‘Tis the season. Every year from about mid-December until the end of February, a familiar theme begins to emerge in therapy sessions: The loneliness and worthlessness of legitimately feeling like no one cares. Of course I hear this from time to time year-round, but “no one cares about me,” like other depressive thought processes, is a sentiment that definitely peaks around the winter months.
No, this is not going to be a post about how special and wonderful you are, and how if you just put yourself out there, you’ll feel the warm, fuzzy embrace of belonging and sunshine once again. First of all, I don’t even know you, so how could I say anything about who you are? Just kidding, actually I know only special people read my blog. But seriously, that fluffy, sweet stuff that makes you feel better for two seconds, but doesn’t really address the problem, is not really my style so much…. Although some people swear by affirmations, so here.
Anyway. Back to the “no one cares about me” thing.
Why do we care if no one cares anyway? As any good cognitive therapist will guide you to internalize, “not everyone is going to care about you, and that’s okay.” And, as we live and breathe in our individualistic, capitalistic, society that was founded on a celebration-of-independence, shouldn’t we all just be okay and the hell with other people? Well, ummmm…. Sure. Except for that pesky little thing called human nature driven by evolutionary psychology and a little something called survival of our species.
Let’s take a look at what the “experts” have had to say about why it matters so much that others care. Psychologists trained in the early 60’s would have believed that one’s emotional well-being is largely dependent on his attachment experiences with others. From behind horn-rimmed glasses, undoubtedly a man in a gray cardigan would tout behaviors like unconditional positive regard and forming a secure base with consistently loving caregivers. Back then it was widely believed that one’s sense of worth rested squarely in the hands of the behaviors of others, namely important attachment figures. Immunity to depression was mommy giving you lots of hugs and making your favorite foods and daddy never forgetting your birthday. And since time cannot be turned back, a therapist in the late 60’s might even have become some sort of creepy surrogate parent, spoon-feeding you babyfood and clapping his hands when you took a couple steps. For real.
By the time CBT and REBT had become mainstream in the 80’s and 90’s, many therapists were taught to encourage patients to challenge their automatic self-deprecating thoughts and behaviors….what others think and how others treat you be damned. Someone may have mistreated you in the past, but that was then, this is now, and it’s time to learn some more helpful ways of thinking and behaving that are grounded in reality (said Dr. Beck). And, yes, by-the-way, don’t forget, not everyone is gonna want to be around you, and that’s okay. I sometimes think people in the throws of depression (or “highly sensitive people” or people with “sunburned psychological skin“) leave cognitive therapy sessions feeling defeated. Because acknowledging reality doesn’t necessarily take away the sting of said reality. If you can think of something that legitimately diminishes the unavoidable stings of life in a simple six-session conversation, write a book. You will certainly become a fast-billionaire.
And now, the pendulum has shifted more toward the middle. Yes, we know how others feel about us matters, but we also know “others” prove to be unreliable sources on which to be basing our self concepts. (Yes, dissociating your self concept with how someone treats you is easier said than done, points out any victim of abuse.) We also know that that the propensity to experience overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and loneliness, and legitimate sensitivity to emotional/social bumps and bruises are genetic, and not just familial (pointing to actual neurological processes as a contributing factor to subjective pain experienced with isolation, rejection, etc.). In other words, your tendency to have your brain play tricks on you (Or your tendency to translate, “that one guy said something mean about me,” into “no one likes me,” and “that one guy didn’t call me back” to “I am worthless and destined for solitude,”) has a genetic basis.
We also know that the people that feel loneliness most acutely are not the social lepars they consider themselves. In fact, social skills of lonely people are typically intact; the only characteristic that consistently exists in deeply lonely people is that they tend to personally and globally interpret negative social experiences, where others experience social bruises without attaching personal and general implications. In other words, the lonely person says, “My boyfriend broke up with me, so I must be a loser and no one could possibly love me. Then Ana told me she wasn’t coming my birthday party, so that proves it- No one likes me.” Another person might say, “This sucks- I’m gonna go eat a bucket of ice cream and cry all night, but I’ll also update my Tinder pic and Match profile, since I’m back in the game. And Anna probably had plans she couldn’t get out of- We’ll have to hang out another time.”
And, biology and faulty conclusions aside, while it is clearly not the BASIS of your worth, the feeling that you are “worthy” and “lovable” in the eyes of others is a central component to emotional well-being. If a person is in the depths of dark depression, good luck getting any results by simply acknowledging that their lack of maternal love is the cause or that they’ll feel better as soon as they change their faulty thinking. Experiencing actual moments of connection, understanding, and acceptance with actual, real-live other people is still ever-so-tedious-but-reliably-effective healing at the end of the day (Often in addition to medication to address biological factors for some people. Yah, don’t discount that). This experience is a less-bizarre parallel to the therapist spoon-feeding and it is the sometimes most-important behavioral component of CBT. And it is certainly a version of exposure therapy by another name. Evolutionary psychologists know it to be so, the Dhali Llama knows it to be so, and Mr. Rogers (Carl or Fred, you pick) knew it to be so.
If a person is a great person in the forest and no one is there to care, is he really a great person? Sure, but that great person still feels desperately lonely.
So, if you are feeling lonely and you’d just like someone to show that they see you and care about you, know that you’re not a too-sensitive alien, and that the desire to be seen, accepted, and considered are part of the human experience….. And along the way to achieving just that, here are a couple tips:
1) Beware of only paying attention to behaviors that fulfill your expectations that no one cares. Don’t let the facts that your doorman still doesn’t know your name and your Aunt Berta was the only one who wished you happy birthday negate the fact that your girlfriend just texted you just-because and your neighbor offered to lend you a book. It is REALLY easy to get caught up confirmation bias and all-or-nothing thinking when you’re feeling emotionally crappy. And boy does that kind of focus make it worse.
2) Tolerate some crappy realities. Yes. You read that right. No therapist or friend is going to (or should even try to) talk you out of reality. And trying to shield yourself from or deny harsh truths will only turn you into an anxious recluse. The reality is, there are going to be people that just flat out don’t consider you, don’t want to date you, don’t get you, don’t want to hang out, and who don’t want to be your friend for whatever reason. It’s initiation into the club of humanity, and if “rejection” and “isolation” isn’t happening once in a while, you kinda have to ask yourself, “how much of a kiss-up am I?” Anyway. So, how is a person supposed to tolerate it? Validation of yourself is absolutely necessary (“It makes sense that I feel how I do and I am passing no negative judgement on my feelings.”); Radical acceptance is also a place to start; intentionally pointing out your positive qualities after a scraped ego or social-bruising (part of emotional first-aid), seeing the perspective of the other person without personalizing (make a list of five reasons why that person might not want to hang out with you or might not make an effort that have nothing to do with your worthiness), and intentionally channeling your energy (thinking and behavior) into the things that you CAN control (more emotional first-aid) are also helpful.
3) Sometimes it hurts, and all you can do is ride it out. The fancy term for this [helpful skill that everyone hates hearing about because it doesn’t solve the problem] is “distress tolerance.” There are a few good reasons to self-soothe, distract yourself (exercise, anyone?), or just plain take a nap when you are feeling especially lonely. The first reason is, this strategy prevents you from doing anything to make it worse, like picking a huge fight, spending a bunch of money in retail therapy, using drugs, or self-injuring. The second reason “riding it out” is worth trying is that we tend to distort reality in-the-moment of despair. Intentionally putting some time between the overwhelming feeling and when you decide to deal with the feeling will prevent you from making conclusions and assumptions (or starting any fights?) that only inflate the icky feeling. I used this strategy recently when I experienced something that could only be described as
aliens possessing my amygdala while horses stampeded my cortex pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder. And good thing I watched movies with the kids for two days straight, and wrote down my long list of sad observations and angry complaints in a journal, awaiting a later date to be dealt with– Because, as I sit here writing this, I indeed remain married and my innocent kids remain oblivious to the seething volcano that was erupting below the surface of mommy. AND all of my complaints seemed lot more manageable , and even not so painful, a few days later. And that’s just the way super-painful, super-tense feelings work.
The last reason “riding it out” is a good strategy is that intentionally using this technique reminds you that the really bad feeling always rushes over you like a wave, and thus, always subsides. Whether it is two hours later, or two days later, there is always a point where the feelings are not quite as tender and not quite as raw.
And while you are riding it out, try out a little “mindfulness,” or literally observing the feeling without making any judgments, assumptions, or conclusions.
4) Know your attachment style and accept the attachment styles of others, even when they are avoidant. That doesn’t mean you need to remain in hot-pursuit of a friendship with someone who is avoidant and love everything about them, BUT it does mean you accept that others are who they are. Whether you tolerate the fact that they never call you back or you sever the relationship is up to you. People who tend toward the subjective experience of loneliness tend to have anxious-preoccupied attachment styles (Is it that lonely people tend to have anxious-preoccupied attachment because much isolation brings about an urgent need for closeness or is it that people with anxious-preoccupied attachment tend to be lonely because others often fall short of their expectations/attachment needs? Who knows.), and for reasons widely speculated, people with anxious-preoccupied attachment styles often find themselves pursuing people with anxious-avoidant attachment styles. In other words, the girl who’d really like 100 texts a day, falls for the guy (or desires a friend) who forgets his phone at work every night. Each person has his own life experiences and in-born temperament which will allow him to tolerate different levels of closeness and intimacy. You can make an effort to change yours if you think you are a tad anxious or avoidant, but please, please, don’t make it your mission to change someone else’s. That’s kinda like banging your head against a brick wall and expecting the wall to crumble and to never suffer a painful headache. Just sayin.
5) Also temperament matters. Are you or the people you would like to connect-with introverts? Just because a person is an introvert does not mean he/she does not desire connections and does not preclude him/her from becoming lonely. In fact, introverts may be more likely to experience lonliness because they may have a higher bar for friendships. A proclivity toward solitude also makes reaching out and interacting less natural and more effortful at times. As an introvert myself, I fully believe that someone should invent a magic pixie dust that fulfills a person’s belonging-needs without requiring the person to put down the book and make actual efforts — small talk and noise. Yuck.– in actual social situations. But alas, this probably wont be invented in pill-form until 2073. But take heart, introverts, if you make a concerted effort to tolerate (and even initiate! Yikes!) all the trappings of the boring, awkward, and superficial beginnings of friendships/relationships (small-talk, “dates” and gatherings, phone calls to talk about weather, etc.) your loneliness can be alleviated by forging only one or two meaningful connections.
6) Of course, get your butt out there. But not too much. Nothing is more of a self-fulfilling prophesy than a lonely person calling his/her desired-posse fifty times a day, buying them gifts, baking them banana bread, breaking into their houses to leave piles of love-notes and scrub the floors, and then– surprise– no one reciprocates quite so strongly. And — surprise– some people (especially those avoidantly-attached people that lonely people often find themselves pursuing) might even feel smothered and retract. And– surprised– that just makes the person feel more lonely. But of course, sitting back and expecting people to come to you and connections to forge out of thin air ain’t gonna happen either. And games (like counting how many times you are invited and waiting for others to call before you call them) are just counterproductive disappointments waiting to happen. You could make a realistic goal for yourself that includes “getting yourself out there”…. OR, you can just take my concrete suggestion: Text one new person once a week, and ask one new person to hang out once a month. If a person gives you two invitation declines or no-responses without good explanation, ask when would be a good time for them, and if they don’t respond, let it go (see #2).
7) And of course, please seek professional help. Loneliness and feeling like no one cares can both be a precipitating factor/cause of depression and a result of depression. We know that there are definite biological underpinnings (as well as other complex factors) which cause depression, and research has also found that there are genetic links to the propensity for loneliness. Loneliness (along with subjective anxiety and hopelessness) is also a predictor of suicidal thoughts, and if loneliness is pervasive, it should be treated as such. Therapy (elements of cognitive-behavioral, dialectical, interpersonal, and behavioral therapy are all spinkled through these suggestions, but, as a simple blog post, they remain vague and not-exhaustive tactics. And never ever use a blog to treat depression. Please.) and medication management have been shown to be extremely effective when used in conjunction with one another. And, incidentally, therapy is also an actual experience with real-live actual connection. That’s all I have on this subject for the moment. My kid is telling me that computer games are bad for my brain. AHHHH.
Until next time…..
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