By Kari Bergmann
Last week we looked at the problem of loneliness. Loneliness is something that is inherent to our human nature because all human relationships are flawed, we cannot be perfectly known or perfectly loved by another person, nor can we know or love another perfectly. Only God can know and love us perfectly so throughout life we are left longing for that ultimate union. However, a growing number of people seem to be suffering from levels of loneliness that go well beyond this existential loneliness. They are contending with loneliness that can negatively impact their mental and physical health. This article will look at a few strategies for combating loneliness and will highlight some resources for those whose loneliness is more severe.
Personally, I endured some periods of intense loneliness in my late-teens and early-twenties. My family moved quite a bit, and while I’ve always loved travelling and exploring new places, as a fairly introverted individual I struggled with the social challenge of trying to make new friends each time we moved. I believe this loneliness stemmed largely from a poor self-esteem and a fear of rejection. Though I had a deep desire to be known, seen, and loved for who I was, I didn’t feel worthy of any of those things. Though I constantly craved authentic connection I wouldn’t seek it out because I expected rejection from friends, romantically, even from God. However, gradually I was able to come out of this challenging time and to foster some beautiful relationships with others, myself, and with God. So what changed? I’ll share a few themes that I think were critical to my journey with intense loneliness.
- Becoming Other-Oriented: One of the main things that helped me contend with loneliness was learning to focus on others. My bachelor’s degree is in Child and Youth Care and involved a lot of work with vulnerable children. When I shifted my focus to caring for others and being attentive to their needs, I had less time to focus on the self-critical thoughts that often occupied my mind. As Christians we are called to the service of others: we should be asking “how can I best care for this person?”, “how can I show this person Christ’s love?” not “what does this person think about me?” This attitude can help us when we meet new people or in our relationships at work. If you think you could use a bit of practice at this, consider volunteering and finding ways to serve people in your community.
- Pilgrimage: After I finished my degree I decided to go on the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain and I decided to go alone. I realized that I had been neglecting my relationship with God and had become stagnant in my faith and I hoped this could change things. The Camino was one of the toughest challenges I ever experienced physically, emotionally, and spiritually but it did help me learn some things about God. It helped me see that God loved me deeply despite my imperfections and that he was always with me, even when I was at my lowest point. The Camino taught me to trust. Obviously, it’s impractical for everyone to spend a month or two overseas but loneliness could indicate the need for a spiritual shake up. Our relationship with Christ is the most important and fulfilling relationship in our lives and we need to prioritize it. Perhaps now is the time to find a spiritual advisor, to seek out the sacraments, take a Bible study, or to establish a new prayer routine. We can be consoled in our loneliness by reflecting on the loneliness of Christ in Gethsemane or in considering the lives of saints who were isolated or imprisoned.
- Community Building: I found that it was important for me to both seek out and foster the existing communities around me. Thankfully, I already had the support of my family and they were a major source of strength for me. However, I found that I needed to take initiative and actively seek out opportunities for connection. I couldn’t wait for an invitation or assume that others would find me. I had to challenge my fear of rejection and try to break into some of the existing groups around me. At my parish I got involved in the Cathedral Choir and became good friends with another singer and at work I met colleagues who also enjoyed board games so we started playing games during our lunch breaks. It’s a good idea to see what is going on at your parish and in your local community. You can find opportunities to meet people with similar values and hobbies. If you can’t find anything than take initiative and try to start something new.
After sharing some insights from my own life, I would like to end by emphasising that each of us is different, what helped me might not be the right strategy for you. It is important to acknowledge that loneliness can be the result of mental health problems like depression and/or anxiety. If you’ve struggled with loneliness for a long time and had no success in overcoming it or if you feel that your sadness, worry, self-judgement, etc, have become crippling you should seek support. Mental health problems are common and there is no shame in asking for help. There are a lot of resources out there that can help you overcome whatever you are struggling with. There is hope and you can experience happiness.
- Beyond Blue
provides information and support to help Australians achieve their best possible mental health. They tackle issues like depression, anxiety, and suicide. Find out more here.
- The Black Dog Institute offers a wide range of mental health resources and support tools and everything that they produce is research-informed and recommended by professionals. Find out more here.
- The Kids Help Line offers support for children, teenagers, and young adults aged 5-25. See their resources on loneliness here.