Busting the Loneliness Cycle
I remember being surprised a few weeks ago when one of my clients discussed how she was not sure if she wanted friends. The shock on my part was based on how desperately she wanted to find a romantic partner. She began to talk about her world view that a romantic partner would be the cure to her depression and anxiety. If only she could find that person to share her life with, then she would be happy finally. Mostly she said she wanted to stop feeling alone.
As I thought about this for a for a few weeks after this conversation, it struck me at how immense the responsibility would be her future partner: Make me happy! I realized she was making a unrealistic demand. I want to love, cherish, honor you, and in return you are supposed to cure my loneliness. What a tall order to put on another person.
Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT), thinks that the cure for loneliness is to build tribe, community, and connection, but finding that we can get all of our needs met through a single person, may be impossible. It reminded me of the old saying “It takes a village to raise a child”, well maybe RO might say, “It takes a tribe to cure loneliness.”
Human connection is an essential component to psychological health. So how do you start building a friend? First is an acknowledgement that you want one. If you aren’t sure if you do, you might consider a few questions:
What do I think a friend is?
Are my past experiences clouding my ability to see the benefits of friendship?
If I were to admit that friendships might be useful to me, what would I lose? What would I gain? What would I have to change?
Secondly what skills do I need to build in myself to be a good friend? Here are some thoughts about how genuine friends treat each other. They:
Respect each other’s differences
Look forward to seeing each other
Are kind to one another
Apologize for any damage we cause another
Are open to being wrong
Take responsibility for one’s own emotions
Share success and failures
Don’t try to change each other
Can drop their guard and relax with the other
There’s a wonderful list of genuine friendship skills in lesson 20.3 of the RO DBT Skills Manual. Practicing these skills helps build awareness about maybe why friendships haven’t been successful in the past.
Thirdly it’s important to recognize that making a true friend can take as much time as a full-time job. Planning to see each other, coordinating schedules, actually being at an outing with a friend eats up a lot of time, but if you ask people with genuine friendships if they think it’s worth it, they say yes.
Next you might consider, where do we find friends? A lot of people report making friendships as an adult is harder than when we are in grade school or college, because we are forced to be around each other as much for 8 hours a day when we are young. While there is truth to that, it does let us realize that the 3rd point (above) is true. People can start friendships at work, in sports clubs, art events, leisure classes, through hobbies, online friendship connectors, at public book clubs, conferences, in families, and a million other ways.
When you do meet someone you like or are interested in, watch to see what you tell yourself about that encounter. Internal myths we tell ourselves about what people think about us, are just that: myths and mind reading. Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true.
Next, check in with your social signaling. Do you signal interest? Do you signal that you care and are kind? Do you continue to make plans with the friend (even if they aren’t free to accept at first asking)? Do you make it easy for them to make plans with you? Do you allow them to get to know you by sharing about yourself?
Is there something that you have gotten feedback in the past about that you might work on changing so you can connect better? For example, my client received feedback that she’s not very enthusiastic (i.e. tends to use a monotone voice often, rarely nods her head or smiles, and tends to look at the floor) and tends to say negative things a lot. She began to work on enhancing her positive expressions by fluctuating her voice tone, using close mouth smiles, wagging her eyebrows, and making better eye contact. She began to stop expressing as much gossip and negativity and learn to judge and little bit and move on silently.
True friendship can start anywhere, anytime at any age with anyone. Often times we miss many opportunities to connect with people due to judgements we make about ourselves or other people. RO DBT gives us the opportunity to learn to build intimacy within friendships and try something new, that allows us to be more successful based on our social signaling. What do you need to re-investigate about yourself to learn and grow friendships?