Updated: May 31
Despite Big Tech’s attempts to keep all of us “close and connected,” America became a nation of strangers long before social-distancing and quarantining.
According to a study conducted by Cigna a few years ago, nearly 50% of Americans “always or sometimes feel alone” - - a number sure to have increased due to the Coronavirus.
Loneliness is not a disorder, but rather a discomfort that everyone faces at some point in time. However, what starts out as a temporary condition for some, feeling lonesome evolves into a way of life for many and has a strong association with depression.
Yet, keep in mind that being alone and “feeling” alone are not synonymous. A person can be by himself/herself and still feel confident, content, and complete. On the other hand, loneliness makes its way into the picture when one feels left out, misunderstood, or unattached from true fellowship and companionship.
As human beings, we enter the world innately wired for healthy attachment. Even decades after the umbilical cord has been severed, our desire to be understood, accepted, and valued continues to grow as we mature. Thus, the only way to face loneliness is to fulfill this need with meaningful, healthy relationships.
In an age, when more and more people have embraced pets over people, intercourse over intimacy, and cliques over community, deepening our connections with others is neither a cookie-cutter approach nor linear. It’s an adventure for the risk-taker. Thanks to human imperfections, the path to any close relationship will be packed with jubilant memories, as well as moments of disappointment, hurt feelings, difficult conversations, and sometimes awkward silence; but those who possess a resilient spirit and a forgiving heart will be able to learn about themselves and maximize their potential while discovering other genuine people along the way.
So where do we start? Before diving into how to develop rich relationships or enrich the ones we already have, let’s take a brief look at the 6 superficial shortcuts we often settle for instead:
Joining associations -- Sometimes we think that just being a member of an organization or club will fill the void, but one can still feel lonely in the pew and lost in a crowd. It’s not about the quantity of people you have around you, but rather the quality of relationships you engage with.
Creating a virtual presence -- No amount of posts, likes, and pics can replace real presence. We were created to exchange hugs, share one another’s burdens, and commune in the same space. One’s authentic self can only be seen over time and in person.
Networking -- We’ve all been told the tale that our fulfillment in life is determined by who you know. The character of the people you choose to connect with is secondary compared to their level of status. The truth is personal relationships cannot be managed like a business. Any relationship not founded on pure intentions, mutual respect, and proven trust will leave you less than fulfilled.
Partying -- Fiestas are fun in the moment, but after the music stops where are you and where are your friends? Real relationships are not developed on the summit; they are tested in the storms (i.e. when you are without a job, a car, or money). Beware of filling your calendar with events instead of experiences that matter.
Playing -- From finessing people’s hearts to spending too much time on video games, distractions come in many forms and are often used as excuses to not deal deeply with people. Companionship comes with a risk that is oftentimes found outside our comfort zone. Although putting your thoughts and feelings on the table can be frightening, it is the only way to determine who is deserving of your attention.
Bartering -- Relationships are not transactions. Likewise, they should not be based on contingencies: “I do this for you if you do this for me.” If one cannot disagree or maintain their autonomy in fear of rejection or mistreatment, the closeness you think you have isn’t real, because it’s conditional.
Many never learn how to be a trustworthy keeper of someone’s heart or experience what it’s like to have someone guard their own; but there’s hope. It only takes 1 genuine person to shine light on a life that feels forgotten. The following 8 compass points will help direct you to more intimate relationships. They are divided into 4 major zones. The first starting with you, because life change always starts with the individual not the presenting problem.
1. Remove the barriers around your heart -- Anger, unforgiveness, and resentment create impermeable walls around the human heart that hinders one from enjoying closeness with others. Conduct a heart scan: What pain do you still need to release? Who in your life have you not forgiven? In which relationships do you need to seek reconciliation? A healthy heart attracts healthy people. Remove the weeds and debris, and build a door to let them in.
2. Resolve your trauma -- Unresolved trauma can push away those who love you the most, making one vulnerable to being used and abused. Work with a dependable counselor/therapist to help eliminate the residue that traumatic events and losses often leave. Be mindful of when you tend to feel lonesome, empty, and unloved and create an emotional safety plan to prevent backsliding and wrong decision-making during these times.
3. Strengthen your foundational relationships -- Familial relationships are the bedrock to all other relationships. Lack of respect and harmony among immediate family members will make one prone to constantly experiencing tumultuous relationships with others. Regardless of their imperfections, honor the individuals who took upon themselves to parent you the best way they knew how, and seek peace with your siblings as much as it depends on you.
4. Set up boundaries -- When you let your tribe know how to appropriately approach you, it becomes easier to show others outside your circle how to treat you. Blood relations do not have the right to run over you. When we are clear on what we will and won’t do or take, our hearts remain conditioned to nurture genuine relationships.
5. Call it what it is -- Maya Angelo’s famous quote “When a person shows you who they are, believe them,” continues to resound today. Although we all desire to be liked, this is not life and should never be the goal. Declare those who purposely mistreat you as foes and not “fake friends or “frenemies,” and remember Aristotle’s caution: “A friend to all, is a friend to none.”
6. Conversate more deeply -- Shallow talk keeps relationships superficial. Instead of gossiping about others, exchange dreams, confess weaknesses, and share prayer requests. Intimacy doesn’t just happen, it requires transparency.
7. Put God in His rightful place -- Stop the endless search for fulfillment and significance outside of Christ, and allow your Creator God to make you complete. Only once you understand “whose you are,” can you begin to feel whole.
8. Pray -- We need the power of God to overcome social anxiety, barriers to intimacy, and feeling lonely. Ask God to guide the relationships you have, and to give you wisdom to discern those who are safe for your heart.
You were created to navigate and maintain healthy relationships with God, yourself, and others. Lacking in any one of these areas will create an internal imbalance and perpetuate loneliness. For the sake of our mental health and emotional wellness, may we all remove our masks, stop hiding behind our screens, and start taking the time to invest in sincere relationships. Not only will our hearts grow closer, but the world will also become a healthier place.