For much of my life, I’ve felt lonely. I’ve always thought that I “don’t fit in,” which has made it difficult for me to find and make connections. I also experience bipolar II, and my depressive cycles leave me annoyed with people or isolated entirely. Obviously, this creates difficulty when I try to make new friends.
Sure, I’d make an effort to get to know others and I’d even spend time with classmates or co-workers, but I still felt lonely. That’s because loneliness means not having the connections you want. It’s not about the number of relationships, but the quality of them.
I just couldn’t find those connections—often because of my bipolar disorder. I always felt like I wasn’t ready to conquer my loneliness until I pulled out of the depths of my depression. For some, depression is short-term (episodic), and they can “ride it out” by using coping skills. But for those of us who deal with chronic depression, seeing a therapist and taking medication is often necessary.
I found cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) especially useful. It enabled me to become aware of my depression and correct my thought processes when they ventured to places of negativity and despair. Once my therapist and I pulled me from the heaviest pain of my depression, I was ready to work on my loneliness.
I tried many ways to meet others and make connections: I volunteered, I made small talk with strangers, I took classes. And as it turns out, I was following (to some degree) the advice of the late John Cacioppo—a researcher who believed that chronic loneliness could be helped by four simple steps, captured in the acronym EASE:
Extend – Try to put yourself out there, even if it’s for one hour. Dip your toes in the water by volunteering or making small talk with a neighbor. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing experience, just something simple that shows you’re trying.
Action Plan – Think about things you might enjoy doing. What are your strengths? What do you have time to do? Come up with some places you may want to volunteer for or activities you’d like to do, like an intramural sports team. In creating a plan, you put yourself in a position of control.
Selection – Once your action plan is in place, look for others who may share your interests and places where you may find those people.
Expect – Expecting that good things can happen may be difficult. But I’ve learned that when I open myself up to the possibility of connections, positive thoughts can help. Expect good things, and what happens may surprise you.
I heard about EASE after my longest, darkest walk with loneliness. However, looking back, I find it interesting that I was using it before I even knew about it—and that it worked. Because I went out and engaged in activities I liked, I found others with whom I shared similarities. I now have a partner who gives me the connection I need, among other friendships.
Treating my bipolar disorder was also crucial in giving me the ability to tackle my loneliness. But I take the most comfort in knowing that I have the skills to make friendships, should I want them.
Kurt Morris is a mental health speaker, storyteller, and writer. He encourages you to connect with him at kurtmorris.net.
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