Loneliness affects over 40% of people at midlife. It can impair your mental and physical health now and in the future. An earlier post covered the causes and health risks of loneliness, as well as how to spot it in your own life. Now we’ll turn to ways you can combat midlife loneliness.
Go in, go out, keep going
You can find list after list of tips from psychologists and people who’ve battled loneliness. (A couple of my faves are here and here.) Generally, these tips fit into one of three categories. My shorthand for remembering these categories to combat midlife loneliness is, “Go in, go out, keep going.”
Let’s look at 4 tips in each of the 3 groups. I’ll intersperse lessons from my own experience fighting loneliness at midlife. You then can use all 12 suggestions to develop your own action plan to combat midlife loneliness.
As mentioned in my previous post, the first step in combatting midlife loneliness is to recognize you have it. This is comparable to Step One in 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol –
that our lives had become unmanageable.
While you may not feel your life has become “unmanageable” due to loneliness, there is real value in admitting you’re lonely. The stigma attached to loneliness in our culture makes it difficult to acknowledge its presence in your own life. It’s tempting to stay busy and distract yourself or to ignore the problem and hope it will go away.
But taking a hard look at your own loneliness is the only way to determine how best you can overcome it.
1. Identify your loneliness thoughts
As uncomfortable as it may be, spend time reflecting on why you feel lonely. Has your routine changed in some way? Did your child recently start driving himself to school? Has she moved away to college? Are you buying more things online and going to fewer stores? If so, you might not run into friends doing errands as much as you used to. (They’re probably shopping online, too.)
While I was raising three children, I stayed super busy. I drove them to activities, played tennis and worked out, volunteered in their schools and planned our family’s vacations. Then, one by one, my kids left home. Things got kind of quiet at our house. I had to re-learn how to cook meals for just two people.
I’d always evaluated whether I’d had a good day by how much I’d checked off my to-do list. But without kids at home, I had less to do. I felt a little depressed. I lacked the energy to clean closets or do other tasks that might at least have given me a sense of accomplishment.
So not only was I feeling lonely, but I was feeling unproductive. Which in my mind meant the same as worthless. I checked my email often, wiped off the kitchen counter again. I resisted slowing down to face the fact that I felt empty.
If you’re finding it difficult to face your own feelings of loneliness or low self-esteem, consider talking with a counselor or therapist. Even a few sessions with a trained professional can guide you to a better mindset. I found a therapist when I was feeling lonely and depressed. I highly recommend it.
2. Quiet your inner critic
This is a big one. At least it has been for me. Blame it on my upbringing, but my inner VoJ (Voice of Judgment) holds me to unreasonably high standards. Higher than the standards to which I’d hold a friend.
Loneliness can make your inner critic louder and more insistent. Feeling sad and alone can start you down a path of wondering if it could be your fault that you’re alone. You might wonder, “Do I have any true friends?” “Are there people who like me just for me, not for what I do for them?”
Obviously, this is a bad place to be! If your personal VoJ is strong, you may not be able to silence it. But you can try to lower the volume – at least momentarily. To combat midlife loneliness, you need to interrupt the cycle of self-criticism.
3. Fight isolation
Alongside quieting your inner critic, you must resist allowing yourself to become isolated. If you’re feeling lonely, which often goes hand in hand with feeling depressed, you probably don’t want to do much of anything. You don’t feel like summoning up the energy to connect with other people. You especially don’t want to be with people who appear to have it all together.
But to combat midlife loneliness, you have to reach out. It can be hard to step outside when all you want to do is curl up at home in your pajamas. But do yourself a favor: fight the isolation of loneliness. Face your fears.
4. Practice self-care and self-compassion
If you’ve spent the past two decades taking care of others, taking care of yourself may not come naturally. But to combat midlife loneliness, you’ll need to bolster your inner strength.
Self-care looks different for different people. You may decide to take a day off – drive to the beach or another beautiful spot. Get a massage or a pedicure. Watch a chick flick in the middle of the day. Whatever feels right to you.
Practicing self-compassion also relates to quieting that inner critic. There are lots of resources, including specific meditation techniques, that can help you cultivate compassion for yourself and others.
- If you’re a Brené Brown fan, check out The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.*
- Another good read is Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself * by Kristin Neff. Her website offers more resources and workshops.
Practicing self-compassion is a little like the airline safety instructions to put on your own mask before assisting others. You have to be a friend to yourself if you want to be a friend to other people. In addition to what I learned from these books, I found value in a class I took with a Stanford Medical School program called Compassion Cultivation Training.
Practicing self-compassion isn’t something you learn instantly. Whatever route you choose to get out of loneliness, cut yourself a bit of slack along the way.
To combat midlife loneliness, you have to connect with other people. This can be hard to do, especially when you’re not feeling good about yourself. It’s common for lonely people to experience a kind of social fear.
If you suffer from loneliness, you may experience social situations as threatening. This is especially true of new situations with unfamiliar people. Going out takes courage. Start small and build your confidence.
1 Extend yourself in small ways
If you’re feeling isolated, ease yourself into social contact. Make small talk with your local barista or grocery cashier. And it goes without saying: avoid the self-checkout lane!
Walk around your neighborhood or town. Make eye contact and say hello to people. If you have a dog, take it to a nearby dog park and chat with another dog owner.
Look for “random acts of kindness” you can do for other people. Help an elder with their grocery bags, hold the door for a mom with a stroller, compliment the cleaning person on a job well done.
These things may seem trivial, but they’re a great way to start connecting with other human beings. Even if you’re not feeling lonely, acknowledging the people you interact with every day can spread your happiness to them.
2 Plant, weed and fertilize your friendships
Midlife is a time when lots of us evaluate our friendships. Especially if you’re transitioning from an era when your children occupied most of your available time, you may notice a new space in your life. A space you’d like to fill with friends.
- Plant: make new friends via a sport, hobby or even a friendship app (see below)
- Re-pot: connect with old friends via Facebook or a class reunion
- Weed: withdraw from toxic friendships
- Fertilize: pay attention to old and new friends
Friendships can sprout overnight, but they grow slowly. Invest yourself in the ones you care about. A small number of close friends will help you feel less lonely than a wide circle of acquaintances.
3 Use technology wisely
Say you’re feeling isolated and yet are sitting in a public place, like a restaurant or park. It’s tempting to avoid contact with others by scrolling through your social media feeds. Or even to pretend you’re talking on the phone as you walk down the street.
But to combat midlife loneliness, put down your phone. Or use it to call someone and make a personal connection. Wherever possible, don’t just click “like” instead of initiating a conversation.
Some app developers are harnessing technology to address loneliness. There are several apps similar to dating apps that help you find like-minded people. You can connect “in real life” with others who might also be looking for friends and share some of your interests.
One of the more established apps in this space is Hey! Vina. Vina is for women only. It explains itself as “Tinder for (Girl) Friends.” Tinder, in fact, is an investor in Vina.
While Vina is probably more oriented to younger women, give it a try. Just as midlife women have turned to online dating, they are likely to explore online friendship apps. It’s also possible that you’d meet a younger woman who’d love to be friends with you!
4 Turn the camera around
When you feel lonely, it can be hard to focus on other people. Loneliness and its sidekick, depression, tend to turn you inward. Even if you’re not generally a self-centered person, loneliness can take over your mindset.
It may require lots of effort, but to combat midlife loneliness you have to force yourself to step outside your comfort zone. In other words, replace the selfie mindset. Turn your inner camera around and pay attention to other people. Notice what they’re doing, whether they need help, when they’re having a bad day, or if they’d appreciate an encouraging word.
Sounds preachy, I know. When you’re feeling isolated and withdrawn, it would be nice if someone would notice you, right? Ironically, however, you’ll start to feel better if you notice others. You might even make a new friend along the way.
Nobody said it was going to be easy. There will be days when you feel like giving up, when it’s doesn’t seem worth the hassle to combat midlife loneliness. But keep putting one foot in front of the other. Hold onto these watchwords.
If you try joining a new group and it doesn’t work out, try a different one. You may have to experiment with several different activities before one clicks, but there are tons of classes and groups you can consider. Here are suggestions for trying something new at midlife.
Draw up an action plan for what you’ll do to combat midlife loneliness. You should start small and venture out. Challenge yourself, but be realistic. Building a friendship takes time.
2 Expect the best
Loneliness can lead you to perceive social threats where there aren’t any. Try not to fall into the trap of assuming that someone dislikes you because she wasn’t super-friendly the last time you met.
Maybe she wasn’t friendly because she was worried about a problem of her own. Give her the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve made the mistake of assuming a person or group didn’t like me or wanted to exclude me. Even if they seemed friendly on the outside, I still expected the worst from them.
Truth be told, however, my attitude was an over-reaction to someone’s thoughtless comment or past reputation. By not “expecting the best” of others, I made myself feel worse and put the brakes on a potential friendship.
Analyzing your thoughts and feelings in this way may feel awkward or silly. But it can help you uncover false assumptions that aren’t helping you combat midlife loneliness.
3 Celebrate small wins
Overcoming loneliness isn’t easy. You’ll take two steps forward, then one step back. It’s important to acknowledge you’re on a journey.
Keep track of your progress. If you smiled and made eye contact with four people on the street, then chatted with the person at a neighboring table in a café, celebrate that. Build your confidence with small wins.
Before you know it, you’ll be joining new groups, meeting new people and forging a few authentic connections with other people.
4 Share the love
Remember that over 40% of people at midlife report that they’re suffering from loneliness. You may feel alone. But the fact is, there are lots of people who feel the same way you do.
Look out for someone else who may be feeling lonely. Reach out to them. You may be able to help them. The two of you may even be able to help each other.
If you find something that’s especially helpful to you as you combat midlife loneliness, tell other people about it. Connect with them online or in person. Share what you’re learning. Start a conversation by commenting below and/or sharing this post.
Conclusion: you CAN combat midlife loneliness
It takes work, but you can overcome the experience of loneliness at midlife. It’s best to view your passage out of loneliness as a journey.
It’s like that childhood game “Chutes and Ladders.” You make the best progress by climbing ladders – in this analogy, by doing something hard. But sometimes you hit a chute and fall backwards. You have to pick yourself up, repeat your steps and keep going.
It would be nice if you could track your progress vs. loneliness the way you can track progress vs. fitness goals. For example, the iWatch cues you to “close your rings” as you Move, Exercise and Stand throughout your day. Its cool explanations and graphics make your fitness journey fun.
Maybe app developers will devise a way to acknowledge, motivate and celebrate things you might do on your journey out of loneliness. Until then, you’ll have to monitor your own progress. With self-compassion, of course.
What are your top tips to combat midlife loneliness?
Join my journey through midlife
Subscribe to Jubilant Age and download a free checklist of remodeling mistakes to avoid!