It takes a long time to make an old friend.
I learned that the hard way in the first 2 decades of my adult life. Job changes, moves, graduate school, and my family of origin leaving the small, close-knit town of my youth left me struggling with loneliness as I navigated into adulthood.
We need anchors in our lives—those people who take our loneliness away.
So what do we do when those people aren’t near. We’re told to “bloom where we’re planted,” and yet blooming can be awfully hard all by yourself.
Over this past week, I heard from so many of you about your experiences with loneliness. I’m convinced loneliness is one of the most common reasons we numb. I appreciate the courage it takes to speak out, and I pray for each of you as you become more aware of your loneliness with compassion.
There are 2 types of loneliness I’ll focus on today: 1.) loneliness for others and 2.) loneliness for yourself. Most of us experience both from time to time.
Loneliness for others
Major life transitions—moves, singleness, empty nest, break-ups, any form of loss—can unleash loneliness in surprising and not-so-surprising ways.
If you’re lonely because you’re missing a friend, significant other, or a loving community, you KNOW what authentic connection feels like. That’s part of what hurts. You’re missing something that brought you life. And for you my word is COURAGE. Take heart.
Moving forward is not the same as moving on. You can move forward into new relationships, even as you honor the ones you’ve left behind.
Here are a few ways to set gentle boundaries with your loneliness so that it works for you, instead of keeping you down:
1.) Structure your alone time.
Loneliness can be draining. So when you have a bit of energy, maybe after a life-giving phone call with an old friend or family member, take a look at your week and make note of the hardest “lonely” days in it (often evenings and weekends.) Then schedule 1 thing during that day that you *know* will be life giving. It could be a phone call with a long-distance friend, or an appointment with a counselor (see below). But make sure you build in at least 1 activity to give you a boost during those times you’ll need it most.
2.) Follow the bread crumbs.
I hate to give this cliché advice, but it’s true—when you’re lonely, you can’t give in to it. You have to try new things. Try taking a class, or volunteering. Check out a church group. . . or a hiking club. I can’t begin to tell you all the things I tried when I moved to a new city all by myself. Honestly? Some of those things left me feeling MORE lonely afterward. And that’s part of the risk. But each week, commit to trying 1 new thing to reach out. Then follow the bread crumbs that start to emerge. You never know when one of those little crumbs will lead you to a new friend or loved one.
3.) Resist the urge to compare your new relationships with older ones.
There’s nothing like history to cement 2 hearts together. But that doesn’t mean you won’t develop that kind of history with the new people you’re getting to know. There’s no hierarchy when it comes to love. Your efforts to forge new community will bear fruit—it’ll just look and taste a little different than what you knew before.
4.) Let the new people in your life know what you’re going through.
Believe it or not, people who have never moved or lost someone they loved don’t always get it. They need a gentle reminder that your experience is different. So if you’re a “newbie” in an established community, let a few people know. I’ve said to some of my newer friends, “I’m so grateful to get to know you, and I’m also aware that I need to take it slow. Thanks for your patience as I work through this transition.” If they’re worth the time, they’ll appreciate your vulnerability.
5.) Find ways to stay connected with the past.
Don’t dwell on the past. But don’t shut it out. Let it take on a new form. Different people do “distance relationships” in different ways. Some of my friends who live far away are great at calling or texting every week. With others, we try to see each other at least once every year. Learn what each distance relationship needs to survive, and then let it take on that new form. And let those anchoring friends know what you’re going through, too.
Loneliness for yourself
If you’re lonely often, and you’ve struggled to sustain connections over time, then it may be that you’re needing to connect to yourself. Loneliness is funny that way. At its worst, it erodes your sense of your own self. For example, you might have picked up a habit relating to others from parts of yourself. . . instead of from your core.
These parts of you that perform, produce, or please to win the affections of others have good intentions. But you’ll actually experience more of the love and connection you desire by helping those eager parts of you to relax a little bit. . . and trust that the real you is WORTH SEEING.
Here are some tips on setting boundaries with loneliness by working on your connection to yourself. (And lest you feel alone, I’ve tried ALL of these in different seasons!)
6.) Be gentle with yourself.
Your loneliness isn’t your fault. It may be that you were never taught how to receive love and connection. Or it may be that you carry a burden from long ago, that you can learn to unload. Consider working through the Five Steps with your loneliness to learn more about its history. As Dallas Willard said, “Understanding is the basis of care.”
7.) Get curious.
When was the last time I felt deeply loved and seen by another? When was the last time my loneliness felt far away? If it’s hard for you to answer these questions, that’s valuable information. Don’t let it get you down—make it your goal to learn! You were designed for connection—you absolutely have it in you. You can learn how to forge healthy, meaningful relationships. So give yourself the gift of asking for help.
8.) Take a personal inventory.
As you go through each day, notice what specific people and activities took your loneliness away. Was it being around children? Animals? Work colleagues? Maybe it was when you were alone but connected to the beauty of creation around you. Notice what lifts that loneliness just a little and lean into those things.
At the same time, notice when you feel the most lonely, and write that down too. In seasons of deep loneliness, prioritize the things on the first list. Lean into those things that make you feel connected, even if they surprise you.
9.) Get support.
The paradox of loneliness is that we need connection to loving others on our journey to connecting to ourselves. So now’s a great time to reach out to a counselor or a support group. That counselor or support group can provide an anchor for you as you learn how to establish the relationships you desire. If you’re unsure of how to find support, you can find several ideas here.
Each step that you take toward others, toward God, and toward more of yourself is a step toward hope—even if that step “fails.”
God sees your efforts, and he knows your experience. He’ll guide you. Watch for those bread crumbs and drop a note below to let us know what you’ve found!
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing.