A Storytelling Perspective On Loneliness

I become extremely frustrated when I read posts in mastermind groups, “I feel so lonely.” Or, “I don’t have anyone to share experiences.”

Or, “I’ve just moved and I have trouble making friends.” Or, “My grown children never call me. I’m thinking of moving to be closer to them.”

Well-meaning readers send advice tips like: d

“Look for other people like yourself.”
“Join a group where you’ll be likely to make friends.”
“Get involved in a church or a volunteer work opportunity.”

These well-meaning tips seem to miss the point. Getting over loneliness and making friends – especially when you’ve just moved to a new community – requires a mindset shif

Many of us were taught an unrealistic story: “I need to have friends. Something’s wrong with me if I don’t.”

Or conversely, “I deserve to have friends. My loved ones ought to be more attentive.”

I’ve moved a lot, in geography as well as careers. When you make changes, you often lose a lot of your connections. You need to make new ones. I’ve learned the best way to do this is to embrace the maxim “Friends are like bank loans. They come easily when you don’t need them.”

Here are 3 ways to address this challenge.

(1) Reframe your “being alone” to an “embrace your solitude” story.

A lot of people are brought up to believe that “social” is normal and solitude is weird. In a classic book, written a long time ago, British psychiatrist Anthony Story challenged this notion. Freud talked about love and work, he said; some people lean more to one than the other.

People who enjoy their own company are never lonely. For one thing, they’re busy with their own activities and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

But the bigger point is, when you’re busy and happy you’re more attractive. People seek you out.

Being seen as “needy” won’t bring supportive, caring people into your life. I’ve met people who complained their kids never called them…until they got so busy they barely had time to answer the phone. Now they were interesting people and it was a privilege to be around them.

(2) Choose social activities for you – not your imaginary future friends.

I’ve met many people who joined churches and “singles” groups in hopes of finding friends. Or they hear that certain groups are “good places to meet people.”
Sometimes they’re successful. Usually, they end up bored and lonelier than ever.

They’re sending out “needy” signals. And if they don’t make friends the time seems wasted.

The key is to do things you’ll enjoy whether or not you make new friends. I know people who love sports so much they play in adult leagues. I’ve made connections myself through ceramics classes and improv classes.

Hang out a while and you may or not make friends. But you’ll have a good time and become a happier person…which means you’re more likely to make meaningful social connections.

(3) Sometimes you’ve set your story in the wrong place.

Some cities are simply cliquish and cold to newcomers. For instance, some places have a strong norm of “family only:” they never invite other people’s kids to play, let alone other people. If you’re a single person or a newcomer, you will be left out.

That’s also true of workplaces. In some settings, everybody eats lunch alone. In others you’ll find just the opposite: coworkers ask all sorts of personal questions and expect you to belong to their office family.

There’s not much you can do to change a place. Eventually, you might find like-minded people and develop relationships. But you’ll always feel like an outsider as long as you live there.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. I’ve had moves from cities where I was never part of a social network, to places where they thought I was “cool.” I’m the same person.

If you can’t move because you’re locked into a job, you’ll have to find a way to enjoy your solitude until you get to leave. I once met someone who had to spend a year in a remote location in order to advance his career. He hired a coach and made calls weekly. If he hadn’t, he says, he’d have gone crazy or lost his career.

If you have the choice, don’t be put off by sneering comments like, “If you can’t be happy here, you won’t be happy anywhere.”

The “geographical cure” doesn’t work for some problems, but it often works for making friends. Hold firm and find ways to enjoy life on your own terms. It’ll get better when you’re gone.

Don’t believe the statistics.

You’ll find many newspaper stories about he perils of loneliness. When you read the fine print, they’re often exaggerated.

For example, you’ll see many headlines suggesting that “older” people are doomed to a life of loneliness.

A study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine suggests that one quarter of people over sixty-five experience social isolation. In other words, 75% of people over 65 do not experience social isolation.

A blog post on Next Avenue reports a similar statistic: from the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College: “92 percent of people ages 55 to 64 — and 76 percent of respondents 65 or older — were involved
with paid work, volunteering, caregiving or educational activities.”

Someone’s trying to spin a story here. We need to be vigilant.

For example,

The topic for this article was inspired by my book, Making The Big Move, available as a kindle on Amazon and free for Kindle Unlimited.

“No Spouse, No Kids…Prepare to Age Alone”

Finally a mainstream publication recognizes that many in the aging population don’t have “the family” to care for them. It’s worth reading here.

It’s positioned in an upbeat way, suggesting that you can take control of your life in these circumstances.

Like most journalists, the author chooses the condescending term “elder orphans,” implying that those aging alone are helpless victims. The terms also invokes a touch of insulting humor, with the contrast of “elder” and “orphan.” An orphan is someone who has lost both parents.

Applied to any adult, the term seems irrelevant. It’s the absence of children and spouses that leaves the aging person with no source of help, yet exposed to considerable abuse, including abuse from mainstream medical professionals.

Additionally, the story ignores reality. It very difficult to find a proxy who’s willing to step up and who’s reliable, especially if you’re a “pull the plug” kind of person.

And it’s not that easy to stay connected. Age discrimination is social as well as economic. The elderly are considered irrelevant in our society.

But at least we are acknowledging that there IS a problem. That’s a good first step. Now we need to hear from more people who fear this situation.

This woman should divorce her family

divorce_cake_stockWSJ  – April 22nd – A woman writes that her daughter is receiving her doctoral degree on the same day her son is getting married. Read the article here. They set the wedding date before they knew the exact date of “her event.” The daughter wasn’t consulted. And to add insult to injury, her role in the wedding involves tending the guest book.

Sue Shellenbarger, who has the job I’d love in my next life – writing about careers and  family – consulted a family therapist and a wedding etiquette expert.

The etiquette expert says, essentially, let her vent and then “give her a hug and ask her what she thinks you should do. She may by this point be able to see that the wedding should go on as planned. If not, give her time.”

The expert does admit that “close siblings usually receive a bigger honor than tending the guest book.” (more…)

Stigmatizing “seniors” and singles in one sentence

In an article about seniors who show up malnourished in emergency rooms, NYT author Judith Graham suggests social isolation might be a factor.

“Who likes to eat alone?” she asks rhetorically.

More and more of us live in one-person households by choice. Some people like to eat alone and it’s time everyone realized that’s a perfectly appropriate choice to make.

If a room is filled with noisy conversation I won’t eat, period. Stress isn’t good for digestion and anyway I want to enjoy my food.

When you like living alone (and census data shows more and more of us do), you obviously like eating alone. We don’t need stigmatizing comments or rhetorical questions with an agenda.

Single People Die Younger

Single people die younger. According to this article, the difference might be due to a spouse who nags you to eat better or see a doctor. I think it’s also likely that you’ll get better care from doctors when a family member can advocate for you. Read the article here.

And here’s another article about positive effects of marriage on men’s health. Click here.

One thing that gets ignored is the way the health care system views single versus married people. It’s assumed that you’ll have a family member pick you up after outpatient surgery. The Family Medical Leave provides only for care of a parent, spouse or child – not even a brother or niece, let alone a friend. People can’t get off work to drive a friend home from the hospital, especially in the middle of the day with short notice. Additionally, we keep hearing that it’s important to have family members with you if you’re in a hospital; otherwise you’re far more subject to medical errors, neglect and even outright abuse.

Some people genuinely enjoy their own solitude and single status. In terms of aging, that’s a plus, because we’re more independent and less likely to mourn. But getting care becomes a massive invasion of privacy, with limited options for support.

Marriage to cure heart disease? Gimme a break …

Recently I came across this article, allegedly reporting that being married confers health benefits: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/274828

Here’s my comment:

Being happily single and disgustingly healthy, I had a few concerns about this article.
Bella DePaulo’s book, Singled Out, provides a rigorous discussion of flaws in research comparing single and married people. For instance, often researchers lump together the “never-married,” divorced and widowed, without controlling for recency of divorce or widowhood. Those who never married actually have an advantage as they age because they are used to being alone.

As for cancer patients living longer, I’d want to know, “Are these people holding on longer, even living in pain, because they’re waiting to see a grandchild get married or graduate from college? Are their spouses and children reluctant to turn off life support, as compared to the more distantly related proxies of single people?”

Rather than emphasize the health benefits of marriage (which aren’t entirely clear), I’d like to see some focus on how the medical community treats married vs single people. Many singles find that getting an “approved” ride home from out-patient surgery has been so stressful, I will avoid having elective procedures that require a ride from a responsible adult. A woman with a tall husband or son at her side will be treated far more courteously than a single woman who shows up alone. There’s nothing wrong with solitary life (see Anthony Storr’s classic book, Solitude), yet the system discriminates against them. I’m pretty social, but if I choose to be a curmudgeonly hermit, why should I be denied access to quality health care? That’s the *real* question.