Today I was on BBC Radio Bristol’s John Darvall show discussing why people who are lonely don't just go out and make new friends - problem sorted! As I only had a few minutes of air time, I wanted to write a blog post to expand on this subject.
Loneliness is probably one of the biggest problems of the 21st century, and it’s not just a problem for older people. Whilst social media and the internet give us an illusion of being constantly interconnected, they are increasingly replacing the real life interactions of friendships. And even when we are with friends, how often are they texting on their phone or answering calls in the middle of your conversation? Have we lost the art of being truly present with other human beings?
We are primarily social animals. We are not designed to function in isolation and it’s not good for our mental or physical health – hence why solitary confinement can be such a powerful punishment. Whilst texting, emails and the internet give us contact with others, the intimate face-to-face interaction with another person is more deeply fulfilling.
Touch, body language, expressions, shared laughter and having one another’s full attention cannot be recreated except by physically meeting in real life. This phenomenon has been beautifully captured in the poem ‘Look Up’ on YouTube which explores what experiences people are potentially missing by being glued to their smartphones and devices.
I was asked to talk on BBC Radio Bristol about what psychological barriers stop people getting out and meeting others, and how to overcome them. Two really big questions for very little air time!
Firstly, as most people know, walking into a room full of strangers is daunting. We know how important first impressions are, we want to be liked and there can be fears that everyone else has already formed bonds and we are the outsider. It is an equally lonely experience to feel isolated in a crowd as it is sitting at home alone. To try and fail can be our worst fear – so it feels easier not to take that risk sometimes.
We also bring our previous histories to new encounters. So, if we have had experiences of being bullied at school or in the workplace, have always struggled to make new friends, or have been isolated for so long that our social skills are very rusty then our confidence will be much lower than someone who has been a social butterfly for many years. Psychodynamic therapy particularly focuses on how our early relationships affect how we relate to others as adults.
There are often thoughts, feelings and behaviours which hold us back from taking the plunge. This follows the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Thoughts we can have include, “I won’t fit in”, “I won’t have anything to talk about”, “I’ll say something stupid and make a fool of myself,” or “Everyone will be staring at me and I’ll go bright red and never want to go back again.” Feelings can include anxiety, helplessness and embarrassment. Behaviours can include sitting hidden in the corner of the room, avoiding eye contact with people or talking too much to cover up feelings of nervousness.
If you’re consistently avoiding trying something new socially, sit down with yourself (or a friend or a clinical psychologist) and explore your fears. Ask yourself some questions about your negative thoughts: How true are they really? What evidence do you have for them? What would you say to a close friend who had the same worries? Challenge those automatic negative thoughts and look for more balanced alternatives to them.
You could also think of some coping strategies to help. You could ask someone in a group to meet you outside so you don't go in alone, you could make sure you smile at people and say hello when you arrive, or you could have a few opening lines ready for starting conversations.
One common problem when going to a social event for the first time is putting too much pressure on yourself to make things go well, which then adds to the feelings of anxiety. We know from research that you have to do something at least three times before the fear and anxiety starts to significantly reduce so don’t expect to feel relaxed after one attempt. But if you do, great! Often the fear is worse than the reality.
The advice I gave on BBC Radio Bristol was not to focus on making friends but to choose an activity that you really enjoy - or have always wanted to try - and go from there. Focus on the enjoyment and pleasure of the activity, whether it’s walking, crafts, a book club or tai chi, and you’ll find yourself among like-minded people with a common interest. You’ll have a topic of conversation that you can easily talk about and this will facilitate those friendships to develop naturally.
If you try something and don’t like it, just switch to something else. There’s so much out there to get involved in, whether you volunteer (www.do-it.org.uk) or go to a class or club. Or you can explore the multitude of opportunities to socialise on the fast-growing www.meetup.com website which has something for everyone – you could even start your own group!
Beating social isolation does take some courage and an initial leap of faith but the more you expose yourself to the things you fear, the more confident you’ll feel and the more opportunities
you’ll give yourself to make some really good friends.