In times of loneliness, build up your inner circle
Editor’s note: This column by Dr. Delise Dickard will appear in Healthy Living on Sunday, April 8.
BY DR. DELISE DICKARD
Loneliness sucks (my kids assure me that’s not a curse word anymore). Some people will do almost anything to avoid it—jump into a bad marriage, stay in a toxic friendship, remain in a bad job. Some continuously try to avoid loneliness with bad habits such as drinking or shopping.
But loneliness is just a feeling—albeit a horrible one. It may feel like a mental cloud hanging over your head, and it can be coupled with physical symptoms—a burning in your stomach, or the sensation of a slab of concrete pressing on your chest.
Unfortunately, loneliness visits us all from time to time. Sometimes it moves in slowly, like an early morning fog creeping across a landscape. Sometimes it comes on abruptly, like a door slamming in your face.
It can happen during a death, a divorce or a nasty breakup, when the nest empties or when a loved one suddenly seems to transform into a bully.
Even though there are many painful passages we must go through alone, we are not hostage to the feeling of loneliness. If we refuse to run from it and just sit with it for a while, we can let the feeling inspire us to recover our own sense of self.
We can reflect on who we are—apart from all the others. We can regroup and decide what we believe and what expectations we have for people who belong in our inner circle of friends.
But first, we have to find our own internal meaning. I believe that as humans we inherit a kernel of confidence and a natural pursuit for meaning: our own personal meaning. Even if this kernel is malnourished or has taken quite a beating, we need to go find it, bolster it up and maybe redefine it.
Often, when the voices of rejection and criticism subside, we rediscover our sense of self. We become ready to let go of past rejections and loss, and to look forward to nurturing the potential within ourselves.
By refocusing on our sense of purpose, we can shift from loneliness to action and begin gathering a healthy support system.
But how does a person put together a new inner circle without falling into the trap of creating one that is just as dysfunctional as the one before?
CREATING A CIRCLE
As adults, we choose who gets to be in our inner circle, and it takes strength to choose wisely—rather than staving off loneliness by taking in the first person who comes along.
We can be very kind acquaintances to many people, but consider the five or six places in your inner circle special spots for those who merit this privilege. It’s fine to leave a few spots open until the right person comes along.
Here are some helpful guidelines for building a healthy support system:
Look for people who validate your purpose and meaning. When people agree on things or have similar feelings and beliefs, they validate one another. This draws people together, and validation always feels good.
People are never perfect, but your support people should validate you as a person, even if they disagree with your decisions every once in a while. And, of course, you need to validate them in turn and be patient when you disagree with their choices.
Focus on mutual respect. As your sense of meaning in life deepens, you may find you outgrow some friends. Maybe you had a drinking buddy in college who just never grew up. Maybe this buddy doesn’t really “get” your dedication to your family. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be a caring acquaintance, but it may be hard to maintain enough mutual respect to keep this person in your inner circle.
Remember, it isn’t a judgment of him—it’s only that you are exercising your need for mutual respect. The closest people need to support your purpose in life as you journey forward.
Find comfort. Someone once asked me for help getting over her need for friendships. I surprised her by saying we need close friends, and that it wouldn’t be healthy to get over this need. For one thing, when we have those moments of loneliness we are acutely aware of how important it is to have friends for comfort.
Still, we have to be careful about friends who offer comfort at a price. Even unhealthy friends can make us feel comfortable in the short term—and that can draw us back into toxic relationships.
Motivation matters. Good friends motivate you toward your personal best. They “get” you. They respect your purpose, even as it differs from theirs. But mostly, they motivate you in a healthy direction. And you, in turn, motivate them to be their best.
Be flexible. If you can, it is best to choose an inner circle whose members will stay committed to one another for the long haul. Circumstances that come along may challenge your relationship, and if it survives the storms, they will typically deepen your bond.
Flexibility is important because your purpose will be ever evolving and your closest friends need to tolerate your phases of change, as you will need to tolerate theirs.
A TEMPORARY SPOT
If you are struggling with loneliness, you might think this all sounds great—but right now your inner circle has many empty chairs. As a counselor, I have had the highest privilege of joining many people as they struggle to re-create a healthier support system. I am often invited to join the inner circle for a while because I can genuinely offer the needed support: validation, respect, motivation, comfort and flexibility.
But in this role, I am simply an honored placeholder—there until relationships are repaired or good, lifelong support people arrive. The ending, for me, is always bittersweet. I am truly thrilled that the cloud of loneliness has lifted for my client, but it means it is time for me to relinquish my place in the circle to a more carefully chosen friend.
Dr. Delise Dickard a licensed professional counselor, is the director of Riverside Counseling in Fredericksburg. She welcomes reader comments and questions. For contact information, see riversidecounseling.org.