Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of HarleyTherapy.com, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
I’ve been single for a while now, since about three months before the pandemic. A lot of the time I’m fine with it, and sometimes even happy to be single: I am free to define my life and date who I want and focus solely on my own happiness. I keep seeing articles and posts on social media that emphasise how being a single woman is something to be empowered by instead of constantly seeking a partner for the sake of it. I want to be fully empowered all the time too.
But I’m just not. It doesn’t help that all my close friends are in relationships and it can’t help but make me feel lonely, especially around events like last New Year's Eve, which I spent alone thanks to COVID. I try to talk to my friends about feeling lonely but they just feel sorry for me, which makes me feel patronised. So I have these intense bouts of real loneliness and then feel ashamed to feel this way. I know my happiness isn’t defined by another person but that doesn’t mean I want to be alone.
How can I learn to embrace all these feelings now without just rushing into another relationship?
– Katya, 27
It’s important to remember that the pandemic has made loneliness worse: chiefly because of the physical isolation and the lack of contact with people, which is really important to our wellbeing. The pause on a lot of activities and seeing other people has really compounded this feeling of isolation. And while people who live together or are in relationships have been bonding closer in the pandemic, it’s hard to feel that you have missed out on that.
There is no shame in feeling loneliness, it is just a feeling. As far as possible, be non-judgmental of your emotions: there's no good emotions, there's no bad emotions, things are as they are. Loneliness, like anything, is just an emotional state. These emotions will come and they will go and the more work that we can do on 1) allowing those feelings to be and 2) being compassionate towards ourselves, ironically, the less negative we will feel.
It's often hard to say this negative feeling is actually a positive one or a neutral one. If you're boiling with anger, for example, it feels so uncomfortable that it might well be a negative feeling. But the fact is, the more that we can tolerate feelings like loneliness, the less power that it has over us and the easier it is to diffuse. The more that we can be tolerant and accepting of the hardships or difficulties of life, the more it is likely that it won't disturb us as much.
One of the ways that people often read into their negative feelings and thoughts is by engaging in them with rumination. You might spend a lot of time trying to work out: Why do I feel this way? Should I be single? Should I not be? Why am I feeling bad about it? Is it bad that I'm feeling bad? We can get ourselves into a real tangle. There's a couple of techniques, aside from working on the acceptance, for when you get stuck ruminating. One is distraction, but it's not a distraction by way of avoidance: it's more diversion. It's doing something healthy in place of ruminating, which could be doing something that you enjoy. The other is breathing techniques. So if you're feeling negative thoughts and emotions rising, and you've got yourself into a mental tangle, how can you get out? Often just resetting, by focusing internally on basic things like the breath or bodily sensations, can help some people get out of that negative loop.
Other than managing your relationship to your emotions, there are practical steps to combat loneliness. I would start with filtering through your relationships and deciding who it is that you feel good spending time with. Do they enhance your wellbeing? We often feel better after spending time with some people and worse after spending time with others. It's about identifying how you feel after spending some time, even online, with someone and recognising who those good quality connections are with.
With that in mind, make time to nurture those relationships. You do that by investing time and energy with the grand old skill of listening. The more that we can make time for someone and listen to them, and the other person does the same with you, the less lonely we feel. As we all know, we can be very lonely in a busy crowd, often because we don't have that emotional connection with someone which is facilitated by good listening, good sharing and good support of one another.