1. The first place to start is to recognize and fully admit that you are trapped in the loneliness cycle.
Look at your thoughts and feelings. Do you feel that you are apart from others? Do you take a cynical view about the intentions of other people? Do you distrust others? Do you feel that there is nobody you can turn to? Do you feel that nobody else shares your interests? Do you feel that other people are around you, but not with you? Do you feel that your relationships with other people are not meaningful?
Admitting that you are lonely is difficult. It goes against the way people like to see themselves. But making this admission allows you finally to tackle the problem and start to cultivate meaningful relationships with other people.
2. The next task is to extend yourself out to other people.
You might feel that it is dangerous, or even threatening, to start meeting others. So, start small and don’t have great expectations. You need to challenge the idea that meeting other people is unsafe. A few good experiences will go a long way toward breaking the loneliness cycle. Just don’t expect that you’ll meet a “best friend forever” as you start the process. Getting a smile from someone else is good enough at this point. Get enough of these smiles and you’ll begin to feel that meeting others is not so unsafe.
You can begin your experiment by engaging in simple exchanges in a store, the library, or at work. Just saying to someone, “Isn’t it a nice day?” or “I really enjoyed reading that book” is a good way to start, and it can bring a response that makes you feel better. If you get no response at all, don’t worry about it. Maybe the other person is just having a bad day or didn’t hear you. Make an effort to engage in these simple social exchanges a few times a day.
It might help to involve yourself in charitable activities. Volunteer at a hospice or a shelter. Pass out food to the homeless. Visit people in nursing homes. Teach the elderly how to use a computer. Coach a kids’ sports team. These activities might not bring you complete social fulfillment, but they allow you to engage in small talk that pays off – and that’s the goal at this stage.
3. Develop an action plan to challenge the loneliness cycle.
You are now at a stage where you can begin to challenge the thoughts that have guided you in the past. As you engage in more activities and feel comfortable in being around other people, your old automatic thoughts about being alone will still come into play – and you need to be aware of them so that you can replace them with thoughts that lead you to feel positive about socializing.
Keep a journal of your thoughts. Make four columns on a page. The first column should identify the situation you are in (e.g., “Volunteering at the theater”). The second column can identify the feeling you are having at the time (for example, “Feeling apart from the others”). The third column should be the thoughts you are having at that time (like, “Nobody here really likes me”). And the fourth column should be a positive thought that challenges the thought in the third column (as in, “Actually Cynthia and Richard seem to really like me”). Over time you’ll be more aware of your negative thoughts that lead to loneliness and then replace these thoughts with more optimistic thoughts – and it is these positive thoughts that make it easier to get involved in more social situations in the future.
4. Take a selective approach toward other people.
Feeling an intimate connection with other people will break the loneliness cycle. Over time, as you get to know more people, the question of quantity versus quality comes into play. You want good friends who open themselves up to you, disclose bits of their life to you, and instill a sense of trust that they value you and will be there for you.
Choosing high status friends or people who are physically attractive might not bring you what you really want. Compatibility depends on finding people who share your beliefs and are at a similar life stage.
Breaking the loneliness cycle is both difficult and gratifying. Most people find it helpful to do this work with a trained therapist who can serve as a source of insight and support. The process can start with a phone call.
Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT
San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.