BY Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
There are a lot of possible reasons why someone would be lonely for the holidays. And I suppose there are a lot of strategies for coping with it. But like in all situations, there are the more healthy strategies and also the less healthy ones. I’d like to outline where I think a couple of common strategies fall in my opinion and make some suggestions on how to make the shift towards healthier ones. I believe that many times in life, walking the healthy road could be called the middle road, that is the road between two extremes. I’m going to give you a picture of ways we can slide off the cliff on either side and then I’ll describe what I think it looks like to walk that middle road, the healthier path.
Less Healthy Strategies
- Hooking Up
This one involves finding someone who is likely as lonely as you or struggling emotionally in some manner or, who happens to be rather immature or dysfunctional, and basically using sex as a way to suppress your lonely feelings. Actually, it’s sort of like using drugs. It is incredibly popular in movies and TV and promoted as so acceptable and normal as to be almost odd if you were someone who didn’t use this strategy to avoid your loneliness.
Let’s be frank though. This approach is basically selfish, manipulating someone in order to not have to deal with your own issues. If you have any conscience in you, you will regret it afterwards. And you won’t have done anything to move you in the direction of healthier coping. And that’s not even getting into the using sex inappropriately and how this affects your identity parts.
Since we mentioned it, the next one involves using substances to either numb out or to help you to relax and interact with others, or maybe to be able to score such as what was addressed in point one. Some substances are still culturally considered taboo, like crack, heroine, etc., but there are a number of substances that are either becoming more and more acceptable, ala Pot, or are almost synonymous with holiday celebrations – meaning alcohol. My objective is not to get into the broad issue of substance use here, but rather to address specifically the use of substances to manage holiday loneliness. What is relevant is whether this strategy is a healthy and effective one in terms of addressing loneliness. Don’t get me wrong, however. You’ll find nothing here of me condoning the use of any illegal substances. So, what I am appealing to you to evaluate is whether you are using said substance in order to cope in some way with your feelings of loneliness, or to enable you to manage your anxiety related to your loneliness. I am not expressing here a rule that it is unacceptable to drink socially. I am challenging you to assess your motivations! If you are using any substance in order to cope – then I will categorically state that this is unhealthy for you. You see, we all make unhealthy choices in life and in and of themselves, many of them are often not very damaging in the long term. However, the choices we make that are guided by our coping strategies are usually conditioning us. What I mean is that the choices we make in this area of life will set patterns in our life. The point isn’t to never make a poor choice; the point is to understand that the choices you make affect your future choices and lead you on a healthy or unhealthy path. Okay, let’s move on.
Let’s say you’re not much for using sex or substances. Your tendency rather is to shut down. Maybe you turn into Scrooge during the holidays, moping about. Or maybe you just withdraw from people? Maybe you tell yourself that no one would want to be around you, and you don’t want to be a burden to anyone? In this case, you’ve fallen off the other side of the cliff. You aren’t avoiding your lonely feelings, you are wallowing in them and focusing on the severity of your poor state, magnifying it even. We all can be drawn into feeling our negative feelings deeply at times and that’s normal and even healthy. But this where it takes discernment to recognize when you’ve slid past a healthy connection with your sadness and loneliness, and landed in a depressive place that alienates you, increases your stuckness, and prevents personal growth and a movement towards others.
I realize that there is much more to the unhealthy side, but I think that paints the picture of what it looks like to either deny your lonely feelings or magnify them out of proportion. The healthier way, which I am calling the middle road, is actually not the easier way. These approaches are I suppose easy, in that they are modeled all around us, and we gravitate to them because maybe they feed something in us. But they are short sighted. The point is that these are in the end strategies that keep us stuck and keep us immature. And they certainly don’t address your core loneliness!
The Middle Road
Now, let me paint for you a picture of this middle road. I know it has got to be pretty enticing to draw you away from the path you’ve been choosing. I believe that this path offers something that the others do not and that is hope. Hope of getting out of your rut, out of your loneliness and something even more, which I’ll get to.
The middle path is the path of connection. We were all designed for relationships and so it’s no wonder that you are lonely and that you will go to great lengths to numb or kill the longing in you when it goes unmet. But I am inviting you to instead acknowledge this longing in you. The longing is good, even if your attempts to manage it are unhealthy. I don’t know your situation in life. But what I am inviting you to is to find someone whom you have known to be safe person, whom I’ll define as being non-judgmental, and to dare to be vulnerable with them and tell them of your loneliness. The point is Not to get them to fill up your loneliness. This is not another attempt to manipulate someone so you can feel better temporarily. That’s important. Your goal is to allow yourself to be seen by another human being. It may involve you explaining to them that your goal is just to be vulnerable and not that you need anything from them. If they extend caring support and encouragement, then you have succeeded. And from this positive experience, I hope you will be propelled to try it again and begin to build more safe connections. If however, they offer advice or pity or judgment, then of course you will feel hurt. And you will be strongly tempted to return to your old coping, as you curse me for duping you into this. But you did not fail!
And here’s the part that I said I would get to later. I need to give you the foundation for why you would choose this risky route to address your loneliness. For the foundation is not found actually in other people. The reason for this is that – are you ready for it – people are just as booger-headed as you and I! I mean there are certainly good people and not so good people, all along a continuum. And it is invaluable to develop the discernment to be able to tell the difference between safe people and those who aren’t. But – even good people can forget, can let us down, or can move away or even die. And so the foundation needs to go beyond people – to the Creator of me and you and those people. I believe that God has designed us for relationships because he himself is relational. He wants to relate to us and take care of us and he is the only one who can be completely trusted (even when we think he has really messed up, which is for another time). My point is that I build relationships and dare to be vulnerable with safe people not b/c they are completely trustworthy, but b/c I put my trust in God first to take care of me and develop me. Also, b/c he tells us to walk through life in community with others, and that our growth and maturity is integrally connected with others. Then I am able to not just see my loneliness from the perspective of getting my own needs met. But I can consider how God wants to use me in other people’s lives. That God can give me courage and he can provide for my needs and my longings and that maybe he has plans to use me to help others with their loneliness too.
Come and let God expand your perspective on your loneliness and see how God wants to bless you and satisfy your longings – as well as those around you!
Maybe your first step would be to seek out a counselor? If you would like to schedule an appt with me, please call our office at 407-647-7005.
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Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.