Question: I’m writing this email to express how lonely I feel in my life. I will be 30 years old soon, which feels like a milestone age for me, and ever since this birthday has inched closer and closer and the impacts of the pandemic have hit, it has made me realise how lonely I am with no friendships of any sort. Ever since I started secondary school I have struggled not just to form friendships, but to speak to people.
ecause of some bullying and not learning any social skills, I have basically been afraid of people because I have feared the rejection, or looking like a fool. The loneliness has impacted all aspects of my life leading to poor grades in school, eating unhealthy food, having only an average-wage job and not exploring any hobbies or interests.
I get immensely jealous seeing siblings and colleagues have multiple circles of friends they have known since they were teenagers and doing social things like group holidays or going to a football match. These things are what I have always wanted and am unlikely to ever have due to my crippling social anxiety. On the plus side, I’m better at talking to people now compared to when I was a teenager but still, I hate myself for missing out on friendships and experiences I could have had if I’d just pushed myself to interact with people.
I’m not afraid to do things by myself, but I know my life would be better if I had people to talk to every day. I know it’s my responsibility to make changes instead of waiting for things to happen, but I don’t know how to move past this feeling of shame over wasting myself. What can I do to improve my life?
Allison replies: I’m so sorry to hear how lonely you are. There were so many people in their mid-20s and 30s who didn’t speak to people for days during the pandemic. It was like a silent pandemic for far too many, and there was a silent shame that wasn’t shared about this loneliness.
I did an interview on the news during the pandemic about the impact of loneliness on elderly people which was huge. I was also acutely aware of the impact on younger sections of the population who weren’t in relationships and/or didn’t have friends to talk with, minus work, and in a lot of cases, I may have been the only person they spoke with once a week.
I think of rumination as a mental maze, always looking for the solution, trying to outthink what happened — “if only I had said that” or “why did they do that to me?”
Social anxiety is such a blocker to the situations and relationships you want in your life. The hot sting of avoiding social embarrassment at all costs has a huge cost in loneliness. A vicious cycle of anxiety and experiential avoidance begins, and can feel like it has a vice grip.
I’m asking if you could decide today to imagine your thoughts as precious resources, and that you aren’t going to give any more of them away to feeling stuck and ashamed. I need to be so clear here — this is like drawing a clear line and creating a boundary around these ruminative thoughts. It is not ignoring how you feel.
Everything you are saying makes perfect sense. Your next step is to work through them with tools that are practical and helpful. My first recommendation would be to read Popular by Mitch Prinstein. It provides great insight as to why, after bullying, many experience “high-rejection sensitivity” and how to challenge that with compassionate understanding and practical steps.
‘Your experiences need to be heard, validated, processed and healed so that you can move forward’
If someone makes friends easily and never experiences social rejection or bullying from their peer group, he likened it to living on a popular planet. Where your positive experiences impacted your perception, and you mightn’t notice someone rolling their eyes at you, or you would interpret social cues as neutral when they might have been negative towards you. Living life through a popular perspective sets you up to continue to successfully make friends as an adult, to try those hobbies you like and to go for that promotion and take that risk of asking someone out.
The good news is if you didn’t live on planet popular, you can recover and learn social engagement skills. By noticing when your body freezes with the fear of potential threats of rejection and helping your nervous system feel safe, you can move into social engagement mode, which will facilitate making new friends. You are in a good position, as you want to do this. What you are looking for is the how. I have a few reels on Instagram(thepractical.psychologist)on how to make friends as an adult, and interviews on the subject.
There is a major lack of compassion and understanding for yourself here. Have you ever talked about or been supported for your experiences of bullying at school? Your experiences need to be heard, validated, processed and healed so you can move forward.
Bullying is the nastiest, most pernicious parasite, as when the bullies are gone, you are left with an inner bully on constant high alert in your brain, ‘protecting’ you from doing or saying anything that might bring embarrassment or rejection. The fear of this is so strong that it immobilises you in freeze mode. And to add to the frustration, you know what you want but doing it feels dangerous. The frustration of this becomes internalised and shame enters to make sure you continue to self-flagellate.
By learning how to befriend yourself first at a somatic level, it will help you move from hating yourself to understanding the consequences of your experiences, coupled with the grounded hope of allowing yourself to create new experiences. This work needs to be supported by a mental health practitioner who understands the physiological impact of bullying and social anxiety.
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