Being alone is often okay. Being lonely sucks.
But in a twist, if you are feeling lonely you’re not alone.
Unfortunately, loneliness is becoming a silent worldwide epidemic. Cultures all around the world from the UK, to India, to Japan are all wrestling with it. We’re living more isolated lives away from friends and family and the demands for our time like working, commuting, or care taking prevent us from investing in deeper and lasting relationships. Feeling alone can spur on a downward spiral leading to social anxiety and depression.
Much like how hunger is a signal for the need for food, feelings of loneliness and isolation are signals for the need for companionship. Feeling connected to other human beings is a fundamental, biological need. If you can be mindful to recognize feelings of loneliness early on, you may avoid turning an uncomfortable situation into something truly agonizing.
The Common Advice on Curing Loneliness
Loneliness and social isolation are topics that are just beginning to be discussed outside mental health communities. One can find articles about this topic that nicely package suggestions on how to be more social. They make it sounds so simple. But they don’t take into account any one person’s unique situation and disposition because they can’t.
We are all walking our own path and only we own our quirks and capabilities. The trick is to harness our individuality in the application of these universal recommendations. Own who you are and then combine it with the guidance offered.
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Where to Begin on Being More Social
Fundamentally, the cure to loneliness is to engage with others in a meaningful way. Social media may be the default resource (can we call it a crutch sometimes?) but it lacks an intimacy that comes from being in another person’s company.
You need to find environments to be among people so you can engage in the dynamics of live in-person conversations with mutual give and take. To see their facial expressions, observe their mannerism, read their body language, and hear them Laugh Out Loud.
A safe place to start is to find groups of people you have some kind of affinity with such as special interests groups, faith-based communities, Meetup groups, support groups, sports leagues, or social clubs. Here you will feel like you are among your kind and conversation will be easier.
Consistency in attendance is key. In building lasting relationships it’s most effective to have regular contact with the same group of people.
You begin to know names, recognize faces, and feel connected to the people and the larger community. It’s nice after a period of time when others greet you with warmth and familiarity because you become a regular face.
Volunteering with a similar group of people is a great venue to build such relationships. You can contribute to something you care about while meeting others who share your passion. And generally, people who volunteer have a kindness of heart that extends to their fellow volunteers.
A Word on the Introvert's Dilemma
I recognize that not everyone thinks the idea of talking to a bunch of strangers is a fun idea. I get it because I am one of you. As much as I’m a proponent of interpersonal communication and relationship building, the first few steps are painful and difficult.
When confronted with a room full of people I don’t know, I’m filled with the same kind of dread. I let the reasons why this isn’t such a good idea circulate in my head for a few minutes. But then I decide to shake it off and then move forward.
If you’re more introverted, recognize that about a third to half of the population is just like you. To connect with new people you do not need to become gregarious and chatty. Just be who you are and try to seek out others who share your disposition. It will be more natural and mutually rewarding. As Susan Cain from the book Quiet states, “Don’t think of Introversion as something that needs to be cured.”
How to Confidently Start Conversations
So now you have some ideas of where to start and how to mentally prepare, the big question is How. How do you walk into a room where you don’t know a soul and strike up some kind of natural conversation AND not sweat profusely or stutter or simply walk right back out?
The answer: preparation and experimentation.
Let’s think about some easy practical baby steps to give you some capabilities and more important — confidence — to get out there and mingle among the masses.
Walk into the room like you belong there. This helps a lot when you do some deliberate mental conditioning beforehand: sincerely tell yourself the outcomes will be positive. There’s a reason dictators control the message. Brainwashing, even when done to yourself, works.
When you fake some confidence you give off the best first impression. Yes, I know this is easier said than done (believe me I know!). But let’s pretend and gamify this situation. Pretend you are an actor who is playing a part. Channel the vibe of an actor who displays a natural confidence and ease. Try your best to “be in character” and proceed with conviction.
It’s called fake it till you make it.
Have a short list of questions to ask people. This is your script. Review it, memorize it, and whip it out (figuratively) upon meeting someone to get the conversation started. Use the mnemonic FORM to keep track of the kinds of questions you can ask. Just pick a few and let the conversation unfold.
The key here is to assess the person upon initially meeting them using questions like these and then be creative. After going through enough of these questions, you’ll probably land on a topic of mutual interest and the conversation can take off from there.
Remember the opening scene isn’t forever. The uneasiness you feel is very real but remember it’s temporary and likely experienced to some extent by every other person you meet.
We have all been there and let’s hope others have empathy. You may have thoughts swirling in your head about how awkward you feel or maybe appearing but everyone has felt this at some point. Take a deep breath and know what you’re feeling is universal and short lived.
The dialogue in your head is just that — in your head. No one can see it. Go break the ice immediately by starting up some conversation (using tips from point 2) to just get over this hump. Then it will be behind you. So when the next newbie walks in the door you will have nothing but empathy and perhaps a new conversation partner.
Create a cheat sheet of conversation starters (use this helpful resource). Identify a person you know or don’t know (i.e. a fictional character) you would love to socially emulate. Go practice being conversationally confident in some low-risk situations like the library (librarians are very interesting people), the coffee shop (baristas get paid to be nice to you), or at your kid’s school (little kids are very empathetic and like to practice their budding vocabulary).
What other mental mind tricks do you use to help break the ice? Share your suggestions in the comments below.