Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Stop Feeling So Lonely?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m 26 years old and finally graduated college, now I’m feeling an incredible amount of fear and anxiety about the future. Especially when I wanted 2020 to be a year where I could finally feel satisfied with my life. Obviously a lot has gone wrong this year and it’s even harder to meet people now than before and I feel extremely depressed and start to think I’ll never meet someone even though I know that isn’t true.

So many people have told me for so long that I’ll meet somebody and “It’s going to happen” and other sorts of positive compliments that feel meaningless when it’s been 8 years now and still I’ve never met someone who wants to date me. I’ve had close female friendships that I value dearly, I do know how to talk to women when I feel comfortable with them. It’s just the matter of introducing myself that I struggle with. And I never seem to be able to make it to the next step and I figure all the words of encouragement don’t mean anything really.

In general I have social anxiety and don’t do well in crowded areas with loud noises even if recently I’ve learned to manage it somewhat. I’ve also never had a job in my life, other than a decent amount of volunteer work, which also makes it scary to imagine meeting a lot of new people. I have Asperger’s syndrome and I’m on the autistic spectrum if that clears anything up on why my life seems so empty, though that may be my own negative projection talking.

Lately has been especially rough since I’ve started to feel really isolated from my family and I don’t feel I can really connect with them and I’ve lost two friends that I’ve known for a few years and while it was my decision to end the friendships when they both moved away while I was graduating college, for a variety of reasons, it still hurts a lot that I haven’t seen a friend in person in two or three months.

My family I’ve spent too much time with really, they’re kind of cloying unfortunately and don’t really seem to want me to move on and grow up. More than anything I just want to no longer feel alone, even if that’s a hard thing to quantify. I’ve felt alone for a long time and the quarantine has made it worse, right now is possibly the loneliest I’ve ever felt. I keep telling myself I can make it through it and I intend to I just don’t know how long it will take or what that will look like so right now is an emotional endurance test for me. I just really would appreciate any and all advice you can give me when it feels like I have almost no one in my life to help me right now for emotional support.

Thank You

Trying To Look Forward

DEAR TRYING TO LOOK FORWARD: When it comes to dealing with feelings of loneliness and despair, TTLF, it’s useful to start examining how much of what you’re feeling is of the moment, and how much of it is a matter of projecting into a future or imagining what you think will happen. This seems like a minor thing; what the hell does imagining things have to do with anything when it comes to loneliness? But one of the mistakes that we all make when it comes to our brains is that we trust them to be objective arbiters of reality; that what we see and what we experience is absolutely, perfectly real. That we are experiencing things exactly as they are and that our emotions are understandable responses to those experiences.

Except we’re actually really bad at understanding why we feel the way that we feel. Sometimes it’s a matter of our brains interpreting the sensations that our bodies are feeding it — we feel our pulse racing, our mouths going dry, our palms getting sweaty and adrenaline dumping into our blood stream and we have to decide: which is it? Are we terrified, or are we aroused? Then our brains cast about for an explanation that justifies why we feel that way: is there a tiger in the grass over there? No. Is there an attractive woman standing right there talking to us? Yes? Oh, that explains it: we’re aroused.

Other times, however, we feel the way we do because we’ve been imagining awful scenarios, and our brains are responding accordingly. As it turns out, our brains have a very hard time telling the difference between reality and what we imagine. So we end up reacting to situations that we made up out of whole cloth as though they were real. This is one of the core causes of approach anxiety; we have spent so much time imagining how badly everything is going to go that we have terrified ourselves to the point of paralysis.

In your case, TTLF, you have two separate issues. The first is that yes, you’re legitimately lonely. You’re feeling isolated and adrift, and the current lockdown is only making it worse; now you don’t even see strangers, never mind your friends. The other is that you’ve been spending time imagining a future where nothing ever gets better and that your attempts at meeting people are doomed to go wrong.

Let’s see if we can tackle both of those issues, shall we?

Right now, the actual loneliness and isolation is the larger issue. We as a society are increasingly, desperately lonely.  Men in particular are vulnerable to this; while men and women lose friends at approximately the same pace, men tend to not make friends at the same rate that women do.  Women are taught, implicitly and explicitly, to be more social. They tend to make friends faster, especially with other women, and the way that women conduct their friendships tends to mean that their friendships are deeper and more emotionally intimate. Men, on the other hand, start having a harder time making close friends almost as soon as they hit puberty; they’re taught that emotional intimacy is the same as sexual intimacy and so they’re often reluctant to make friends, especially with other men. Most male friendships are activity based — at least at first — and so it take longer and more repetition to turn an acquaintance into a friend, and then into a good friend.

And the quarantine is only serving to exacerbate that. While under normal circumstances, one could meet up with their friends regularly for drinks or games or what-have-you, COVID-19 means that we’re having to stay home to protect one another. That makes it difficult to make new friends, and just as difficult to try to solidify them.

But difficult isn’t the same as impossible. Nailing Jell-o to a tree is impossible; everything else is merely difficult.

Right now, I would suggest that you start by finding new communities and rebuilding your social circle. The easiest way to start doing this would be to focus on your interests and your passions: what are the things that you love doing and give you joy in life, and how can you enjoy those in a way that help bring you in contact with other people who enjoy them? If, for example, you enjoy gaming, then it may not be a bad idea to start looking into a tabletop gaming group, especially groups that meet regularly. Traditional RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder are great for this; not only can you play the games remotely via Zoom or apps like Roll20, but taking part in an RPG campaign means that you’re going to be meeting on the regular. You might see if your local comic store or gaming stores have set up forums or services for matching players with campaigns.

Similarly, you might want to look into MeetUp groups that relate to your interests. A number of MeetUp groups have transitioned to online meetings during the pandemic; it may not be the same as seeing people in person, but joining these meetings is a great way of finding people with similar interests and laying the groundwork for building friendships and expanding your social circle. It will take time to transition from “faces you see in the Zoom call” to “friends”, but this will help scratch the itch for socialization and help keep you going while we all white-knuckle our way through the lockdowns.

And while I know you had many reasons for deciding to end things with your friends who moved away after graduation… maybe it’s time to revisit those reasons and see if they’re still valid. If circumstances have changed, or your feelings have evolved since you and your friends split, then maybe it’s a good time to reach out to them and start seeing about rebuilding your friendship with them. It won’t be the same as before, but that can often be a good thing. With distance (literal and metaphorical) and perspective, you may find that the nature of your friendship has changed for the better. It may mean you’ve all learned to be more mindful of the issues that broke you apart.

Now as for the social anxiety and the inability to bring yourself to meet new people, I suggest a two-pronged approach.

The first is that you focus on the story you tell yourself about yourself. One of the most important lessons that we can learn is that we are bigger than our thoughts, bigger than our imaginations. The things we think don’t define us; they’re just thoughts. Noticing your thoughts and labeling them is important. It’s not that your life is empty, you’re having the feeling that your life is empty. It’s not that you can’t make friends, it’s that you feel afraid that you can’t make friends. The same goes with being attractive or unattractive; it’s that you’re having the thought that you’re unattractive.

By that same token, you want to change the way you imagine trying to meet people. Right now, you’re imagining future scenarios — scenarios that haven’t actually happened — where you’re unable to meet people. Your brain is reacting to those imagined situations, rather than the reality. You want to take control of those mental scenarios and train yourself into seeing them go well. Think of it as training or dress rehearsal. Imagine a scenario that you’ve been worried about — meeting people at an event, for example. Picture it as vividly as you can, with as much sensory information as you can manage. Not just the event itself, but leading up to it — how you get there, opening the door and seeing everyone there for the first time. Then, instead of thinking of how intimidating it is, or how nervous you are or how you aren’t going to be able to meet people… imagine it going well. People there are happy to see you! They’re warm and welcoming and interested in getting to know you. Maybe it’s a little awkward at first, but you have the confidence to push through the initial nerves and you can see everyone being happy to have you there.  Imagine the conversations, picture the warm smiles and how much you enjoy yourself and getting to know these people.

Then, after you let this imagined scenario fade… see how you feel. Is it a little less intimidating, a little less daunting? Note and name those feelings. It’s ok if it’s not a huge change; you’ve spent a lot of time imagining worst case scenarios. But by starting to imagine best case scenarios, you start to retrain your brain into feeling that meeting people is less intimidating and scary and more of an exciting and awesome opportunity.

The next prong I would suggest is to talk to a counselor about your social anxiety, especially someone who has experience with autistic patients. They’re going to be in a good position to help you drill down to the causes of your anxiety and help you find ways of addressing them — both in terms of easing the symptoms and also helping you build your confidence and assuredness. If you can’t find someone in your area, you might look into an app like BetterHelp or Talkspace; they can help connect you with a trained counselor.

Your feeling lonely and isolated is real and understandable. But while things are daunting, they’re not impossible. It takes time and effort, but you’ve got the strength and the courage to reach out and make those connections that will help you meet new and amazing people — for friendship, and maybe even something more.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com