“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” – Eric Fromm
By Leo Babauta
The recent death of my Auntie Kerry put me in a state of mind that I think we all go through at different times in our lives: the feeling of utter isolation, of complete loneliness.
There are times when we feel that even if we are surrounded by other people in our lives, we are alone. We must go through this difficult journey called life by ourselves, no matter if we’re married or if we have children or close friends. And that’s a very lonesome prospect.
How do we overcome these feelings of loneliness and despair? While common, these feelings can be dangerous if we let them go too far — they can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, or just a slump in our lives.
The answer is in connecting with other human beings.
When we connect with other humans, we are no longer alone. We share our suffering, our experiences, our common trials. The misery we face is no longer insurmountable when we have someone to face it with us.
But making that leap from being alone to making a connection can be a difficult one. One reader who contacted me recently, for example, has a form of social anxiety that stops him from talking to people in social situations. That’s a tough obstacle to overcome, but it can be done.
While I’m not an expert in social anxiety or in relationships, I have overcome my share of social anxiety, overcome my share of depression, and found ways to forge human connections in my years as a son, brother, husband, father, co-worker, boss and friend.
Here are some tips for connecting with humanity when you’re feeling alone:
- Do some kind of activity with others. If you don’t immediately have someone to connect with — such as a spouse, kids, or other close family or friends — make an effort to get out of your house and to meet up with others. If you’re afraid of meeting strangers, it helps to find places where you’re comfortable — for example, in a college class, for some people, at a bar you’re familiar with, for others. But failing that, try some kind of group activity — a reading group, a running group, a support group, a volunteer group. The activity greases the social wheels.
- Ask for a hug. If you do have easy access to a loved one, don’t be afraid to ask for a hug — it’s one of the best medicines. That might sound corny, but it’s true. Human contact is something we all need, especially in times of need, and it is a very good way to connect with others.
- Visit family and friends. If you have loved ones you don’t see every day, get out of your house and go visit them. Just being in their presence, making the effort to connect with them, that’ll go a long way to making human connections. Talk with them, share, bond. When my Auntie Kerry died, my family here on Guam immediately got together, and just being in each other’s company in such a time not only brought us closer together, and gave us that release of emotions we needed, but made us feel better during our time of grief.
- Nix the TV and movies. Many times people spend time together watching TV and movies. While that’s OK some of the time, it isn’t the best way to connect with others. The problem with such passive entertainment is that it separates us, even if we’re close together. We end up not talking, but watching. Instead, play sports, play a board game, have coffee or tea, have a picnic — anything that you do together, where you can talk and connect, is a good thing.
- Find commonalities. If you don’t have easy access to loved ones, and need to make new friends and connect with new people, it’s best to start by trying to find common ground. What shared interests do you have? Have you lived in the same place, gone to the same school, worked in the same place? Do you have similar hobbies or passions? When you find that common ground, you can connect.
- Open up. Once you’ve found common ground, and gotten comfortable with a person, don’t be afraid to open up a little. Of course, you don’t pour out all of your innermost secrets the first time you meet someone — it has to be a gradual opening up. But if you never open up, you will never make a real, deep connection. It’ll just be something on the surface. It’s when people share something real, and personal, that these real connections are made.
- Practice, and get comfortable. Often we are shy or socially anxious when we are in uncomfortable situations. The remedy for this is to get comfortable, and the only way to do that is to keep doing it, keep practicing, until you’re better at it. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get.
- Do it in small doses. If the above tip sounds like too much for you — you have a hard time even contemplating practicing social situations until you’re comfortable — then it’s best to do it in small doses. Start with somewhere you’re fairly comfortable, and just try talking to someone you know a little. Then try someone you don’t know, but in a comfortable situation. Do it one dose at a time, celebrate your success, and then give it another try on another day. You don’t have to make huge connections all at once.
- Groom yourself. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how big of a difference this can make. First, being well-groomed makes a good impression on others you don’t know well, and helps them to react more positively to you. But second, and more importantly, being well-groomed helps you to be more confident with yourself, and that makes all the difference in the world.
- Learn to be a good listener. A very important point, but it’s incredible how many people ignore this fundamental skill. I’ve talked to so many people who I can tell are really good people, but who I tire of talking to simply because they don’t seem to hear anything I say. I listen to them, but they don’t return the favor, and as a result, it’s a one-sided conversation. No one likes that kind of conversation (except the person doing all the talking). If you want to make a connection with another person, you have to begin by listening. Learn to ask questions to gt the other person talking about herself — that’s everyone’s favorite subject. And when they do start talking, learn to actually listen. Don’t just stare with a blank look, and think about what you want to talk about. Hear what they’re saying, respond with appropriate words and sounds and facial expressions, ask follow up questions. If you can learn to listen, you’ll go a long way in making connections with anyone.
- Help those in need. Aside from just meeting new people, another great way to connect with other human beings is to help them when they need help. Volunteering to help the homeless and the hungry, for example, is a great way to meet new people, to do something positive, to make a difference in the lives of others, and to connect with people in ways that just aren’t otherwise possible.
- Find ways to express your love. Whether you’re connecting with loved ones, with new people, or with those in need … the ultimate connection is always through love. And the way to make this kind of connection is by first expressing your love — without expecting it to be returned — in any way you can. How can you express your love? That’s up to you — you have to find ways that are appropriate to the situation, the relationship, and to you as a person — but some ideas: hugs, an affectionate smile, a nice letter, doing something considerate for the person, just spending time with them, telling them you love them, listing the reasons you love them … I’m sure you can think of many more. :)
On a related note: thank you to everyone on this blog who has comforted me during my time of grieving over my family, through your kind words, through sharing your stories of loss and suffering, through sharing my pain, through your prayers and wishes and thoughts and positive energy. You’ve shown me, in a thousand ways, that connections can be made over great distances, between relative strangers, in a way that really does make a lasting difference on your life. So thank you, thank you.
“Love one another and you will be happy. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.” – Michael Leunig