Combatting the Loneliness of Transition

Change can uproot you from deep connections.

Posted Sep 26, 2017

Eakachai Leesin/Shutterstock
Source: Eakachai Leesin/Shutterstock

After a big move or romantic breakup, it’s common for people to feel lonely. Leaving a community or separating from someone you’ve been close to can bring on the familiar ache of feeling isolated and alone. But, as my work as a college professor and an advocate for single moms has taught me, the loneliness that comes with transition isn’t always obvious to the person in pain. I’ve had new students who grew up in the same town as the university complain that they feel alone. And I’ve heard from many separated and divorced moms that they feel lonely long after the stress of the breakup is gone.

The common thread among unhappy college students and lonely single moms is that a transition undermined their normal experience of support and connection. When getting divorced, moms often experience changes in their social lives, as friends take sides and married friends distance themselves. This type of social distancing is common in all kinds of life transitions. Some transitions are standard, such as quitting a sports team, taking a new job, or losing a friend. Others are more dramatic, such as retirement, a life-changing injury, joining the military, or any number of transitions that require a major shift in identity.

The main reason life transitions make us feel lonely is that they undercut opportunities for deep connection. “To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to give and get support,” explains Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. Transitional loneliness can rob us of our ability to find deep connections.

The good news is that there are a number of strategies you can pursue to combat and even dispel these feelings of loneliness. Here are five:

  1. Find your tribe. Whether you’re a lonely college freshman seeking solace or a divorced mom wondering what happened to your group of friends, my first piece of advice is to find your tribe. I tell the student to seek out like-minded friends with common interests, and I advise the newly single mom to reach out to other moms, especially other divorced moms who will be understanding and non-judgmental. Transitions can dislocate us from our support group, so it’s essential that you begin to build a new one. Be open, proactive, and creative about meeting new people and you will reap the rewards of a loyal and empathetic tribe.
  2. Seek true friends. Combatting loneliness isn’t just about being surrounded by lots of people; you will also need at least one close, true friend. “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,” writes relationship coach Kira Asatryan. “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.” Asatryan’s research on the topic highlights that this type of closeness is achievable when two people know and care about each other in a meaningful way. Instead of waiting to experience a random spark of friendship, try to create this type of closeness simply by understanding and valuing the people you meet. One true friend can quell the loneliness of transition, so don’t be shy!
  3. Tap into your compassion. Transition and loneliness are part of the human experience, so it’s important to allow yourself to feel compassion for yourself and others who grapple with loneliness. “Strange as it might seem, there are benefits to loneliness, so you don’t necessarily want to be totally without it,” writes psychologist Leslie Beck-Phelps. “By feeling lonely, you are able to understand and have compassion for others who feel similarly.” Acknowledging and showing compassion for another human being serves as a point of connection, notes Beck-Phelps. Similarly, showing yourself compassion by accepting and feeling the pain of loneliness ultimately will help you feel better. In addition, helping others is a great cure for loneliness precisely because the essence of giving of yourself is connection and compassion.
  4. Commune with nature. Being alone and being lonely are not one and the same. “Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative,” notes Rubin. Research shows that getting outside in nature can cure the blues. You may not be connecting with people, but being outside has the potential to help you forge a deep connection with nature. A walk on the beach, a hike in the woods, or even a picnic at the local park allows us to appreciate the beauty around us and reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Watch, listen, and breathe as you experience the interconnection of plants, animals, and the wonders of Mother Nature.   
  5. Practice gratitude. When a transition makes you feel sad and alone, shift your thoughts toward gratitude for the people in your life, whether the new people you are meeting or those you’ve known for years. Pour some extra energy into caring and nurturing someone, whether it’s an older relative, a neighbor’s child, or a sick coworker. Caring for another person will make you feel connected and grateful. It’s difficult to feel lonely when you are caring for another person; similarly, gratitude forces you to acknowledge that while you may be in transition, there are valuable people in your life who depend on you. Gratitude also helps you stay open to others instead of wallowing in negativity, thereby increasing your chance for deep connection.

Transitions are part of the human experience, and new settings and situations often give rise to loneliness. If you are currently making a life change or in the midst of one, it’s useful to recognize that you may feel a bit disconnected and lonely. Instead of downplaying these very real feelings, allow them to be the impetus for self-reflection and acts of connection. You have the ability to emerge from your transition with a deep sense of fulfillment that will serve as springboard to even greater happiness.