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

Give Love This Christmas

christmas-gift-ideas-2.jpgNeed a unique Christmas gift for the young adult on your list?  Help them have a successful love life with Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life.

No matter where on the road to love someone is, this book will help them to avoid or work through the inevitable bumps along the way.  This book gives tips on each stage of a relationship, from finding a partner and making sure it is the right “one”, to creating a lasting love.

Instead of opinionated advice one might get on the internet or from their social media, this book gives them tips and techniques based on the science of what actually works.  The gift keeps giving because they will refer to it both now and throughout the years, because as their love life evolves new chapters will become relevant.

Available as a paperback or e-book at Amazon.com (amzn.to/2Kft05b or amzn.to/2YvQJls).

Oh, and if you are a young adult who is reading this, buy a copy of Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life for yourself (and maybe even one for a friend).

A (Short) Guide To Better Boundaries

I was honored to contribute to this article which appeared on Page 5 of the Wellness Section in the Sunday New York Times on October 30th. boundriesblog

What It Really Means If Your Love Language Is ‘Acts Of Service’

mad cat

Show me, don’t tell me.

BY ARYELLE SICLAIT

JUL 26, 2019

If you want to know why you do the things you do, you might look to your zodiac sign. For intel about your social tendencies, maybe your Myers-Briggs personality. But for understanding what makes you feel special in a relationship? Well, that’s one for love languages.

If you’ve read up on anything related to relationships and romance, like, ever, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages at some point in your research (or, okay, at girls night).

A quick rundown: If compliments make you melt, your love language is probably Words of Affirmation. If you thrive on the thoughtfulness behind a present, Receiving Gifts is yours. Look forward to dinners for two all weeklong? That’s Quality Time. And if you’re all about holding hands or you feel most connected during sex, you speak the language of Physical Touch.

The language that tends to get a bad rap (aside from Receiving Gifts, which isn’t about materialism, btw), however, is Acts of Service. It describes people whose hearts swell at the thought of coming home to dinner on the table with the promise of an empty sink or a foot rub for dessert. If this sounds like you, you feel most loved when people do things for you, not just with you or to you.

But here’s the thing: The Acts of Service language doesn’t make you a high-maintenance or lazy nag. All it means is that, for you, actions truly speak louder than words. 

Okay, tell me more—what does ‘Acts of Service’ say about me?

At its core, this language is about demonstrations of love.

Since saying “I love you” doesn’t actually guarantee that the speaker means it, some people respond better to seeing someone show their feelings, says Beverly Palmer, PhD, clinical psychologist, professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Love Demystified

That’s not to say you have trust issues (though it’s possible), or that you’re overly dependent (or codependent) on other people. In fact, you’re most likely super self-sufficient and ambitious.

That’s exactly what makes you respond to this language: If someone can recognize all that you do on your own and wants to step in to help make your life a little easier, that, to you, is real love.

Their actions are actually less about the deed itself and more about showing you that they are on your team.

If your partner goes out of their way to pick your sister up from the airport, or call the realtor so you don’t have to, you hear “I care about you enough to sacrifice my own time for your benefit.” And that’s not something you find every day. 

Is Acts of Service ever a bad thing?

Okay, brace yourself: Acts of Service can be a little problematic if you’re not super self-aware.

While every relationship should be about balance, where both partners get their needs equally met, having this particular love language could make you more susceptible to letting expectations get in the way of an otherwise happy and healthy situation. In other words, if you think your partner should be doing X or Y for you, rather than letting them choose how to show their support, you could self-sabotage your bond.

“Unbalanced relationships where one person expects too much and thinks their partner must meet those expectations to prove that they love them” is when things get tricky, Palmer says. No one wants a relationship that comes with a list of chores.

Think about it: At work, you’d be put off by a new employee who feels like they’re entitled to certain things before they’ve even shown their commitment to the company. Similarly, your partner should feel like their demonstrations of love are reciprocated and their choice, at their will—not your demand. 

Want a stronger relationship? Steal this couple’s secrets:

Gotcha. So if this is my love language, how do I make a relationship work?

Communication, communication, oh, and um, some more communication.

When acts of service are involved, there’s no room for assumptions, says Palmer. Assuming your S.O. knows which acts of service you value most and expecting them to perform them at all is a surefire way to make your partner feel taken advantage of.

So here’s how to be straightforward without demanding anything in return:

Do

  • Clearly tell your partner which acts of service you value.This way they can prioritize those actions, Palmer says. Frame it in a way that explains why their help means something to you, like: “I haven’t been getting much sleep lately—would you mind walking the dog in the morning so I can sleep in a little longer?”

    If you have a hard time expressing your needs, talking to a therapist can help you feel more comfortable. Either way, if you prefer to be more subtle, try telling your partner about a time a friend or family member did something for you that meant a lot to you, suggests Palmer.

  • Acknowledge what your partner’s doing—say thank you.It sounds duh, but especially in if you’ve been together for a while, you may not notice some of the things they’re doing to show you you’re their #1. 

    So to ensure they never feel taken for granted, after you talk through which acts of service are major for you, keep an eye out for when they actually do them (or something similar). Say: “Hey, I noticed you picked up the dry-cleaning today while I was stuck at work. I’m going to need those pants this week, so thank you so much for doing that.” 

  • Learn the ways your partner feels most loved.There’s a chance they “speak” a different love language than you do (they might need touch or feel extra special when you tell them how impressed you are by their brain), so do what you can to suss out their love language. Straight-up talk about it (Palmer promises the convo won’t be awkward as long as you keep things positive), or tune in to what makes them light up day to day. 

    Once you figure it out, keep that intel top of mind and create opportunities to speak their language (surprise them with a massage, bring home their favorite cookie…you get the idea). Otherwise, you’ll find these acts of service you crave become less and less frequent when your S.O. isn’t feeling the love from you.

Don’t

  • Expect your partner to read your mind.While, yeah, it’s the thought that counts, if certain actions will make you feel especially warm and fuzzy inside, speak up. 
  • Scoff at no. Remember, acts of service really lose their meaning if they’re not at your partner’s will. So be okay with hearing “Sorry, I can’t right now,” and trust that if they could, they would. If you feel like they’re always turning down your needs, it may be a good opp to visit a couples counselor. Communication is everything, after all.
  • Fully rely on your partner to pick up your slack.Even if your partner has your back, keep up with your own responsibilities so they can live their life, too. Dumping your daily tasks on them, Palmer says, is a one-way ticket to Splitsville. 

Bottom line: The Acts of Service love language is just as legit as all the others. Don’t let anyone (including yourself) shame you for it.

As long as you’re offering your partner the biggest service of all—speaking their love language in return—go on and enjoy that empty dishwasher, guilt-free.

ARYELLE SICLAIT Assistant EditorAryelle Siclait is an assistant editor at Women’s Health.

 

Love in the Age of Social Media

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You meet someone on line.  Then you text.  Then you meet for coffee.  But why 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 offline in a possible partner?  And how do you best present yourself offline?

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.  Then prioritize these qualities.  The first three priorities will then become what you will look for in online descriptions and what you will try to ascertain during your first offline visit.  If one or more of your first three priorities are not listed in that person’s online description, move on.  A person who really has those qualities will list them rather than just presenting superficial desirable qualities.

Offline

Or, if it seems that none of the online descriptions contains your priorities, you need to move offline.  Offline places to meet possible partners are: meetup groups (meetup.com), volunteering sites, universities.

Now you are having that first meeting with a potential partner.  How do you present yourself?  Do you have the relationship skills to succeed?

Everyone wants someone who is a good listener.  Instead of focusing on the anxiety you feel about this first meeting, focus on the other person.  Listen to what that person is saying and show you listened by repeating back a snippet of what was said.  All you really need to do during the first meeting is listen because listening is the number one relationship skill.

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.

(To find out more ways to meet a potential partner read Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life by Beverly B. Palmer, Ph.D.)

What the World Needs Now

diverse hands

“What the world needs now is love …. Not just for some, but for everyone.”

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote that song in 1965, when the United States was involved in the Vietnam War.  Are we at war again now, 53 years later, not overseas, but at home? 

Well, we do have a war of words and actions directed at demolishing others.  Oh, “others”?  Even characterizing another person as “the other” creates division.  It becomes all too easy to become divided into camps of “us versus them”.  So, let’s try again…we have a war of words and actions that obscures our common humanity.

When our primary source of news switched from newspapers to social media, we entered a “post-truth world” in which people read, listen, and watch what they agree with, not what challenges their preconceptions.  Isolation from different points of view, different values, different customs all entrenches us in our preconceptions.

Most of our preconceptions are based on gaining or maintaining power over another group of people. For example, if we read on our social media sites that blue people who come to the United States are free-loaders we will probably not be exposed to news about the blue people who contribute to our society.  We then can maintain our previous prejudice and see “them” as not as good as “us”.  Furthermore, if we exclude blue people from our social groups, we can associate only with people with the same belief, thereby solidifying our belief.

What, then, might heal these divisions and antipathies? 

Love is what the world needs now.  But can we love someone who thinks differently, acts differently, and looks different?  There is a way to do this and it is called “empathy”. 

To have empathy for another person means setting aside our evaluations of that person.  Then we actively listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings and acknowledge we heard them.1   This doesn’t mean we agree with the other person, just that we understand where that person is coming from and tell that person that we do.

When we are viewing another person with empathy, we have momentarily let go of our defenses.  And when we acknowledge the other person’s thoughts and feelings it disarms him/her.  Defenses are not needed by either party, so better communication and cooperation can emerge.

A loving empathy has been used even to defuse conflict between groups of people.2 The surprising fact is that both parties do not have to show empathy initially.  It only takes one person or group to start the process of empathetic communication.  And then empathy begets empathy.3

Through empathy, then, we have the power to connect with others at a level that is deeper than attitudes and beliefs.  When we truly listen to the other person, we see the other person’s humanity beyond our previous preconceptions.  No longer is there a power struggle of us versus them.  There are just two human beings willing to listen to each other, heart to heart, without judgment. Then we can connect through acknowledging our common human needs, feelings, and fears. 

The empathetic approach to relationships is backed by evidence that it works—it works to neutralize power differences and tensions.4 Empathy is a viable alternative to our present way of seizing and using power.  It is a quiet revolution.5

References

(Notice how old the references below are and, yet, we still have not implemented them throughout our society.)

  1. Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, 95-103.
  2. Rogers, C., and Sanford, R. (1987). Reflections on our South African experience. Counseling and Values (Special issue on Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach to peace) 32, 17-20.
  3. Feshbach, N.D. & Feshbach, S. (1982). Empathy training and the regulation of aggression: Potentialities and limitations. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 4, 399-413.
  4. Rogers, C. R., and Sanford, R. (1987). Inside the world of the Soviet professional. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 27, 277-304.
  5. Rogers, C. (1977). On personal power: Inner strength and its revolutionary impact. New York: Delacorte Press.    

 

Seeing Others as a Threat and How to Change It

#lovelifeprof.com

 

Our nation is increasingly becoming divided into opposing groups.  Yes, most of us have a tendency to feel most comfortable when we associate with people who look or think like ourselves.  People who look or think differently than we do, make us uncomfortable.  So, we stay away from them and isolate ourselves even further with our own kind.

Our isolation from others is intensified as we subscribe to popular media which confirms our point of view.  People outside our group may have a different point of view but we are not exposed to it.  Then we begin surmising what other people think.  People who dress like Muslims might think like or (gasp) be terrorists.  People who are trying to emigrate to the United States might think they can be freeloaders.  These stereotypes all come from seeing people outside our group as a threat, which popular media perpetuates.

It is the way we see people not like us that creates fear and hate—not the actual reality.  Yes, some people from our group as well as some people outside our group are terrorists and freeloaders, but most people are not.  Yet we continue to have a perception of people not like us as a threat.

To change our perception, we must be exposed to people not like us in positive contexts.  One way to develop positive images is through travel where we interact with others—this could be travel within or outside the United States.  Another way is to view positive images and stories about people from groups other than our own in popular media (social media, television, magazines, newspapers), schools, churches, even stores.

We need to reach out and speak to people other than those in our own group.  But, most of all, we need to listen to them.

 

Five Ways Not to Be Lonely on Valentine’s Day

teddy-bear-loneliness-800x567

 

Does the upcoming Valentine’s Day make you wish you had someone to love (and to love you)?  Do you miss a loved one?  Or do you just feel lonely?

Don’t despair—there are ways to feel less lonely during all the Valentine’s Day hype. 

Perhaps you have tried interacting with others on your smartphone or even with an online group. But recent studies have shown that we become even lonelier during screen time because it does not provide the meaningful, deep connection with others that we long for. 

To dispel loneliness get out of your house and get involved with an activity you like.  Besides having an enjoyable time, you might even find a new acquaintance, friend, lover.  Don’t wait for someone to find you—smile and start talking with someone nearby while engaged in the following activities.

Volunteer

               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. homeless, migrants, special needs, hospitalized). 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 people who are also volunteering.

Foster or Adopt a Pet

                You may find a loving pet to be a loving companion.  A cat can give you warm, soft comfort as it curls up on your lap. A dog might even get you out of your house on a daily basis, where you might meet some of your neighbors.  Or you and your dog might meet other doggie lovers at a doggie park. Contact your local pet adoption group to foster or adopt a pet.

Join a Special Interest Group

                If you have a hobby or special area of interest, you could join a group of people who share that interest. Every city has an abundance of special interest groups.  Find one at meetup.com.  Some of the meetups in your city involve hiking, cooking, developing a new skill, discussing a topic, and participating in a sport.

Sign up for a Course or a Fitness Center’s Program

                If you have a regularly scheduled event where you are with other people, you already have a way not to be lonely during the upcoming Valentine’s Day.  Find classes at your local adult schools or universities that might interest you.  Join a fitness center.  And don’t forget to reach out to others by maybe asking for help with something.

Read a Good Book

                Visit your local library or bookstore. Selecting a book from browsing the shelves will give you an opportunity to interact with others before going home to read that book.  Escape to another world through an engrossing fiction book.  Learn something new through a helpful nonfiction book. One nonfiction book, Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life, will give you even more suggestions on how to dispel the Valentine’s Day blues.

What the World Needs Now

Compassion

As the 1965 song reminds us, “what the world needs now is love…not just for some but for everyone.”

The challenge today is to ask ourselves, “Can we show love towards everyone?”

Can you love someone who has beliefs very different from yours, someone who has hurt you, someone who is a stranger?  Wholeheartedly answering “yes” is difficult because love seems to be restricted to close relationships.  Indeed, we expect romantic partners and family members to love each other.  But loving a stranger—that isn’t love.

Is it possible to love someone who is very different from you?  Oops, maybe we shouldn’t have put that person into the box of “different”.  Even seeing someone as different, and judging that person as “the other” has already put a limit on your ability to love.  For loving another means identifying commonalities and recognizing our common humanity.  Someone may look, think, or act differently than you do but that person’s feelings are no different from your own.  So, a connection can be built by recognizing the feelings that are behind the thoughts and actions.  A loving response then lets the other person know you recognize these feelings.

Love that goes beyond close relations to strangers and even to all of humanity means responding with understanding rather than judgment.  Seeing another person through your eyes often involves judging that person.  Seeing another person through their eyes leads to understanding that person.  You begin to feel what the other person is feeling, to have empathy and to tell that person what you are experiencing when you are seeing through their eyes.  An empathetic connection is the essence of love and it can be created with anyone.

Let us choose love over fear.