When I was 20 years old, I was in the car with my friend who I had known since I was two. I don’t remember how it came up, but I ended up telling him about my social anxiety. It was the first time I really opened up about it to this friend — or any friends. I had always tried to present myself as confident, even when I wasn’t. And while I probably wasn’t fooling anyone in the confidence department, hiding my social anxiety often made me feel alone and disconnected from the people around me. As I opened up to my friend, to my surprise he shared that he, too, was struggling with social anxiety. Although we had been friends for almost 18 years, it was in that moment that I felt a real, meaningful connection to him.
In all relationships — whether with family, friends, or romantic partners — to have true meaningful connections, we need to be open, vulnerable, and authentic. Without true connections, we’re at risk for feeling lonely. Loneliness stems from dissatisfaction with our relationships with family, friends, or our greater community, even when they’re physically close to us. We can feel lonely even when we’re not alone. And in fact, many of us feel lonely right now. Even before the pandemic sent us into physical isolation in March, an early 2020 study by Cigna showed that three out of five adults in the U.S. reported feeling lonely. But, we’re not stuck. There are steps we can take to feel less lonely.
Here are a few suggestions.
Recognize the cycle of loneliness. The first step is to acknowledge our feelings of loneliness. Admitting we feel lonely isn’t easy, but as the saying goes, “What you resist, persists.” The more we deny feeling lonely or we ignore it, the worse that feeling becomes. We risk falling into a cycle of loneliness. Statements like, “Maybe I don’t have friends because there’s something wrong with me,” denies that the feeling of loneliness may be due to a lack of connection. This type of thinking can lead to further isolation and can prevent us from seeking out more connections.
Practice authenticity and vulnerability. If we want to make genuine, strong connections, we have to be willing to show our full selves, faults and all. Inauthenticity inhibits us from living a satisfying life and makes it near impossible to form true connections. As we let ourselves be more vulnerable, we can start to strengthen old relationships and create new ones with people who make us feel comfortable. It takes constant, ongoing effort and courage to be vulnerable. It’s scary. But it’s worth it.
Seek out new meaningful connections and build community. Life changes, like moving to a new city or starting a new job, while exciting, can also make us feel lonely. But these changes are a great opportunity to be proactive about forming new connections. Try chatting with a barista, or strike up a conversation with neighbors at a local dog park. It might feel intimidating to talk to a stranger, but it can also feel reassuring when we’re in a new phase of life. These are a few more tips that may help you build community:
Put time on the calendar. Schedule times to meet or chat with people, and follow up. Host a virtual game night, watch a show over video chat, organize a virtual crafting session, cook over Zoom, do a paint and sip night. Find fun activities that work with your group and make them happen!
Find your people. Look for online or in-person groups to join, such as sports teams, local charities, religious organizations, book clubs, or advocacy groups. As adults, it becomes much more difficult to meet people as when we were kids. We need to put ourselves out there if we want to make these connections.
Engage with your coworkers outside of work. Ginger was my first remote job, and it’s also probably the place where I’ve felt closest to my coworkers. Seek out coworkers with similar interests or circumstances. Engage in internal chat channels. You may be surprised to discover the connections you can build while working remotely.
4. Practice compassion, serve others, and accept help. Being friendly, generous, and considerate not only makes us feel good about ourselves, it helps others trust us, which can play a huge role in relationship building. Acts of kindness can be simple, like celebrating a coworker’s achievement, writing a letter to a friend, paying for someone else’s coffee, or bringing food to a neighbor. When we serve others, we form a bond with the person we help. We also reaffirm to ourselves that we have value to give to the world. Remember, too, to accept help when it’s offered. Though we may not want to seem like a bother by accepting help, when we refuse it, we deny someone else the joy of giving — an experience that can bring two people closer.
5. Prioritize self-care and good mental health hygiene. What kind of mental health article would this be without a mention of self-care? But in all seriousness, self-care can help us overcome feelings of loneliness. This acronym is a reminder of good self-care: Brain M.E.D.S., or meditation, exercise, diet, and sleep. Meditation, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and the right amount of sleep are fundamental to good mental health hygiene. Practicing gratitude is a form of self-care, too. Being grateful for what we have can help us see the world from a different perspective and stop our negative cycles of thinking.
Building connections takes effort and courage, and while it may sound like a lot of work, it can also be fun. It was a huge relief to open up to my friend during that car ride together. Having social anxiety made it especially hard to talk about… social anxiety, but once I did, my friend and I were able to laugh together about our common experience. You never know what another person is going through. Being vulnerable yourself opens the door for someone else, and may even lead to a surprising new relationship.