Loneliness is poison. It’s literally killing us. Over the past couple of decades, researchers have repeatedly found a direct link between loneliness and a whole host of physical and psychological problems like heart disease and mental illness.1 Loneliness cripples us physically, unwinds us mentally, and makes it impossible to be spiritually whole.
The truth is, we were made for connection—for real, in-person, give-and-take relationships with people we trust and love. But in our fast-paced, individualistic and success-oriented culture, it’s tough to simply find time for people, let alone form deep and meaningful relationships. Our food and goods are all delivered. We work out in our apartments. And we spend most of our time staring at a screen. We’re seeing less and less of one another. And when you toss in the forced isolation of the global pandemic, it’s like the universe has thrown lighter fluid on our burning isolation fires.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to live a lonely, isolated life. You have to be intentional, but you can cultivate safe, whole and authentic relationships with people you trust. You can enjoy depth and intimacy. You can learn to serve others and think of their needs first.
Below are 11 tangible and powerful practices that will help you replace loneliness and find relationships—but you have to commit to doing the work and learning these skills.
1. Spend some time with yourself.
Before you reach out to anyone else, I want you to spend time with yourself and acknowledge the feelings you’re experiencing. Practice solitude.
I know, I know . . . this seems counterintuitive. If you’re lonely, you need other people, right? Yes, but first I want you to take this opportunity to reflect on why you’re feeling lonely.
I’m convinced that part of our loneliness epidemic stems from the fact that we don’t even know ourselves. Painful emotions like loneliness give us a valuable opportunity to be self-aware and to grow. So, don’t run from unpleasant emotions. Be courageous. Examine your thoughts and the way you’re responding to your circumstances and learn about yourself. Write down what you feel. Own it. Forgive yourself when necessary.
2. Be honest about your loneliness.
Admitting that you’re lonely doesn’t mean you’re weak or a loser or an outcast—it means you’re human. I’ve often felt lonely in a crowded room. I’ve felt lonely on stage in front of thousands of people.
Feeling lonely sucks. And it affects us all.
If we aren’t honest about our loneliness, we run the risk of mislabeling our feelings and experiences. We might say we’re depressed or struggling with anxiety. But all you need is to have someone on your team—someone to argue or laugh with, or someone to share a meal or cry with.
Don’t condemn or judge yourself for feeling lonely. Just like hunger exists to tell you that it’s time to eat, loneliness exists to tell you that you have an unmet need for connection. There’s power in simply being honest and giving yourself permission to feel lonely. Say it out loud—to yourself and even to people you trust. It’s the first step in getting what you need.
3. Be proactive.
After you’ve acknowledged your loneliness, come up with a plan to connect with people. Real people. Loneliness can quickly turn into a pity party if you’re waiting for others to reach out to you. Remember that telephones and home visits and letter writing work two ways.
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You go first and take the first step. Keep it simple: Invite a friend over for pizza or tell your family you’re taking them out for ice cream when you get home from work. Work hard to be present—to look people in the eye and smile.
If you’re in a season of life where you truly have few friends—maybe you just moved, or you ended a long-term relationship and changed social circles—then you’re going to have to get serious about coming up with a plan to meet people. Choose to be active, not passive, in your search for connections.
4. Schedule in-person time with a loved one.
Depending on what studies you read, 70–90% of communication is nonverbal. 2 In recent years we’ve outsourced almost all of our communication to texting, emails, snapchats and DMs. Hear me clearly: Digital interactions are ways of communicating—not connecting. Relationships are more than trading information. They’re about eye contact, proximity and presence.
Connecting in person (or though FaceTime, if necessary) is critical. Spend time face to face with the people you care about most on a regular basis.
Consider creating rituals and rhythms of connection—like a weekly date night with your spouse, backyard potlucks on Sunday evenings, or Taco Tuesdays with your friends.
5. Find a group to join and commit to it.
In addition to individual, intimate relationships, we all crave community and being connected to something bigger than ourselves. Find a group of people pursuing a common purpose and commit to it. Try out a running group, a hiking club, or writing group to make friends. Join a small group at a church. Get help with your money by joining a Financial Peace University class. Or if you’re a hipster, put on your tightest jeans, grow a mustache, and sign up for a cooking class on how to make avocado toast. Visit different groups and explore, but once you’ve landed on something, commit. Show up, even if you have to wear a mask. Be consistent. Friendships don’t pop up overnight. It takes work to create something meaningful.
6. Pay attention to the story you’re telling yourself.
When we’re lonely, we have a tendency to wallow in our discomfort with tragic stories that we tell ourselves. Our storytelling machine goes into overdrive. We ruminate (a fancy psychology word for repeating thoughts over and over and over) on feelings of worthlessness or rejection. We’re too fat. We’re too broke. We’re bad parents. Our hair doesn’t look right. And of course, social media is handing us a steady stream of edited photographic evidence that everyone else is smarter, prettier, happier and wealthier.
If you’re feeling hurt because you haven’t heard from a particular friend for a while, you might choose to tell yourself that she’s ignoring you on purpose. Or if you were abused or abandoned when you were young, you might regularly remind yourself that people are dangerous and that vulnerability equals pain.
Sometimes these stories are true. Most often, they’re not.
Relationships are hard and can be scary, but you’ve got to try and practice and stumble and try again.
If someone hurt you, it was because they were broken, not you. If someone hasn’t called or visited you, they might be desperately waiting for you to reach out.
When you’re lonely and anxious, stories will invade your mind. Remember that facts are your friends. Only keep the true and positive thoughts in your head. The negative trash doesn’t get to stay.
7. Don’t smother the people you care about.
When you feel lonely and seek out connection, it can be tempting to blast others at 100% all of the time! Be careful about exhausting your friends and family with your problems, your challenges, and more you, you, you.
Other people don’t exist for you . . . they exist with you.
Everyone deserves to breathe. Everyone deserves solitude. And everyone needs connection. Finding these delicate balances is tricky and ever-changing. It takes practice, grace, truthfulness and lots of laughter.
A healthy relationship is about being honest about your needs, giving sacrificially, and safely putting the needs of the person you care about ahead of your own. (These are all signs of emotional intelligence.) Sure, there are times when someone will give you more than you’re able to offer. And there are other times when the roles are reversed and it's your turn to be a good friend and make casseroles, listen deeply, or mow their lawn. That’s okay. But watch out for the tendency to become clingy or desperate in your relationships. And watch out for the tendency to be a people pleaser or a people fixer. You’ll only end up wearing other people down.
8. Be intentional about your media choices.
They told us that social media was going to help us to stay connected with our loved ones, meet new people, and deepen our relationships.
Social media exists to sell us things by serving up enticing information on a silver platter. These platforms use fine-tuned algorithms that are designed to keep us scrolling.
There’s alarming evidence that social media use actually increases feelings of depression and loneliness.3 Digital connectivity doesn’t equal connection. Sadly, we live in an age when we can have thousands of “friends” on Facebook, but no one who can help us move a couch. Or change a tire. Or pick up some eggs.
If you’re going to use social media, be careful about when you’re on it and how long you access it. Consider deleting your apps on your phone and only accessing it on desktop or setting a timer for 10 minutes when you start using it. Practice turning off social media when you walk into your home. And use it productively. Start a meaningful conversation or connect with an old friend you haven’t seen for a while.
Be highly intentional about all types of media—Netflix, the news, infotainment sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed, and even podcasts. Make watching shows or listening to podcasts an intentional event, not a passive distraction.
And by the way, sometimes you just need to protect your heart and mind and turn off the electronics.
9. Sweat (or at least go outside for a walk).
Movement is critical for physical and mental health. Nature is important for your heart, mind and body. Get outside and sweat—or at least move your body—regardless of whether it’s hot, cold, raining or beautiful outside. Action helps you break away from negative thought patterns and the feeling of being stuck.
Even better: Be active in community. Find an activity that interests you and invite a friend. I don’t care what it is—rock-climbing, hip-hop classes or underwater basket weaving. Often, the best friendships form over a common activity.
But above all, move. And if possible, move with others.
10. Serve in any way that you can.
Service to others helps us get our eyes off of ourselves and focus on the needs and feelings of others who might also be looking for help and connection. And of course, service will look differently for each of us. It can be as simple as walking around with your kids to pick up trash in your local neighborhood or as formal as working at a nonprofit to serve meals to the homeless.
Relational service may be handwriting letters (with a stamp, envelope and everything) to people in your church, your grandparents or old friends. It may be bringing some soup to an elderly neighbor in your apartment complex. Whatever it is, grab a couple of folks and find ways to serve. Start right now.
11. Pray and practice mindfulness.
Loneliness reminds me in a very real way that I control very few things in my life. At the end of the day, I can only control my thoughts and my behaviors. That’s it. Prayer keeps me grounded when everything feels out of control. If you have an established faith or church community, carve out extra time to pray, and even host prayer gatherings to bring people together. You can also practice mindfulness through any number of meditation apps. Or simply put away your devices, sit still, breathe, and focus your thoughts on being present where you are. Also, keeping a gratitude journal has numerous mental health, spiritual and wellness benefits. Do it. If you’re really brave, find someone to share your gratitude journal with on a regular basis.
Do Whatever It Takes to Invest in Relationships
Deep, rewarding and meaningful relationships aren’t easy, but they’re worth it. Relationship skills like listening, trusting, being vulnerable, communicating your needs and hearing hard truths can be learned. You practice these skills. You can become a better friend and find better friends if you’re ready to do the work.
If you’d like more guidance on strengthening your relationships and connecting with others, check out my new book, Building a Non-Anxious Life. You’ll learn the Six Daily Choices that can help you build a more peaceful, joyful, non-anxious life. You’re worthy of a better life, and I want to help you create it—one day at a time.