Recovering from Loneliness in the Age of Covid-19

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Feeling Lonely? So many people feel like you do.

Before the social distancing and isolation brought on by Covid-19, there was an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. A recent poll identified three out of every five Americans as suffering from chronic loneliness. Among millennials the percentage is even higher. 

With Covid-19 even more Americans feel lonely. It’s not just about being physically alone. It’s a feeling that no one really cares about you. Yes, there is social contact online and by telephone. There is maybe even talking with someone six feet away. But none of this contact is the same as interacting with co-workers or others on site. The deep connection is missing.

Several of the patients in my practice as a clinical psychologist tell me they feel the pain of not being touched physically nor emotionally day after day.  They begin to think of themselves as not really mattering to anyone. 

Because I am also a psychology professor, I try to give my patients some ways of thinking about being alone that psychologists have found are helpful.

Realize Loneliness Is a Label about Yourself Put on a Feeling

Being alone can create a feeling of emptiness, anxiety, dis-ease.  Humans are social animals with a need to bond with others.  When this need is not satisfied, there is a feeling of lack.  Yet, it is not the lack itself, but the label attached to this lack that creates the pain of loneliness. 

In trying to figure out why there is not someone there for you, you might label yourself as not loveable.  Or you think that something is wrong with you, which whomever you are with will quickly notice. That lonely feeling, then, comes from thinking of oneself as a loser.  And when you label yourself as a loser you lose the motivation to begin or renew a relationship with others.  You then isolate even more, creating the very conditions that are distressing you.

Notice and Then Change What You Are Saying to Yourself

If you thought of yourself as loveable you might be more comfortable being alone. And you might also be more willing to seek out opportunities to be with others. 

But how do you see yourself as more loveable? First, notice what you are saying to yourself that is not helpful. Are you labeling yourself as flawed and that everyone eventually will see those flaws? That is a sure way to not venture out of your shell. Now change the flawed message to one that is more helpful.  Identify some of your attractive qualities and remember these each time you see yourself negatively.  In this way, the flaws are balanced out with the attractive qualities. 

Reach Out to Others

Now you are ready to connect with others. Yes, you will have to initiate the connection. That can be uncomfortable but, if you are now giving yourself the message that you have some positive qualities to share with others, it might be a little easier to reach out to others.

Yet, another thought might quickly enter your mind and keep you from taking action to connect with others. You might be thinking, “When I’m with others I think they are constantly evaluating me—what I say, how I look, what I do.” That self-talk holds you back so you have to change it into something more helpful.

Challenge that thought by saying “I will focus on the other person instead of focusing on the anxiety I feel when I feel I’m being evaluated.” Focusing on the other person instead of yourself takes the pressure off of what you are feeling.

Let the other person know what you noticed or heard instead of worrying about what you should reply. Stay with this stance. Everyone wants to be acknowledged as noticed and heard. It starts the connection and it deepens it.

Where to Find Others

If you don’t have some friends or relatives that you can reconnect with, try volunteering to help others. Volunteering increases your sense of really mattering to someone, which is the opposite of what you might have been thinking when you were isolating. 

Think about who you would get the most satisfaction from helping.  Would it be children, teenagers, adults in special circumstances, senior citizens?  Then do an online search for where you might be most needed.  The search terms would be the name of your city and the word, “volunteer”.  Or, you can make the search more specific, by adding the name of the group you would like to help (e.g. neighbors, homeless, migrants, special needs). VolunteerMatch.com and CreateTheGood.com are two sites that list volunteer opportunities in your local community.  Not only would you be making a positive change in your community, you would be meeting other people who are also volunteering. And in this time of the Covid-19 crisis, so many people need so much help.

If you want to help but still want to stay home, there are many ways you can volunteer virtually.  You won’t have quite the same experience of connection but you are taking the first step in reaching out to others.

Thus, by opening up your mind and focusing on the needs and words of others you will start to recover from loneliness.

Finding Real Love Online

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You meet someone on line.  Then you text.  Then you Zoom or, if possible, meet for coffee.   But why, as the interaction increases, do so many of these possible lovers turn into duds?

Maybe it is because what is presented online is not who the person really is.  Or maybe it is because spending so much time with people online leaves no time to build relationship skills.

So, what should you look for online in a possible partner?  And how do you best present yourself online?

To find the partner you really want, make a list of the qualities of that person that you feel are important for a good relationship.  Consider whether you are looking for a short-term or a long-term relationship because, in one study, both men and women focused on sexual desirability when evaluating a prospective short-term relationship.  They cited qualities such as physical attractiveness and athleticism.  Yet, when a long-term relationship is desired, honesty, warmth, kindness, and intelligence were cited.

Next, prioritize these qualities.  The first three priorities will then become what you will look for in online descriptions.  A person who really has those qualities will list them rather than just presenting superficial desirable qualities.

If only one of the qualities you desire is listed, you can use later interactions to ask questions that might elicit the other qualities or even some surprising other desirable qualities.  For example, you could ask what qualities the online prospect is looking for.  Then you will know whether there is a mismatch in what you both are seeking. Or you could ask about a time when the person told a lie and how they felt about it. 

What you often do not see immediately online are some qualities that are red flags.  Everyone is initially trying to present an ideal self. And you might be so enamored at the beginning that you are blind to the subtle cues that indicate that person is not a keeper. Often, it isn’t until you are much deeper into the relationship that these red flags begin to show.  For example, does the person want others to do things their way; blow hot and cold; get highly threatened by differences of opinion?  (More of these red flags can be found in Beverly Palmer’s Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life).  We all show some of these characteristics some of the time but it is the insistence and persistence of them that create problems in relationships. 

How do you find out about characteristics that do not bode well for a long-term relationship when you are just interacting online?  One strategy is to ask how they would react in a given situation.  Ask, “If someone interrupted you when you were trying to tell them something important, what would you feel and what would you do?” Or, “Tell me about a time when you were disappointed because someone didn’t think or act the way you expected them to.”

Now focus on yourself. How are you presenting yourself online?  There is not a long list of qualities you have to have in order to be loveable.  There is only one main thing you have to do: listen to the other person.  Online communication or texting can present some impediments to getting the full message that is being communicated.  But, if you pause before shooting off your reply, you can pick up the essence of the message and you can let your partner know what that essence is.

Everyone wants to be listened to and acknowledged that they were heard.  Showing you have listened to others makes them feel appreciated and valued.  They then love you because you make them feel this way.

To listen closely enough to the other person to understand what they are trying to communicate is not easy.  First you have to de-center and focus on the other.  You have to let go of any anxiety or concern about how you should respond.  Focus entirely on the other person instead of what you are thinking or feeling.   After you have heard what was said, do not give your instant reaction.  Instead, repeat back the essence of what you heard.  After you have acknowledged that you understood what was communicated, you can say what is important to you.  Throughout your conversation you have to let the other person know you have listened before stating your point of view.

You might also want to assess how good of a listener the other person is.  Since two people showing they are really listening to each other could be the start of a loving relationship.

Regan, P.C., Levin, L., Sprecher, S., Christopher, F.S. & Gate, R. (2000). Partner preferences: What characteristics do men and women desire in their short-term sexual and long-term romantic partners?. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality. 12 (3), 1-21. https:// doi.org/10.1300/J056v12n03_0