“The antidote to loneliness isn’t just being around random people indiscriminately, the antidote to loneliness is emotional security.” ~Benedict Wells
Emotional security. The feeling of being at home in the presence of another. Safe to be who you are, good times or bad. Feeling seen and seeing the other clearly, accepting the other’s whole lovely mess. It’s good stuff, and it can be hard to find.
In fact, ever-increasing loneliness stats have led many experts to describe the problem as epidemic. You might assume it was caused by the pandemic, but it was a crisis long before lockdowns and social distancing.
In 2018, Cigna conducted a survey of U.S. adults and found that loneliness was at 54 percent, already at epidemic levels. Since then, it shot up to 61 percent in 2019, with three in five Americans reporting feeling lonely, and now sits at 58 percent—we’ve got ourselves a big problem. And it’s not just the fact that it’s unpleasant to feel disconnected from others and not have anyone to talk to; research also shows it’s also bad for our health.
As someone who went thirty-seven years not knowing I’m autistic, for most of my life I’ve hidden a lot of who I am (masking), making it impossible to feel truly connected and seen. So, despite formerly frequent socializing, I’ve been exceedingly familiar with feeling lonely for most of my life.
However, when health issues took me out of the day-to-day world altogether in 2015, I was surprised at how much worse it got. At first, rarely interacting with others was largely a much-needed relief, but a few months in, things got dark. I was communicating with the people I knew so little—sometimes it’d be months—that I felt ungrounded, like I could just disappear, or die, and no one would even know I was gone.
When I did get to talk to the people who I then considered close, it often felt like I wasn’t really allowed to talk about my life anymore because it’d become too sad. (So cringe. Positive vibes only.)
Even with the support of a therapist, feeling so alone in what I was going through made me feel like my life didn’t matter. And it’s not that I was associating with awful humans, it’s just how we’re socially conditioned. Society prioritizes seeming-pleasantness to a severe degree, and as a result most folks have no idea how to hold space for the hard stuff. We just aren’t taught to be emotionally equipped for providing that kind of support; instead, the general example is to repress and deflect.
It’s like we’ve decided compassion is inefficient and awkward, instead honoring placid insensitivity as a virtue. And, as a result, people feel like it’s not safe to talk about what’s really going on in their lives, what they’re really thinking and feeling. This, of course, creates loneliness.
Eventually, after half a decade of dealing with severe health and life trauma in isolation, I was diagnosed with autism, which was amazing in many ways… but also a core-shaking thing to handle with only the support of online groups and a telehealth therapist who had dozens of other clients. It was too much to process, and I had a nervous breakdown.
Afterward, I accepted that I needed to work harder to find people I could regularly and, especially, authentically connect with. It took some time, but I eventually found aligned friends via reaching out to people I didn’t actually know all that well (yet) but had met through very authentic circumstances.
Routinely talking and connecting with them has changed my life. I’m still homebound for health reasons, and it’s still hard, but despite still being without human company like 95 percent of the time, I don’t feel like I could just float away anymore; I now feel warmly and safely connected, even seen and understood.
Honestly assessing if I had people with the bandwidth to connect regularly, that also know how to hold the kind of safe-feeling emotional space I need, was the first step to having consistent connection with people who let me be my whole self; relationships that do provide that precious and hard-to-find feeling of emotional security—progressively replacing my loneliness with connected perspective, understanding, and acceptance.
If your honest self-assessment comes to the same conclusion as mine—“I need to confront this loneliness thing”—these sorts of authentic-connection-seeking efforts can do the same for you.
8 Ways to Combat the Loneliness Epidemic
1. Honestly assess your needs.
Do you feel lonely? What do you need to feel socially connected? Which interactions leave you feeling drained and which ones lift you up, making you feel less alone? Do you feel safe to be your whole self with the people in your life? What are some characteristics of those who’ve made you feel safe?
2. Reach out (and reach back).
Once you’ve got an idea of what you need, reach out to someone who makes you feel relaxed, safe to just be you, and see if they want to catch up. Maybe they’ll be down for it, and maybe they won’t, but keep trying.
If you don’t really know anyone you feel safe to be authentic with, try joining like-minded activity groups or using a platonic friend-finding app. And if someone who seems safe reaches out, don’t let fear stop you from reaching back.
3. Set and respect boundaries.
What you need from someone and what they’re able to provide might not mesh. It’s important to understand that some of us are comfortable with having open, potentially vulnerable, conversations, and others prefer to stick to more shallow waters. And the same is true for the reverse.
It’s okay to prioritize time with those who connect in a harmonious way and also to distance yourself where needed. Life is pretty demanding and people can only do so much, so try not to take it personally if people can’t meet what you need, and let others (gently) know when you can’t meet theirs.
4. Practice ‘holding space.’
Make sure you’re present enough to really listen and ensure you’ve understood and/or been understood (we rely far too much on easily misinterpreted nonverbal communication).
Learning to stay in the moment—resisting deflection, going into judgment or fix-it mode—is crucial to creating authentic connection in your life (and that includes holding space for your own honest, but difficult, emotions).
It can be scary to hold space, and/or ask someone to, but we need to get over our societal fear of awkward experiences; isn’t it worth it when it could lead to connection, growth, and clarity?
5. Resist the pressure to lean on small talk.
It can be tempting to stick to trivial matters, but it’s not without harm. I concur with the take on small talk that Natasha Lyonne shared on an early February episode of Late Night with Seth Meyers:
“I don’t believe in it. I would say I aggressively don’t like it. I think it’s damaging to society as a whole… it’s like John Lennon said, just gimme some truth. I think it’s really dangerous because when you ask a person ‘How are you?’ their only option is to lie aggressively, right? Society says you’re supposed to say, ‘Oh, I’m good’ and keep it moving, but you’re not good, are you?”
It’s isolating that we’re expected to talk in pleasantries, especially since it often happens even in relationships considered close.
6. Gossip doesn’t count as connection.
In the same interview, Meyers fights for small talk as a segue into shit-talk, and Lyonne suggests that maybe instead of talking about other people they could segue into some other talk (she suggests inanimate objects, which I don’t hate).
Our society depends on gossip far too much. People very often rely on it to judge another’s trustworthiness, a fact that is manipulated all the time. And if you’ve ever played the game “telephone,” you know it’s not exactly a science to depend on hearsay.
Real conversations, asking direct questions, can be intimidating—but it’s a hell of a lot better than writing someone off because of what so-in-so told so-in-so. Also, gossip isn’t connection. It might feel like fleeting togetherness à la “we hate them,” but you know your shite-talking cohort’s talking about you as well. It’s fake. If gossip’s the primary mode of convo, you’re just flapping jaws.
7. Reflect on and articulate your feels.
When we don’t understand why we feel alone, it makes it much harder to address, so it’s unfortunate that introspection is underrated in our society (sometimes even ridiculed, which is revealing).
Gaining emotional awareness and being able to express our feelings is key to reducing loneliness. To quote sociological researcher Brené Brown, “The more difficult it is for us to articulate our experiences of loss, longing, and feeling lost to the people around us, the more disconnected and alone we feel.”
When we don’t have the words to describe our emotional experience, emotional communication becomes foreign—but by gaining emotional awareness and vocabulary, that kind of connection becomes possible.
Crucially, we must know that it’s okay to feel whatever it is that we feel, as many of us are taught that emotions like anger or fear aren’t okay. They are. Using tools like the emotion wheel, journaling, and therapy can be of great assistance, as well as opening up to trusted others and holding space when they open up to you.
8. Know (and love) yourself to connect authentically.
Finding relationships where I felt supported the way I needed to be involved a lot more time getting to know myself than I thought it would; tons of self-reflection and, ironically, solitude were necessary for me to find the self-acceptance it takes to have any shot at finding authentic support.
To again quote Brené Brown, “Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them—we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
As far as how to get started on fostering self-love, I think all love grows from appreciation, something many of us find hardest when it’s pointed in our own direction. Appreciate your efforts to choose growth by reading articles on a website like this over mindless scrolling, or reaching out for connection instead of your favorite escape. And acknowledge your needs in addition to your efforts. You deserve love (the whole you).
Self-reflection and cultivating emotionally secure relationships inherently involves vulnerability, but our social norms dictate staying away from that—safe in the shallows of small talk, leaving the depths to be explored in fifty-minute therapy slots by a complete stranger who won’t have the same security with you (if you’re lucky enough to have the coverage).
While therapy can be very helpful, emotional support shouldn’t primarily be found at a price as one of many clients on a therapist’s roster. We need to have the emotional tools to express our feelings and support another’s.
And, in addition to our individual efforts toward authentic connection, we, as a society, need to recognize the costs of mass loneliness and prioritize having a populace that knows how to be there for each other in good times and bad. It’s time to learn how to allow space for authentic connection in our lives and relationships. We need it, we deserve it, and we can do it.
About Meg Hartley
Meg Hartley is a neurodivergent writer with bylines at The Progressive, Huffington Post, Ravishly, MindBodyGreen, Leafly, SheKnows and others (including this wonderful publication). Check out more at HeyMegHartley.com and @heymeghartley or @thrivingautist on the socials.