Lonely? What to Do to Combat the Emptiness
I have just recently started to feel like I’m catching a glimpse of the “other side” of my loneliness after six long months here in my native-born country. My heart has been aching with loneliness: “New Situation,” “I’m Different,” “No Friends.”
These are the same feelings I experience every time I land overseas. These feelings seem to follow me wherever I go.
Because our work is primarily at home in our living room/office, I had to find a way to intentionally connect with people outside of my home.
The key was intentionality. It wasn’t just going to happen by itself. I had to be willing to put myself out there, take some risks, and make it happen.
My husband and I started going to a local gym, in order to take steps towards better health, to relieve stress, and to meet people. I started attending some women’s classes in order to mingle with other ladies.
I would force myself to chit chat with all of them, asking them their names and where they were from. Once I said, “hello,” smiles appeared and doors opened. I was pleasantly surprised to meet several women from other countries, Columbia and Norway. I couldn’t believe it!
I wondered if these foreign women, separated from their families and countries, felt as lonely and as disconnected as I did.
I built up enough courage one day to invite them for coffee, along with several other “global” friends I had met. The worst thing that they could say was “no.” I had nothing to lose and so much to gain.
Intentionality. I needed friends, and I was determined to make friends.
Before leaving our first coffee date, I was intentional and strategic. I took the initiative to schedule another time to get together the following week. They said, “yes!” We all marked it in our agendas, making it a priority in our busy schedules.
The next thing I knew, we had an “International Café” community group starting at the local coffeehouse.
We were all feeling lonely, cut off from our networks of friends and family. We needed each other.
I could openly share with them about my loneliness in a “new” country, separated from my family, friends, and the people and land that I loved “back there.” We could all relate to each other. We were all feeling the same pain of loneliness.
As a result, we are now creating, among ourselves, the community that we all need to fill our common void of loneliness.
That’s one thing that helped me — being intentional — looking for others who might be in the same situation as me. Let’s look at some other strategies that can help to combat our feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Strategies to Combat Loneliness
Talk to strangers. Chatting and small talk can help. The first step takes courage and risk, and different personalities approach this differently. It’s not easy for everyone to walk up to a stranger and say “hello,” but the potential results are well worth it! It may very well fill a void in your life and in the life of someone else. Take initiative and be intentional. Use these opportunities to develop your social skills and to practice getting to know others.
Schedule connections with others. Be intentional about this, especially if single or working at home. We all need contact with human beings! Make sure you are trying to connect with others several times a week. Block it in your agenda, and make it a priority. Try scheduling a retreat or connecting with online groups, especially if you live in a remote area.
Share a meal. “Eating together is a form of social glue!” It fills the emptiness in your soul and in your stomach. In many of the cultures where we live and work, community revolves around food and sharing, so take advantage of this. Accept invitations from neighbors and friends, or take the initiative yourself. Invite friends over for tea or for a meal, or take a plate of cookies to your neighbor’s house. It’s culturally appropriate in many of our contexts to “stop by” for a glass of mint tea.
Something powerful happens around a teapot — great conversations take place and friendships are deepened.
Look for ways to connect with people in different circles of life. Try to spend time with different communities: expats, locals, people of different ages, cultures, and social classes. The variety of relational connections might be refreshing.
Take off your cultural lenses. Be vulnerable with your local friends as you get to know them — as vulnerable as you are with people of your own culture. Share openly about your struggles with loneliness as you are separated from your friends and family. This may lead to deeper connection and relationships, as our vulnerability and transparency build bridges of trust.
Don’t assume. Don’t assume that others are too busy or that they don’t need friends. Loneliness runs rampant in all parts of the world and across all cultural boundaries!
Be prepared for seasons and times when you may be more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Times of transition, holidays, and birthdays may be especially difficult. Plan these in advance — what you will do and with whom.
Put yourself in situations where you can meet new people. Join a club, do some volunteer work, sign up for a new exercise class, intentionally sit next to people on buses, on park benches, in cafés, etc.
Ask yourself, “What do I wish that I had more of in my life?” Look for those resources . . . activities, fun, people. Find a friend, mentor, coach, etc. to talk to openly about your feelings of loneliness, if that is what you need.
Nurture others. All around us, there are people who would love to be cared for and nurtured, including the elderly, the sick, children, and even animals. Pets can fill the longing for touch and companionship. Giving and caring for others can provide both connection and closeness.
Exercise your creativity. This can help some people to connect deeply and to fill the void of loneliness and isolation. Even better, find someone to do this with — make a craft, pick up the guitar, etc.
Use social media wisely and sparingly. Create smaller social networks of friends for deeper and more genuine connection — small online groups that help meet a “felt need.” Limit or avoid social media if it is giving you a “false” sense of being connected. It’s not the same as contact with human beings. These long-distance relationships can lead us to think that we don’t need intimate face-to-face relationships, or maintaining these distant, “old” relationships can sometimes keep us from building “new” ones. In addition, seeing others connect (even if only on a screen) can leave us feeling empty — without that same connection in our own life. As a result, trying to connect through social media can sometimes increase our own feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Reframe your feelings of isolation as “solitude.” Spending time alone to reflect in silence and stillness can lead us to places of deep change and healing. Looking at solitude as a positive experience and as a life-transforming opportunity can get us out of the trap of self-pity and negativity.
Learn how to grieve well. Loneliness comes from loss. If you don’t learn to grieve your losses, you may have emotions leaking out in all directions. It's hard to be there for someone else when you're caught up in your own grief.
(These ideas have been gathered from See Beyond and our readers, as well as from Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project.”)
We would love to hear from you too! What has helped you to fill the emptiness and void of loneliness and isolation while living cross-culturally? What resources have you tried and used? Please share your stories and ideas in the comments section below.