A Simple Message

Guideposts|August 2020

A Simple Message
Loneliness is the root of so many problems. A psychologist shares a way you can reach out
URSULA WHITESIDE

How to help the lonely? how to help yourself when you are one of the lonely? I’m a clinical psychologist, and my passion is helping people who feel so disconnected they contemplate and sometimes attempt suicide. The bad news: There is a loneliness epidemic in America. The good news: We can do something about it. And it won’t take an army of specialists and billions of dollars. It’s as simple as reaching out, using the genuine compassion and empathy we all have. All it takes is a caring message.

Before I say more about caring messages, let’s look at loneliness and the steps you can take to address it. Let me turn to my own experience.

Acknowledge what you’re going through.

We moved around constantly when I was growing up, from the Pacific Northwest to Minnesota to stints in Alaska, where my dad worked as a laborer on the oil pipeline. I changed schools nine times before ninth grade. I felt uprooted. When I got my most upset, I would find myself repeating, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

I was desperate to be liked, to find some kind of home through connection. I really cared what people thought of me. I figured by doing all the “right” things, I would ease my loneliness. I joined three sports, got a part-time job, wrote for the school paper, did Meals on Wheels and became a Big Sister, became student council president and more. I always felt as if I had to do more or that I wasn’t doing a good enough job. Somewhere along the line, as for many teen girls, looks and weight became important. I alternated between starving myself and binge eating. I might have been homecoming queen senior year, but that didn’t mean I liked who I saw in the mirror. I grasp now how counter to my goal of connection these approaches were.

The curious thing about my loneliness, as you are probably aware, is that it gave me greater compassion for the outcasts at school, the kids getting bullied, the others who sat alone. If you’ve been on the receiving end, you’ll agree: Small acts of compassion matter when you are alone or in pain. Looking at my yearbook, I saw messages from those who struggled to find friends, like one boy who wrote, “Thanks for being a friend when I needed one.” I can’t imagine I did much, probably just scrawled a few lines on a card and left it on his desk. There was the boy whose locker was next to mine, a kind of intellectual guy. He was always losing pencils. One day, I put a stash of new pencils in his locker when he wasn’t looking. I didn’t tell a soul.

Now I realize these were attempts— conscious or subconscious—to connect with others through their pain. It might have been a gift from me, but it was also a gift to me. A chance to get out of myself and acknowledge my own pain.

Know that you’re not alone.

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August 2020