Written By: Barbra Waldfogel, LCSW
“I am lonely! ” my teenage daughter exclaimed upon hearing that I would be writing another blog on loneliness. Being her mom and a therapist, I was heartbroken to hear her say that, but frankly not surprised. I asked her to describe what she meant. “Trapped, isolated, not physically surrounded by people, not having (a friend) to share stuff with” she quickly responded.
And yet somehow, this “lonely” kid amassed over 25,000 followers on her Instagram page. Embracing her passion for the global hit series, “Stranger Things”, she developed a fan page. Photos posted by her frequently attract the attention of the young cast and teenage fans. Several followers have become long distance friends.
In February 2019, Psychology Today magazine reported that up to fifty percent of the population was struggling with loneliness. That article was published one year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the USA.
Fast forward to the present when social isolation has become mandated and loneliness is officially the new normal.
In my last blog I provided a definition of loneliness which validates what my daughter described: “an enduring condition of emotional distress that arises when a person feels estranged from, misunderstood, or rejected by others and/or lacks appropriate social partners for desired activities, particularly activities that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy”.
When clinicians use the treatment method of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), we often talk about being ‘hooked’ into a feeling. Being hooked can refer to buying into an urge to avoid pain. “Unhooking” is letting go of the fight with unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
Unhooking from self-judgments, obstacles, hopelessness, or fear of rejection means allowing pain to be there while moving towards who and how we want to be. It is the exact opposite of experiential avoidance, which are actions we take to hide from feelings like loneliness.
My daughter accepts that she feels and is lonely. While acknowledging that discomfort she has committed to taking actions via social media to provide her with a sense of connection.
We have all struggled to cope during this pandemic, but some who yearn for meaningful relations and the desire to touch the lives of others are hooked by urges to avoid experiencing more pain. They feel stuck.
We can move towards our goals by flexibly and creatively seeking a niche, a space where we have a shared social interest.
Many of my clients have taken steps to reduce that feeling of loneliness by walking a neighbor’s dog while looking into fostering an animal; reconnecting with long lost friends and family; learning how to make a professional website; joining virtual groups or clubs, volunteering, organizing or participating in a social distancing community event and Zoom dating.
The outcome is of course uncertain. There is no guarantee we won’t continue to feel lonely and be alone no matter what we do. But staying hooked on negativity ensures a future of doom and gloom. Unhooking and taking risks is a way of living life with vitality while moving in the direction of who we want to be.