Dancing With Myself: Coping With Loneliness
What is loneliness? What has contributed to my experience with it and how has COVID-19 made things worse? How have I been coping with this?
Image: Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
I'm lonely. Like, really lonely lately.
This isn't exactly a surprise to me, given my circumstances. At the end of last year I started a new job that required me to move to a new town. A small town. Very, very small town. I knew no one. I moved into a small apartment, living alone for the first time in my life. I was also single for the first time in almost a decade. That's right, this was all happening weeks after ending a 9.5 year relationship/engagement.
I viewed the move as a fresh start. Maybe it wasn't exactly Boston, where I'd hoped to move to, but I was excited about my job and exploring someplace different. I was excited to meet new people and I have been very fortunate to have made some wonderful friends in my colleagues. I can't imagine going through this transition without them. Much of the first few months was simply adjustment: grieving my relationship and former life; learning about a new town and work role; living on my own. I just needed time to process everything. I was looking forward to "warmer weather" (the ultimate Canadian dream and excuse) to further explore this new place and start meeting people outside of work and strengthen the friendships that were blossoming.
And then mid-March, COVID-19 hit.
Suddenly I was literally all alone. In a small town I don't really know with only a few people I know. Who I can't even see. I work at a college and the campus is shut down. Everyone is working remotely and will be for a long time. Suddenly, no more hallway chats. Limited opportunities to connect with colleagues through virtual means. We all know it: it's just not the same, especially when it comes to informal interpersonal interaction. Outside of work, there went all the opportunities for socializing or even just engaging in my own personal interests: no kickboxing or pole fitness classes I'd been meaning to start; no gym access (because I totally went all the time, yes); no movie theatre or library open for lazy Sundays; no restaurants or coffee shops for grabbing drinks. Dating completely off the table.
I actually like being alone. I am one of those annoying introverts who is absolutely loving so much of self-isolation. I enjoy my own company and I have a lot of solo activities. This is what really helps me cope. But that doesn't mean I also don't crave connection. That is my loneliness. I miss the opportunities for feeling emotionally and mentally connected to others. The reminder of our shared humanity. Even with social anxiety, I'm someone who likes the elevator chats with strangers about the weather. Giggling with someone in the grocery store line.
I miss interpersonal novelty: getting to know new people and sharing parts of myself with others.
There's grief in all of this. Compounded grief. With the end of a relationship, there is social loss. I am grieving the end of certain friendships and family that I am no longer a part of. My social world has been cut in half.
I am grieving a life I once had while simultaneously grieving a life I was anticipating having this year.
I'm lonely and hungry for connection. It's hard to admit this sometimes, right? As though this says something about us. In a culture that values sociability, loneliness is pitied. Or, we worry it signals that we cannot make or maintain friendships. Loneliness isn't a quantitative determination. The amount of family and friends doesn't factor in. It's about missing and longing for different connections and types of companionships. It's not just physical isolation. We can feel emotionally isolated and mentally distanced from others.
I've noticed this is heightened as we get older. Our personalities and preferences solidify and we're more aware of commonalities and differences. We make choices for friendships, rather than just falling into them like in high school. It's hard in the best of times to make new friends. Like, how do we even do this as adults? I'm also just so awkward sometimes. That "I don't fit in" feeling from adolescence is still hanging around in my thirties.
It's also about recognizing a detachment with current friends that is normal at my age; when some people have a life you don't yet have: marriage, children, other responsibilities you can't quite understand or appreciate beyond an intellectual level. My loneliness is also about a longing to connect with others at a similar stage of life. Even if restrictions weren't in place, my new town does not offer much social opportunity for single women my age. I imagine this sense of disconnection will always be a part of my time here.
So, how have I been coping with my loneliness? COVID restrictions are making things tricky, but the following has helped me. (Of course they are very therapist-y suggestions):
1. Accepting how I feel.
I acknowledge that I feel alone, isolated, and sad, and wish things were different. I allow myself to feel these things. I have crying spells. I feel waves of despair and embarrassment and rejection. I feel guilty that my sense of loneliness is somehow disrespectful towards my current relationships. I feel anxious about things not changing for a while. I feel incredible FOMO (fear of missing out) and existential restlessness.
2. Identifying what I am missing.
I am missing companionship, connecting with others on a deeper level, and feeling supported by others. I am missing sharing intellectual interests and just talking about myself. This might sound odd, but as a therapist, I don't get this opportunity in my day to day. In fact, I am so well trained to not talk about myself that it's hard for me to share parts of myself with friends and family before jumping in prematurely with the obligatory, "But how are you???"
3. Exploring how I can meet some of these needs.
I'm missing deeper connection, so I've been working on opening up more to friends, sharing more about myself and encouraging conversations about values and hopes and fears. I'm connecting more with others over different things, like how crazy 90 Day Fiancé is, or a book we are both reading. I'm connecting more with strangers. I will totally engage in the random Twitter questions about favourite movie or guilty pleasure song. I'm also part of a therapist Facebook group, where we can all vent or connect over the emotional aspects of being a helping professional.
If we're missing companionship, maybe we invite a colleague to see a movie with us. We can look into groups: at school, in the community, offered through the gym. We can start one ourselves. We can ask friends what they currently do and see if there are opportunities to join a sports league, book club, or weekly TV night. Of course with COVID-19, we need to be more creative with these options, doing things virtually or socially distanced. Although Zoom fatigue is VERY REAL, I've been taking advantage of different virtual and online options for connecting with others.
4. Changing what it all means.
Now, all of this outreach and action sounds great in theory, but involves something very hard: interpersonal risk. If we struggle with social anxiety, or with already feeling odd and isolated for a reason, it's uncomfortable to put ourselves at risk for further rejection. We need to develop comfort with being uncomfortable and sitting with vulnerability.
Sometimes I am swallowed up by the (what I know is irrational) narrative of, "This is it. I'll be alone forever. No new friends or partners ever." (The dramatics!) We need to force ourselves to consider alternate explanations for why that colleague says no, why no one interacts with us online, why our conversations with friends lack depth. We need to limit comparisons to others about their social life and sense of connection and support. Social media in particular makes it seem like everyone is out dancing together. We need to normalize how common feeling disconnected is and how challenging it is to build and strengthen relationships. We need to mitigate how we personalize these moments so they don't reinforce negative self-beliefs and promote further isolation.
5. Tolerating my loneliness.
Loneliness is making me feel sad but this feeling is tolerable. I know it is not a permanent feeling but also not a permanent situation. Now, since I am immunocompromised and high-risk during COVID-19, I anticipate my sense of isolation will actually heighten over the next few months, as I observe what others are able to resume in comparison to my continued hyper-vigilance and self-isolation. I imagine I am going to feel increasingly "left out" and envious. FOMO is going to be HUGE. But, I can sit with these feelings.
Mindfulness helps me with this. So does acceptance of what is; accepting my circumstance without judgement or wishful thinking helps to limit the emotional distress. I can accept that my social life doesn't look how I wish it did right now. I can accept that I feel isolated not only physically, but emotionally right now, for numerous reasons. Perspective helps too: my return to normal will eventually come. Am I and will I be this Zen about it when I am experiencing these thought and feelings? Uh, no. But the intention for intentional thinking is there.
6. Practicing gratitude.
Ah yes, us therapists always going on about gratitude. But, next to detached observation of my thoughts/feelings, gratitude is what helps me the most in managing everything in my life. Especially having chronic depression, which isolation feeds. I've really NEEDED to do "the gratitude thing" to limit another depression episode from taking over during this time. With loneliness, gratitude practice sometimes involves focusing on what I do have, socially and relationally. Other times I shift to considering what aspects of being with myself I really appreciate. There is enjoyment in working on the relationship with myself, engaging in only my activities and passions, and having a social life that is streamlined. I try to be present with these activities too. Really get into that book while sitting outside; really get into dancing to that song alone in my kitchen while only having to make dinner for myself.
It's a cliche thing to say, but we really are social beings. We are hardwired for connection. Connection helped us survive; from an evolutionary perspective, there was a power in numbers in the tribe. When feeling isolated, we thus can feel both exposed and invisible. We can feel vulnerable and odd. We personalize it. It can exasperate underlying beliefs of being unlovable or disposable.
A belief that people are indifferent towards my existence. Ouch. Thinking this rubs a psychological wound.
But this discomfort and hyperfocus on disconnection was an advantage also to our survival. It alerted us to our needs and changes to be made. It is uncomfortable, but loneliness also communicates something to us. It's human to crave connection, to feel lonely, and to go through periods of loneliness. Especially during a period of actual forced isolation. I'm trying to normalize this while also making plans for myself for when, eventually, I can further enhance my connection to others. Until then, I will be socially awkward online instead and dance to all the 80's music by myself in my apartment.
Featured Title Lyric: Dancing with Myself (Billy Idol)