Coping with Loneliness


Being alone doesn’t have to equate being lonely. There’s a distinction, and your interpretation of the state of being alone makes a big difference in your experience.


Lonely panda
Loneliness is a normal feeling, but we don’t have to dwell in it forever. A lot depends on what you tell yourself about being alone.

With the upcoming holiday, Valentine’s Day, much of the focus is on people who are involved with a loved one romantically or sexually. There is not very much attention paid to people who don’t have dates or romantic partners. People can feel pressured to either get into a relationship in order to not be lonely and be perceived as undesirable, or to feel inadequate because they are not romantically involved. There is a difference between being alone and being lonely, as Adrea Cope notes[i]. Being alone can be seen as a choice or a condition imposed upon a person by cruel circumstances. Loneliness is an emotional reaction to the state of being alone. It sometimes involves an element of grief about lost relationships or lost opportunities for being with people.

By contrast, one can view being alone as a choice or as a decision to be independent. Being alone is not necessarily a sign that you could not find a partner if you wanted one. Rather, it can be a deliberate choice to be autonomous, liberated, and free to live your life the way you want. Some of us experience being alone as a pleasurable experience, one they seek out to regulate the balance between being with others and being by themselves. Have you ever wanted to just have some “me” time?

Being alone can also be cleansing after a relationship that didn’t work out. I’ve seen a lot of clients rush into relationships after they break out because they don’t want to be perceived as “losers.” The implication is that if you’re alone, you can’t get a date. Sometimes it takes time to learn what went wrong in the last relationship. It also takes time to heal from the damage that relationship might have caused.

People who take the time to evaluate what went wrong, how they contributed to the demise of the relationship, and what they need to do now to grow and heal are well positioned to have a healthier relationship next time. It’s crucial to observe how you interpret your aloneness. What are you telling yourself about it? How are you interpreting it? That process of recognition and acknowledgment can make your alone time much more pleasant and productive. You can use journaling or meditation to explore what messages you’re sending yourself, and perhaps also open up to new ways of seeing your alone state. What self-valuing messages can you use to start replacing the criticism and pessimism?

There’s no rule saying you have to be in a relationship in order to be sexy, desirable, lovable, or a “winner.” In fact, some very likable, sociable, and interesting people are single, by choice. I believe it’s time we respected the diversity in people’s need or desire to be with another person. Some people feel very little need to be in a relationship and prefer solitude, while others have a strong desire and need to be in a relationship. The level of involvement is really up to each person, and I don’t think there’s a need to shame people for wanting what they want.

One caveat about being alone: Sometimes depressed people isolate, as do people who have Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and at times, PTSD. It’s important to distinguish between preferring to be alone because you like your own company and feel comfortable enjoying life that way, and avoidance. It’s understandable to avoid being hurt, as you have been in the past. No one can fault you for that. However, it often is accompanied by emotional misery and time spent either in self-reproach or immobilized numbness. If that is the case, I encourage you to get psychiatric care. You don’t have to be in contact with people all the time, but the time you spend whether alone or with people should generally be at least neutral, if not pleasant. If it’s hard to be around people and/or yourself, there’s a good chance that some healing needs to happen, to restore you to normal interpersonal functioning.

In closing, being lonely is a state of mind that crosses everyone’s path from time to time. It doesn’t need to be a constant visitor, and the way we view other people and ourselves can make a big difference in how long and how strong we experience loneliness. If you are without a romantic partner this Valentine’s Day, I strongly encourage you to embrace it and see it as a chance to spend time with a cherished loved one: yourself!

[i] http://thoughtcatalog.com/adrea-cope/2014/04/the-difference-between-being-alone-and-being-lonely/

My Part, Your Part


Fights don’t usually start with only one person. This will help you recognize your part and drop the defensiveness that erodes and stagnates relationships.


Lately I’ve been noticing that many people notice what other people do wrong and get quite upset about it, without taking time to consider their participation in the perceived problem. This often takes place in arguments with loved ones, whether the loved ones are friends, family members or lovers. I’d like to take the time to help you rectify this problem if you notice it in yourself.

We love to be right. We don’t like having people point out our flaws, because we fear their rejection and negative opinion. This is perfectly human and understandable. But it we persist in seeing only what other people are doing wrong and ignore our contribution to the interaction, we miss the opportunity to take responsibility for our actions and improve the situation by acting differently. So we keep feeling like victims, put upon by the whim of other people who are totally unpredictable and unfair.

Do you want to stay in a victim role? Or would you rather feel like you can behave differently in an argument? Hopefully you want the latter, because that is the only way I see out of this mess.

Next time someone gets angry at you or has a problem with what you’re doing, try these four steps:

  1. Notice the feeling that arises in you and accept that feeling. That doesn’t mean you indulge it by acting on it. But it also means that you acknowledge, “I feel angry and like defending myself” without judging yourself for feeling that.
  2. Reflect on what happened before this person got upset with you. As if you were observing the interaction on TV or in a movie, look at the actions that preceded and came after the anger. What were you doing, what were they doing, how did you react to their actions, how did they react to yours…. you get the picture.
  3. If you can see something that you might have done to contribute to it, accept responsibility for that. Don’t conveniently block it out of your mind. Don’t pretend that you had nothing to do with it. If you’re not clear on why they’re angry, ASK, don’t assume.
  4. If they’re not ready to take responsibility for their negative behavior, give them time to cool off before writing them off. If this is new for you, asking for responsibility from yourself and others in such interactions, then try to have patience for the other person and for yourself. It’s a new skill. You’ll get better the more you do it. So will they, hopefully.

Sometimes people don’t take responsibility because to admit fault is to sink into a quicksand pit of shame. If admitting wrongdoing does that to you, it’s probably indicative of low self-esteem and probably a good idea to get professional help. If you feel really angry every time someone points out something you did wrong, it may be an indication that you are covering up your shame or over-compensating for low self-esteem.

Hopefully you can take responsibility for your part in an argument, and the other person can too. It’s really a pain when only one person routinely takes responsibility, and that can lead to resentment, which makes your relationships suffer as a result.

 

 

Dealing with Rejection


There are few situations that are harder to accept than being rejected by another person, or even organization. Even if we are mentally healthy, we are social animals and want to be liked and loved by others, or to have their approval. After all, when we were more primitive beings long ago, our very survival depended on being accepted by the people in our clan. Perhaps that need to survive is what lingers with us now, in spite of our vastly more complicated social systems and circumstances.

There is also the missed opportunity of being part of a desired activity, whether it is getting a job, hanging out with cool people, having fun, being invited to parties we’d enjoy, etc. That, combined with the sting of not being part of the “in” group, can bring us back to being kids on the school yard when the cool kids didn’t want to play with us. It can hurt even more when the rejection is at the hands of our family members. Nonetheless, rejection is still the same: someone else has determined that there just isn’t a fit between you and them.

Don’t take it personally — “duh!”

The first thing to remember is not to take this personally. Yeah right, you might say. How do I not take this personally? Good question. There are a number of ways to not take it personally. First, remember that you are the same person whether accepted or rejected by others, and that your inherent worth is unchanged. Yes, you might feel cruddy right now in the heat of the moment, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how good or bad you are. Only you can determine your worth in absolute terms.

Just as Good as Anyone Else!

Knowing, liking and accepting yourself is a subject for another post, but basically it boils down to this: you have talents, gifts and limitations like anyone else on the planet. You might shine in one area where I am really not as talented, and vice versa. The more you know and accept these areas within yourself, the easier it is to gauge that against what others are saying (or not saying) about you. Other people might have a different idea of what they want in a friend, lover, employee, etc. that doesn’t make what you have to offer subpar; it’s just not a match.

The Myth of Universal Appeal

Second on your agenda is remembering that not everyone has to like you, just as you don’t like everyone you come across. The idea that you can please everyone uniformly is not only unrealistic, it can make you subservient or angry, neither of which is socially attractive or effective. There are people you will mesh well with, and people who make your tummy turn when you get in their presence. That’s OK! It’s liberating when you think of it. You don’t have to be perfect for them and vice versa.

Who do you Love?

Finally, focus your attention on the people who you do enjoy. You might not have a large circle of close friends yet, but that can change over time. It is vital to remember that relationship-building takes time and effort. You can’t just walk into a room and have an instant friend. I don’t care what Hollywood movies try to portray at times – not very many people have that instant charisma, and if they do, I’m often a little wary of them. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing friendship with people, but don’t let your ego get mangled in the process.

Responsibility for Symptom Management


We need to have compassion for our loved ones with mental health and behavioral issues. We (and they) also need to minimize the damage that can come with mental illness symptoms. Taking responsibility includes getting consistent help and observing and managing our own behavior.


Much as some of us struggle to get well from mental illnesses like depression, Bipolar illness, and PTSD, sometimes we have a hard time keeping those troublesome symptoms to ourselves. This can make our lives miserable, and also be difficult for those whom we love. It can be hard for partners of mentally ill people to balance compassion with self-preservation, especially if the symptoms hurt or frighten the loved one.

I often see couples where one person has been traumatized by something that has happened in the past, whether it was done by the partner (as in infidelity or domestic violence), or by someone else in the person’s past. This increases the reactivity of the trauma victim. The trauma survivor can become very sensitive to noise, sound, tones of voice, or cues that remind him or her of the prior trauma. When the person gets triggered, they might yell, become angry, get scared, or act in ways that are hard for the other person to understand.

Often the person who acts differently feels bad about it afterward, once their brain has restored balance and they are no longer in the grips of overwhelming emotion. However, many times their loved one feels hurt and reluctant to trust them again, for fear of recurrence of the emotional instability and erratic behavior.

There is some grace that we allow each other in relationships, whether they are friendships, intimate/romantic relationships, or family ties. On the whole, if we know our loved one has a good heart and kind intentions, we can forgive some of the erratic or hurtful behavior. But the person with the mental issues also has a responsibility to take care of themselves as much as they can so that they can prevent hurting those they love. If a person keeps yelling at someone or treating them poorly, and says, “it’s because I’m triggered by you”, then they are not fully taking responsibility for their part in the interaction. It can be hard to forgive this kind of assertion. Yes, loved ones should educate themselves about their loved one’s mental illness and try to put the strange behavior in context. At the same time, however, the mental illness diagnosis doesn’t give a person carte blanche to act as they wish at that time.

There is nothing wrong with seeking help in coping with mental issues, and in going to groups like National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to get education and support. Both the person with the illness and the partner/friend/family member need to care for themselves and take needed medication, therapy, or whatever will help them cope better, as well as learn to act in a way conducive to healthier relationships.

Familiar but not Healthy


By now it’s probably obvious to you that your relationships with your earliest caregivers (usually mother and father but sometimes other people too) shape how you see yourself and the patterns that you seek in your relationships with others too. For those who don’t believe their own experience of this phenomenon (i.e., they keep winding up with friends or lovers who treat them similarly to how their parents treated them), there is ample psychological research to support it (I especially like _The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy_ by L. Cozolino or _Attachment in Psychotherapy_ by D. Wallin).

What I find interesting and troubling about this is that many people say they want certain, healthier things in their love lives and other relationships, like mutual respect, reciprocity, to be heard and appreciated, etc., but when they have a glimpse of it, they become uncomfortable and some even reject this new behavior. Why? They may feel they don’t deserve the new, healthier components of the relationship. They may view it as suspect — no one has ever offered those things and been truly nice to them unless at some point they had a hidden, harmful agenda. And still others just feel mismatched to the new behavior — it doesn’t feel familiar enough to them to accept.

Needless to say, working on this is not an overnight fix. It involves many layers of self-esteem, relationships with others from their past, and creating a new story that says, “I am worthy of a good relationship and I will accept no less.” Overlooking bad behavior is often preferred over suffering rejection or loneliness, but one must be willing to risk that in order to create this new relationship. It can also be hard to accept that loved ones don’t have the skills or capabilities, or even willingness, to try to act differently towards you in a relationship. But without that recognition, it is hard to move forward and have the relationship you want with them.

However, I don’t want to discourage you from making this effort. Often what is familiar is very limiting and sometimes damaging to your self esteem and relationships. If you have the courage to change this, I will be by your side helping you. Once you learn to assert and love yourself, and create a new pattern of behavior, it will be much easier to accept healthy, reciprocal and loving behavior. Not only will it be better for you, it will be the new familiar, the new normal. Then when people run the same old game of exploitation, abuse, or manipulation on you, that will seem unacceptable. You’ll be able to say, “no thank you” and turn to the relationships you say you want.

Everyday heroes


Lately I have been watching documentaries about luminary, courageous, amazing people like Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba, and Mahatma Gandhi. They all possessed strength and amazing grit to stand in the face of injustice and fight on anyway. Equally amazing is that they didn’t let their hardships well, harden them. They were still loving, forgiving people even when they had a chance for vengeance and retaliation. On a smaller scale, I think many people display courage and grit, as well as love and forgiveness, in their challenges. Many are unsung in their valiant efforts to deal with oppression, poverty, and many other social ills. They are heroic nonetheless.

Similarly, I think we can all agree that the people who have served our country and given their lives, limbs, and health for our country are brave and praiseworthy. As we approach Veteran’s Day, I want to give thanks and praise to not only the people who serve our country in the military, but also the people who have courage and strength in the face of everyday challenges that might feel like a battle to them.

For some people with depression, just to get out of bed in the morning is an act of defiance against the disease that insidiously aims to claim their wellness. For people with PTSD and Panic Disorder, leaving the house can take tremendous courage to face the jarring, threatening stimuli outside their cozy sanctuaries. Folks with chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia can also have difficulty even moving their bodies, and yet they persist in getting up, doing what needs to be done, and marching on through the pain and fatigue. Even to reveal one’s true self to a loved one and face possible rejection, which might seem small to many, can be terrifying and mystifying to couples in an embattled relationship, or families with a history of dysfunction. All these acts of valor go unsung, and yet we do them because something inside us says, “I must go on. I cannot let this problem conquer me; I deserve a better life and so do my children and their children, etc.” So for all those unsung heroes, please know that someone appreciates the struggles you face, and how brave you are to persist in the face of opposition.

What’s at stake?


Sometimes people who have had numerous bad things happen to them think of themselves as unlucky, especially in relationships. They may feel that they have to put up with negative behaviors or inconsideration from others because if they don’t they will either lose the person in question or be rejected by that person. This is very unfortunate because not only does it deprive us of getting what we want in relationships, it also blocks us from having a true, intimate exchange with others. Sometimes the other person is truly incapable of being reasonable or hearing critical feedback without rejecting us, but often I think we may not even give them a chance to prove whether they are as unreasonable as we assume they are. Even if the other person has been negative or defensive in the past, does not mean they will always be that way. I think we owe it to each other to at least try to communicate our needs and feelings to the people who matter to us, if nothing else to gain practice doing so and being assertive. If our fears come true and we lose that person, either from rejection or a fight or worse yet, death, we have given them a chance to respond to us and we have spoken our truth. I see so many people who never told people how they really felt about them, only to have that person die without being able to resolve their differences. This is a painful position to be in, and I hope you do not have to live through that.

It is possible to express yourself in a way that honors yourself and the people to whom you’re speaking. If you need help with that, you might want to read Marshall Rosenberg’s excellent book, Nonviolent Communication. You can also seek the counsel of a mental health professional; I would be happy to help you learn to communicate your needs and feelings, as well as listen effectively. What’s at stake is not just losing relationships, but making strained relationships better and clearer. The choice is always yours to make.

Give and Take


People in relationships can have trouble with this concept. Many times one person will either give too much or take too much. People who give too much can be uncomfortable with receiving love and effort, while people who take too much may feel no need to give to the other person. It doesn’t just happen in the physical ream; it can be expressed emotionally too. Unfortunately, when we’re used to giving emotionally we can become very drained if we’re not getting anything back. For instance, if a person is always having to listen to another person and does not get much chance to talk or be heard, or he has the sense that the talker is just biding time while seeming to listen to him until the talker can talk again, it can be very irritating. It can be draining to be around that dynamic if you are always having to listen, or if you feel that you always have to make conversation with the other person and they put forth any effort.

One thing you can try if you’re in that position is do the opposite of what you’re used to doing, and see what happens. Does the other person notice the difference in your dynamic? If you are always talking, start listening more; vice versa, if other people have to drag information out of you in conversation, try initiating conversation. See how this changes your relationships, and remember that we all like to give and receive. Unfortunately, some of us are conditioned from childhood to either give without receiving or receive without having to give.

Valentine’s Day is a day to remember our connection to other people, not just romantically but all close relationships and friendships. What are you giving in your relationships? What are you receiving? Do you feel like there is reciprocity in your relationships, or does it feel one-sided often? This is a good day to reflect on your involvement with other people, and to make changes for the better in your relatedness to others and yourself.