It is fed by fear and longing, and it threatens one to entertain and believe that “I am all alone.”
Know and Be Known
Like all other feelings, loneliness will ebb and flow; it will resurface and occasionally linger longer than welcomed, but take heart- it will not last forever. While there is no “cure” for loneliness, or any feeling for that matter, there are steps one can take to loosen its grip.
–Take a deeper look. I encourage the people I work with to resist the tendency to label emotions as “good or bad” or “right or wrong” (though some certainly feel better than others) and instead to recognize feelings as signals that bring needs or desires into greater awareness. When loneliness creeps in, try to sit with the feeling, painful and uncomfortable as it may be, and listen to what it may be telling you. Is there an unmet need? An unfulfilled expectation? A place where you have withdrawn or an obstacle that stands in the way of deeper, more genuine connection? Sometimes the richest opportunities for growth in character and self-awareness are birthed in and through the valleys of life. Do not forsake the lessons by trying to pole vault from one mountain top to the next.
–Identify the people in your life with whom you feel safe. Who are the people who encourage and build-up? Who are the people with whom you can be vulnerable? With whom you can be the most genuine version of yourself? Who makes you laugh and lightens your spirit? In the desperation that loneliness can breed, it can be overwhelming to think of where to begin. As you reflect on these questions, consider the people whose names came to mind as a good place to invest your time, energy, and heart.
-Unplug and plug in. A few years ago, I took an extended fast from social media. The purpose was two-fold. First, I recognized that my mood deflated as I scrolled; if I was sad, bored, or lonely when I hopped online, I felt these emotions even more deeply as as I perused pictures of people having a great time or read posts about events that I had not been a part of. Second, I realized that I did not want to just know about what was going on in the lives of friends simply because I had read about it. Knowing and knowing about someone are two different things. Relationships require effort and intentionality, and many times social media is a platform for consumerism rather than connection. We can only thrive when we are connected with others.
For some a social media fast may be too drastic a step, but through this point I would simply encourage you to weigh the impact of screens and social media on your ability to really engage with the people in your circle. Consider a phone call rather than a text. Take a walk or grab a coffee with a friend rather than binge-watching the next show. Leave the phone in another room while you eat dinner to free you from distraction in being present.
-Forgive and seek forgiveness. Wrongdoing drives a wedge in relationship and creates disconnection from God, from others, and even from one’s self. Shame drives people into hiding and isolation. If loneliness finds its root in transgression, seek forgiveness. This type of honesty and vulnerability is both humbling and scary, but it is an essential step toward restoration. When what is hidden by the darkness is brought to light, it begins to lose its power.
–Live with your eyes, ears, and heart open. Psalm 68:6a (NIV) states, “God sets the lonely in families…” We were created for relationship; the need and desire for connection is wired in our DNA. There are times when we need to be grafted into families, friendships, and communities, and there are times when we can be an answer to that prayer for someone else. As you find your place, do not become too comfortable or closed. Live with your eyes, ears, and heart open. Be aware of the needs of those around you and extend a welcome to another lonely soul who may need the invitation to know and be known.
Tara Belt, MA, LPCA, NCC