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A Practical Guide to Beating Isolation and Becoming a Connected Person
Since 1985, the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled. If this is you, or close to you, get ready for a solution.
“I’m the cat guy. Only I don’t live in Mom’s basement.”
The strip of fog I’ve wiped from the mirror reveals my cat staring quizzically at me in the hallway. She is Wilson the Volleyball. The one friend on the lonely and deserted island of Austin, Texas. My one friend I speak to daily because I have no other plans, let alone friends, in this new city.
It’s depressing, really. Carrying on conversations with your cat.
How was your dinner? Fancy Feast again? I see. Was it delicious?
How was your day? Oh, you slept and licked your ass when you were bored? Tell me more.
To be fair, I had one human friend, but most of our weekends revolved around seeing how fast we could screw up any progress or money we made by getting drunk.
I guess I’ll make friends at work.
But happy hour became a competition to see who could sleep under their desk at the office because they couldn’t drive home. And often in office politics, you keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
On social media, my life looked great. Here’s a picture of me clinking glasses with the co-workers! Look how happy I am! Here I am backpacking trails and being adventurous! Like that shit!
But one of the main reasons I ran trails and went to the gym was the hope of just striking up a conversation. What made my isolation feel all the more hopeless is that everywhere I looked, everyone else was having the same problem. Even when I made friends, something strange happened. I still felt alone.
One in five millennials report being so depressed that it affects their work. But you don’t need reports to figure this out. Just look around online and you’ll discover hordes of people expressing their struggle with isolation. Most of us have hundreds of friends and followers spanning our social media accounts. We even have people we spend time with, but the depth and richness of meaningful relationships continue to elude us.
We thought technology would help connect us, and to be fair, it has created a global village and awareness. However, it’s also made us more aware of our isolation. The dating app Bumble unexpectedly discovered this.
During a panel at South by Southwest, Whitney Wolfe, CEO of Bumble, explained that many women using the dating app reported feelings of loneliness or isolation and suggested the app could be used to find friends. Thus, Bumble BFF was born. Women could now swipe right or left to discover women they might want to become friends with. And it isn’t just women using it: One million men have used the BFF feature since it launched. Other developers have taken note and created apps like Wolfpack to help men escape their isolation and find friends.
While these products are great in theory, why do we continue to struggle with loneliness?
Technology Keeps Us Disconnected
Hiding behind a screen is easy because you can be whoever you want. Consider online dating. Numerous relationships and marriages have begun by using the technology. But an app and a screen produce only the introduction. The hard work of risk and vulnerability begins in person, and that’s a scary step. More than my fair share of friends have talked about how they had fantastic text conversations with someone they’re interested in, only to meet in real life and discover it’s like talking to a tree. Deep and meaningful connections happen face to face, and the screen creates the facade of being whoever we want to be—not who we truly are.
So, while Wolfpack and Bumble BFF have fantastic intentions, technology cannot ensure vulnerability, authenticity, or even that first scary step of meeting in person. Overcoming isolation and connection require risk and time, which raises the question, “How do I move from isolation to connection when everything seems stacked against me?”
In my experience (and after conversations with scores of friends plus a lot of reading), I’ve found five solid ways to break the isolation cycle.
1. Set Goals
I keep a planner that helps me track goals. I found that if I put things down on paper and review them weekly, I’m a lot more apt to do them instead of brushing them to the side. Everyone can dream about the things they want to accomplish, but creating a plan to do it is how progress begins. I made it a point to meet with at least one to two people a week. Whether that was for coffee or sports, it didn’t matter, I had to do it despite the fear.
Set some goals for spending time with people. Turn them into action items by getting them on your to-do list and calendar.
2. Resist Fear and Laziness
I once had a 25-year-old guy approach me and complain about how no one in our friend group was reaching out to to connect one-on-one. My question was simple, “Well, who have you reached out to?” Everybody assumes someone should reach out to them to cure their loneliness, but it doesn’t work that way. Plus, it’s self-centered and lazy. You’re effectively saying, “You fill my needs, but I don’t care about yours.”
The catch is that fear and anxiety can lead to procrastination. “I’ll do it next week” becomes never, and our goal of connecting once or twice a week goes unmet. You must commit and overcome it.
That presence of fear and uncertainty is actually a good sign. In his book The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield explains how the presence of fear is a driving motivator:
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: The more scared we are…the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
The next time you feel that fear of reaching out to create connections and are contemplating putting it off, just remember: Fear is a sign that you are about to take an action to conquer isolation.
3. Risk Rejection
I once heard a story of a young woman who went through a messy breakup. After taking time to heal, she went on a date with a man she had been connecting with over Facebook. In the middle of their date, he stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I’m just not interested,” and left.
In one version of this story, she then phoned her friend to tell her what happened, and her friend responded, “Well, of course he left. You’re a little overweight and not as pretty as other girls he could date.”
Only her friend didn’t say that. It was just the story she told herself. And the event never happened. The young woman played out this scenario in her head thinking it was what would happen.
No one likes rejection, but we’re far more likely to believe we will be rejected long before it even happens, and that belief keeps us paralyzed. Any reward requires risk. Once your tackle your fear, that’s where the risk comes in. There’s no guarantee that things will work out, but the alternative is continuing to be isolated.
If you find yourself dwelling on the worst-case scenario, stop yourself and consider the other possibilities. Try to cultivate an open, curious mind: “I don’t know how this story will go, but it will be interesting to find out!”
4. Practice Vulnerability
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness.” —Brené Brown
The paradox of vulnerability is this: People assume it is weakness when in reality, vulnerability is strength. It’s the first thing we look for in others but the last thing we want to reveal in ourselves.
More often than not, we want to protect ourselves from risk and rejection, but without being open about who we are, we can’t connect. People can sniff out when someone is being fake or insincere, and no one enjoys feeling like they’re being lied to. A lack of vulnerability will quickly stagnate a growing relationship.
This doesn’t mean pouring out our guts when we first connect. But as trust develops, we can strive to reveal honest pieces of ourselves. This builds an emotional connection with others, who, over time, will do the same with us.
Who are the people you respect most? Are they honest about their life struggles? Often, people who are superficially cheerful or guarded are the first to bail out when a storm appears, leaving you feeling more disconnected than ever.
A good way to practice vulnerability is to ask for help. Is there something in your life you could use help with or an emotional struggle that you could use advice about?
Being mindful of our own feelings can help, too. If you notice that you’re holding tension in your body, pause for a moment to reflect on what you’re feeling. Are you being honest with the people around you about those feelings? Sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re holding back to protect a vulnerable state.
5. Volunteer or Join a Social League
In 2008, I began mentoring teenagers even though my life was still a wreck. I had returned from Iraq and was struggling most nights to keep myself from drinking. What I discovered, however, was that being in a position where teens looked up to me caused me to live up to that by making changes in my life.
Two other things happened that I didn’t expect. Once I thought outside of what I needed and served others instead, those actions took away the pangs of loneliness. The second thing I found was a group of friends who shared the things I was passionate about. A fellow volunteer and I became best friends and remain so to this day.
Later, I joined a sports and social league. I played intramural games with new people and developed connections that revolved around mutual interests. Serving in shared experiences helps me find people who enjoy similar passions: Writing helped me find other writers, veterans’ groups helped me connect with other veterans. Some of my friends have moved from isolation to connection when they served at their church or an animal shelter.
What are your interests, and what opportunities can you find to serve others in those areas? Choosing a service area that aligns with your interests helps reduce isolation because you are motivated to bypass the risks and fears.
Unfortunately, This Is Going to Take Time
“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” —Leo Tolstoy
The allure of technology is that it delivers lightning-quick results. But moving from isolation to connection requires time and effort—there are no shortcuts. While we can swipe to find friends, creating the connections to sustain them with comes with risk, vulnerability, and sometimes rejection.
The question to ask ourselves is what’s worse: isolation or connection? Remaining in isolation and loneliness is effortless but drains our life of energy and joy. While connection requires overcoming our own inertia, the rewards are many and fill our lives with purpose and vigor.