Lonely people dread the holiday season more than any other time of year. Watching everyone around them connect to those they love makes their own feelings of emotional isolation even more profound. Indeed, the holidays can make loneliness feel especially excruciating.
Loneliness is not an objective or quantitative measure of friendship or companionship but a qualitative one; a subjective feeling of deep emotional or social disconnection (or both). For example, many people might be married yet feel extremely lonely (read Are You Married but Lonely here). Others might find themselves amidst large family gatherings yet still feel distant, unengaged, misunderstood, or unseen.
Loneliness Damages Us Emotionally, Physically, and Socially
Loneliness is not only painful emotionally but it can have a devastating impact on one’s long term psychological and physical health. Loneliness predisposes us to depression and increases our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, it suppresses our immune system functioning, it stresses our cardiovascular systems, and when chronic, it affects our very longevity.
In addition, loneliness also impacts our social functioning. Lonely people often develop defensive coping mechanisms that make it difficult for them to create new connections with others or deepen existing ones (read Why Loneliness is a Trap and How to Break Free here). It is natural for those who suffer loneliness to become self-protective and make efforts to avoid any situations that could expose them to further rejection.
Further, the rejection lonely people already feel often causes them to have pessimistic and defeatist outlooks and to be skeptical as to whether others are interested in them or care about them. Therefore, lonely people are likely to be reluctant to reach out and initiate contact with friends and acquaintances, have nowhere to go when the holidays come around, and then feel even more desperate and alone.
Managing Loneliness Over the Holiday Season
The only way to overcome loneliness is to take actions that involve emotional risks, which for lonely people is a scary proposition indeed. With that in mind, the suggestions I make here involve relatively smaller emotional risks that have a decent chance of yielding positive results.
For those who are socially isolated, it is important to take proactive steps so that you do not spend the holidays alone. Reach out to friends, family (even distant family), and acquaintances in advance of the holidays. The best way to do so is merely to ask what they are doing for Christmas or the New Year. Such questions usually draw a response and then a similar question from the other person—and consequently, an invitation, once they hear “I don’t have any set plans yet.”
Fishing for invitations can feel risky for someone who is lonely and it might also feel frustrating to have to use such "tactics." But keep in mind studies clearly show that loneliness makes us underestimate the extent to which those around us care about us as we are likely to view our friends and friendships more negatively than we should. Even if we’re skeptical about it, we should assume the person who invites us is happy to have us (otherwise they would not have extended the invitation in the first place). Spending the holidays with friends, even if not the closest friends, is far better than spending them alone and miserable.
Another strategy is to reach out to people you know and suggest actual activities. People are much more likely to respond to specific suggestions than to a generic ‘let’s get together.’ Posting a message on Facebook such as, ‘Message me if you want to go caroling tomorrow evening!’ might get a response and asking people to message rather than post a reply means a potential lack of response will at least not be public.
Lastly, make every effort to put on a smile and have the right holiday spirit when you do socialize, as doing so will make for a better time and it will make others more eager to hang out again in the future.
For those who feel emotionally isolated but do have people around them, the holidays are a good time to work on deepening emotional connections you already have. Choose one person with whom you might get closer over the holidays and make an effort to spend time with them, talk with them, or do activities together. If it is a family member, going over family photographs is a great way to connect and rekindle feelings of a shared history. If it is a friend, going over old yearbooks from school or college can achieve a similar goal.
Lastly, make every effort to participate in group activities or family discussions as removing yourself from them sends a signal which pushes others away. Yes, it takes a huge effort to put on a smile and participate, but doing so is an important investment. The holidays do provide an opportunity to get closer to people, which will pay dividends once January rolls around.
For more about managing loneliness check out the chapters on Loneliness and Rejection in Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch.
Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch.