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Help for Loneliness

Help for Loneliness

Several years ago, I was given an assignment from my mentor at the time. It seemed simple. It was not. I did it anyway.

He told me to write down my feelings. Every day. In the morning, when I sat down to breakfast, he told me to open my journal and jot down the feeling I was feeling right then and there. He told me to do it for a month.

I did. It was harder than I thought, not the activity of it. I had built up a pretty good morning routine by that time. The challenge was actually figuring out what I was feeling!

I would sit there staring at my bowl of Raisin Bran waiting for a feeling I would recognize to bubble to the surface.

I am…

I am…hungry?

Is hungry a feeling? I thought it might be, but I figured it was my stomach more than my heart speaking to me.

Finally, a feeling came and I wrote it down. I didn’t really pay attention to what it was. But I kept at it. After a month, I met up with my mentor again and I pulled out my journal and we looked at the feelings I wrote down.

I was shocked to see that the prevailing feeling I was feeling was this: lonely.

I wrote lonely down at least twice as much as any other word. That was interesting. I didn’t think I was lonely. If you asked me if I was, I would have said no. But here was evidence to the contrary.

Over the next couple months, we talked about it, and I learned a lot about loneliness. I can’t say I overcame it. Loneliness has been a constant companion my entire life, and upon reflection the feeling has led to a majority of the bad decisions I have made.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Feelings are neutral. Loneliness can also be a constructive experience. That is what my mentors over the years have helped me see. Still, it is a struggle. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed the feeling.

Over the weekend, I was listening to Hidden Brain on NPR. Shankar Vedantum was interviewing former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy who has recently written a book called Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection In A Sometimes Lonely World.

I leaned in to hear more. The next hour was really powerful. Murthy talked about his research and how he has been able to trace a number of negative health related outcomes to underlying loneliness.

Let’s just say, I was hooked. Here is a link to the transcript and recording:

Later that day, I discovered that Brene Brown also had a podcast on human connection this week. Guess who her guest speaker was. You got it. Vivek Murthy. Here is a link to her recording.

Y’all it is so good. If you like me struggle with loneliness, I would strongly encourage you to take a listen.

But if you don’t have time, let me share with you three helpful, healthy practices that Dr. Murthy mentioned.

The first is a healthy relationship with your self. It turns out that understanding ones own self-worth and being able to embrace ones self and accept ones self is the foundation for working through loneliness. This blew my mind. But the more I have reflected on it, the more I believe he is right. Being cool with your self is key.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sought out somebody solely for the fact that I felt inadequate in myself.

The practice he encouraged is solitude. Just a little bit everyday.

The second is a few deep relationships. He talked about the importance of family, and a healthy marriage, but he also talked about two guys that for the last twenty years he has been meeting with virtually every month to talk about real life, real struggle. They have committed to stay connected for life. To him, this has been a lifeline.

I can’t tell you how I crave this! The day after I listened to this show, I contacted one of my guy friends and asked if we could go for a walk. We did yesterday. It was so helpful. We have committed to doing what Dr. Murthy has prescribed.

The third is service, being attached to something greater than your self in community with others. So if the first step is personal reflection, the third part is almost the opposite – getting out of yourself and giving your life away to others.

Again, this was so helpful. For me during this time, a lifeline has been the moments I have been able to do some kind of service activity. Dr. Murthy mentioned one that he thinks is essential.

Listening. Truly listening. He says that most people don’t experience being listened to. Wow. That is something to think about.

Sometimes we don’t enter into conversation with people because we feel like we have nothing to say or offer. What if what is most important to offer in conversation is not our words but our ears!

This is humbling. I need to work on this.

All this to say, I invite you to lean into this time of separation. All three of these practices Dr. Murthy mentions are possible to do during physical isolation. I encourage you to reflect and perhaps try them on.

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Ned Erickson

Ned is the Founder and Executive Director of the Winston-Salem Fellows, a non-profit dedicated to equipping people to live seamless lives as they grow into the men and women they were created to be. He is the author of four books, including the critically acclaimed novel Clay. He, his wife, two children, dogs, rabbit, guinea pig, turtle, and chickens live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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