Loneliness and the Holidays (Part 1)
If you find yourself feeling lonely over the holidays, look at this as an opportunity to understand what is at the root of your loneliness and what you may need to pay attention to, or change in your life.
Some ways to cope:
1. Downsize your expectations.
It is hard not to have high expectations this time of year. Many people feel pressured to live up to a Hallmark ideal of the holiday season. After all, in advertisements, movies and songs, we are told this is “the most wonderful time of the year”…when everyone looks forward to spending time with family; when any rifts among family members or friends miraculously heal; or, when everyone has a fully booked social calendar. When you assume that everyone else—except you—is enjoying a “perfect” holiday, you are setting yourself up for feeling isolated and lonely.
How you experienced past holidays—good or bad—can also influence expectations. It can be hard to let go of memories of the way things once were….when the kids willingly spent the holidays with you; when a civil discussion of current events and politics at family gatherings was actually possible; or, when a parent(s) was still mentally sharp.
When holiday plans don’t go as anticipated, people often cope by drinking too much alcohol, overeating, partying with abandon, or engaging in other reckless behaviors with the goal of suppressing their feelings—of rage, disappointment, anxiety or grief. Instead, allow yourself to feel your feelings and process them through talking, writing or a creative outlet. Or simply by removing yourself from a toxic environment.
Keep your expectations real. Be grateful for simple things the holiday may offer: much-needed downtime; a chance to sleep in, cook or take long walks; or spending quality time with family or friends you might not otherwise see.
2. Practice self-care.
We live in a culture of instant self-gratification. When you feel lonely, you may try to fill the void with alcohol, sugar, overeating (anything and everything!), electronic distractions, recreational drugs (pot, vaping), unprotected hook-up sex, or anything that takes the edge off the loneliness. These things may feel good in the moment, but they can have unexpected physical and emotional consequences—and, ultimately, leave you feeling even more lonely and empty in the long run.
Focus on taking very good care of yourself. Go to bed at a reasonable time and get enough sleep (7 to 9 hours). Eat real food meals; if you have the energy, cook a few simple meals. Practice deep breathing. Go outside and get fresh air and sunlight. Take long walks. Engage in exercise you enjoy (and have the energy for), whether it’s yoga, Pilates or weight-lifting. Avoid binge-drinking. And avoid foods that trigger binge-eating.
3. Take time to download.
Understanding the root cause of your loneliness is key to overcoming it. If the cause of loneliness is death of a loved one, divorce, illness or some other major life change within the last year, allow yourself to grieve your loss—the holidays may simply fall into a transitional period of your life; you may not experience the best holiday season this year, and that’s okay. If the cause of loneliness is not feeling connected, appreciated, accepted or valued by your family or social circle, recognize that there may be areas that you need to work on; for example, setting healthy boundaries around your time, energy and availability; expressing yourself honestly and authentically; or learning to communicate in a way where you feel truly heard.
4. Give to yourself.
If you are an over-giver or a people-pleaser by nature, you are more likely to feel lonely. Are you the one who always takes your best friend out for her birthday, while she, on the other hand, has never done anything special to celebrate yours? Are you the one everyone calls when they need something—advice, a favor, a ride, a cheerleader—yet no one shows up for you when you need help or support? Not only does constantly giving to others—without receiving acknowledgement, gratitude or appreciation—heighten feelings of loneliness, it is energetically depleting and can take a toll on your physical and emotional health.
Take the pressure off yourself to look after everyone else’s needs. Prioritize doing things that you enjoy, whether it’s sleeping in until noon, yoga, meditation, weight training, seeing a movie or simply NOTHING!
5. Seek support.
It seems like an obvious solution, but pride, shame, fear and anxiety can prevent those of us who need support the most—from asking for it. It is okay to be vulnerable. Maybe you assume that your best friend, husband/wife, partner or sister should automatically “know” what you need, but people are not mind readers—even those who we think know us best. If you are going through a particularly dark and lonely period in your life, allow yourself to be vulnerable: seek help; ask for what you need; or, be willing to receive offers of help.
That said, if you are in a transitional period of your life (e.g., caretaker for a parent with dementia, recently widowed, recovering food addict, etc.), and you feel disconnected from your social circle because they are unwilling or unable to understand your circumstances, you can look for connection and guidance through a support group, volunteer group, group workshops or a therapist.
If you have the means, consider treating yourself to a healing-themed holiday. For example, going to a yoga and meditation weekend retreat, a therapeutic writing workshop, or a healing from trauma workshop can put you in contact with other people who are moving through pain and/or change in their life, and who may be able to provide the connection you seek.
6. Stop comparing yourself to others.
We all do this. Comparing yourself to the “perfect” holiday that you imagine everyone else is experiencing only feeds feelings of inadequacy, depression and loneliness.
One of the most important lessons that I have learned in life and through my work is that how people appear on the outside (e.g., successful, powerful, in control, happy, beautiful, “having it all”, “perfect”) often does not match how they feel on the inside (e.g., insecure, anxious, feeling “less than”). In other words, you cannot judge a book by its cover.
If you are feeling lonely, this is a good time to do a news media detox, which relentlessly commercializes the holiday season. It is also a good time to take a break from Facebook and Instagram. Comparing your holiday to what other people post—carefully curated images that range from “perfect” holiday meals to happy family gatherings—only exacerbates feelings of sadness and isolation.
7. Sleep on it!
There really is much truth to this old adage.
Getting enough sleep, as well as restorative, quality sleep is critical to optimal health. In one study, men and women who participated in one week of mild sleep restriction (for example, sleeping 6 hours instead of 8 hours) experienced increased inflammation in their bodies, evidenced by elevated inflammatory markers, such as high sensitivity C-reactive protein and interleukin.11 Chronic inflammation is associated with diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, chronic inflammation and cancer.12
Sleep loss is associated with low mood, increased anxiety and greater feelings of loneliness.7 A 2018 study published in Nature Communications found that participants who were sleep deprived—both in quantity (e.g., not sleeping enough hours) and quality (e.g., multiple awakenings throughout the night) of sleep—were likely to not socially engage with others; they also reported feeling more lonely. In turn, those who came in contact with these sleep-deprived individuals judged them as being significantly more lonely and chose not to socialize with them.8 Bottom line: sleep loss can make you feel more lonely and more likely to avoid social contact; at the same time, your sleep deprived persona can repel others from wanting to socialize with you.
Establish a good sleep routine. Go for a short walk in the morning to expose yourself to natural light, which helps you produce melatonin so that you can fall asleep more easily at night. Avoid sleep disruptors: caffeine, alcohol, sugar, processed foods. Eat your last meal at least 3 hours before you go to bed. Unplug: remove all electronics, including the television, from your bedroom.
8. Work towards creating closeness.
We all seek connection and closeness—that person who understands us so well and cares deeply about us. “Knowing and caring” are what San Francisco-based relationship coach Kira Asatryan considers essential qualities that characterize “closeness”. In her book Stop Being Lonely, Asatryan writes: “When a relationship lacks closeness, you’ll sense that the other person doesn’t really know you and/or doesn’t really care about you. Loneliness is essentially sadness caused by a lack of closeness, also known as sadness, caused by distance. This is why it doesn’t work to simply surround yourself with people. You must actually feel close to them.”
Years ago, in my 20s, friends introduced me to a guy who they thought was “perfect” for me: he was a lawyer, into health and loved food. When we met, he said: “You remind me of my ex-girlfriend.” That should have been a blazing red flag! I wasn’t terribly attracted to him, but I wanted a boyfriend, so I continued to see him. As it turned out, his being “into health” meant that he was a strict vegetarian (I’m someone for whom a meal isn’t a meal unless there’s meat or fish!); “loving food” meant that he loved eating designer pizza (I am an adventurous eater, and I’ve never cared for pizza—even in my 20s); and his idea of a romantic date was going to a piano bar (I loathe live piano music).
Besides the obvious differences, I felt like he was trying to recreate the relationship that he had had with his ex-girlfriend; he was not tuned into who I really was (or what I liked), nor did I feel valued or accepted for who I was. I felt very lonely in that relationship, and when I broke up with him, I felt happy to be free—and myself—again.
This is why the holidays can feel lonely. Maybe family or friends freeze-frame you at a certain point in your life—for example, that wild, partying and irresponsible teenager—and they continue interacting with you as though you are still 17—not 25, 32 or 40—no matter what your accomplishments. They may care about you, but they do not know you.
Spending time with someone does not mean that you “know” them. To create closeness, Asatryan emphasizes, you have to understand how someone sees themselves—not how you see them. Being concerned about someone is not the same as caring about them. To show “caring”, you want to let the other person know that you are interested, engaged and invested in their well-being—and communicate that he or she matters to you.
If a lack of closeness is at the root of your loneliness over the holidays, you can do one of two things. Minimize contact with family, friends or acquaintances who make you feel lonelier and sadder. Or, if they have expressed a desire to feel closer to you, consider being your most authentic self when you spend time with them; and, in turn, be open and receptive to knowing and caring about them.
9. Get through the day.
Sometimes, we have to honor our feelings. If you prefer to spend the holidays riding out your loneliness in solitude, it helps to have a plan, whether it’s going out for a meal, taking a day trip, or going to the movies. If you have committed to spending time with people, who always make you feel sad and lonely, plan a well-timed exit strategy, if necessary.
With all the marketing hype, it can be hard to remember that Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are each one day (24 hours!). If you dread feeling lonely on one of those holidays, remember that it is just ONE day and all you have to do is to get through it.