Dr. Kevin Theriot is a counselor with LDS Family Services. He shares his advice here on how to avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation during the holiday season.
Watching friends connect with those they love can often magnify feelings of emotional exclusion, which is one reason why the holidays can be especially lonely for some people. It’s important to remember that loneliness is not necessarily a measure of social connectedness. People might be married yet feel extremely lonely, while others might find themselves involved in large family gatherings and still feel emotionally disconnected. Loneliness is more about the perspective of the person rather than the situation they find themselves in.
Loneliness can have negative effects
Loneliness is not only emotionally painful, but it can also have a negative effect on a person’s long-term psychological and physical health and can impact their social functioning. Lonely people often create defensive coping behaviors that may make it difficult for them to nurture new relationships with others or deepen existing ones. Often, those who experience loneliness may become so self-protective that they avoid situations that might subject them to anticipated rejection. As a result, they are less likely to initiate contact with friends and family.
If you’re lonely, what can you do?
One way to confront loneliness in your life is to take action. The following suggestions require relatively small emotional risks but have a good chance of producing positive results.
1. Seek companionship
One of the better ways to deal with loneliness is to override your instinct to emotionally detach from others. For people who feel lonely, it is important to take proactive steps. Reach out to friends, family (even distant family), and ward members in advance of the holidays. One way to do so is merely to ask your home or visiting teacher or a group of empty nesters what they are doing for Christmas or the new year. This question will often solicit a similar question to you from the other person and a possible invitation when they hear you don’t have plans yet. Be honest with the people you trust, and tell them you’re feeling lonely. Sharing these feelings is a vulnerable and daring act, which most people can empathize with, and they’ll often want to help.
2. Remember your stewardship
Often we hope the people around us will be inspired enough to know our needs for inclusion, and we feel disappointed and unimportant when they don’t. It’s important to verbalize your needs to others. You have a stewardship to do all you can to meet your own emotional needs, which often involves asking others for help.
3. Avoid comparisons with others
People have a tendency to compare their lives with other people’s lives. Social media can enhance this because people tend to only post their best pictures and moments for others to see. You might consider limiting your time on social media during the holidays to avoid this trap and focusing on other activities that help you connect with people in more meaningful ways.
4. Be human
If you're alone because someone close to you has died, your marriage has ended, or you have a conflict with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's okay to take time to cry or express your emotions. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
5. Take care of yourself
It’s easy to let things slide during the holidays, but be sure to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Engage in physical activities you enjoy. Take time to meditate on your blessings—such as your testimony, peace, and strength—and avoid focusing on the negative things, such as sadness, pain, and loneliness. Create structure for your days, follow your plans, and avoid sitting home alone staring at the walls. If you are spending the holidays alone, don't tell yourself that it's not worth decorating or cooking when it's just you. The lack of any festivity will often make you feel even lonelier. Decorate your place and cook a special meal just for yourself! Chances are that doing the holiday activities that you're used to doing with family or friends may give you a lift.
6. Be realistic
Part of your loneliness may be attributable to unrealistic expectations about the holidays. If your family, friends, or ward haven’t been particularly empathetic in the past, don’t suddenly expect them to change. Maybe they have other strengths, but expecting people who have been weak in empathy to suddenly become strong during the holidays may be a recipe for disappointment.
It should come as no surprise that you are not the only lonely person during the holidays. Seek out others who are feeling lonely or situations where you can feel needed. For instance, plan to visit a convalescent home, hospital, or singles in your ward or stake. You may be surprised how meeting the needs of others who are lonely can actually lift your own loneliness. If you’re not sure who you can serve, reach out to the bishop or Relief Society president in your ward or branch for suggestions. Undoubtedly they’ll have a few names that have been on their mind that you can reach out to.
When you do find yourself in the company of others, acting cheerful will often help you have a better time together and may motivate others to hang out again in the future. Lastly, accept all invitations to participate in group activities like ward parties and family and friend activities, even if they’re not your favorite things to do. Non-attendance may push others away. It does take an effort to put on a smile and participate, but doing so can be an important investment. The holidays provide an opportunity to get to know and feel closer to people, which can lead to more lasting relationships in the year to come.
To learn more about how to keep your Christmas season focused on the Savior, visit our new campaign site at christmas.mormon.org for videos and other interactive materials.