As heart-shaped candy pops up everywhere you look and you prepare for the deluge of social media posts capturing special plans and gifts this Valentine’s Day, it’s understandable to feel acutely aware of romantic disappointments and to compare yourself to others who appear blissfully in love. I empathize. I’ve ruminated too much and felt deeply lonely myself. It can happen to anyone. But as I’ve researched and taught people how to manage emotions and enrich relationships in my clinical psychology practice, I’ve observed that certain habits can lead people to feel worse. Here are some ways to free yourself from loneliness, regardless of your romantic situation.
Catch your lonely thoughts. Christopher Masi and a team of researchers at the University of Chicago analyzed over 77 studies to pinpoint what created loneliness. They found that maladaptive social cognition, or negative thoughts related to interpersonal situations, were strong predictors of loneliness, and that thinking differently turned out to be the most powerful way to feel more connected. To start to think more constructively, notice thoughts that keep you distanced from others. For example, at a recent lecture I gave, a lovely woman approached me. “I’m a widow and I’d prefer to be friends with the married couples I was once close to,” she confided, “but now it seems like I have to socialize with singles.” This woman seemed so charismatic and kind — and her thinking is so common. We often come up with ideas that can make us feel excluded, no matter who is around. I encouraged her to reach out to her old friends, even if they hadn’t initiated contact as she hoped they would. When we cheer ourselves on and give others the benefit of the doubt, we may feel more worthy of closeness and initiate behaviors that facilitate intimacy. So this Valentine’s Day, rather than assuming you’re the only person without special plans or feeling lonely while others are rushing off to dates, observe those thoughts without getting stuck in a negative cycle and text a friend to make plans.
Change your mindset about being single. Many assume If only I had a partner, I’d feel deeply connected and never lonely. It’s quite depressing to assume there’s a solution to a painful problem in your life that’s out of reach. Yet the reality is, as compelling as ideas about romantic closeness abating loneliness are, they just aren’t accurate. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and psychologist at the University of Oxford, famously suggested that to be happy, most people need a group of roughly five people with whom they can deeply bond — not just one person. This Valentine’s Day, don’t assume your happiness is capped by your relationship status. Instead, celebrate the bonds you have with your closest friends and family members. Plan dinner with someone who lives in your city, or set aside an hour to call a friend who lives far away.
Be together without spreading loneliness. When looking at loneliness, John Cacioppo and his colleagues at the University of Chicago noticed that loneliness seems to be contagious, like the flu. When one person in a group started to share their lonely feelings, those close to them were affected and were 52% more likely to feel lonely as well. In other words, when you’re spending time with others, as tempting as it may feel to vent, try to participate in the moment in an uplifting way. If you’re getting together with friends on Valentine’s Day, don’t commiserate about your dating app woes or the things you’d be doing if you were in a relationship — plan something fun and festive like a movie night or tea ritual that will help you be together in the moment.
Speak up. Even if you’re in a relationship this Valentine’s Day, you’re not immune from loneliness. Many people find themselves wishing for more on this high-pressure holiday but don’t know how to make it happen. In any relationship, both people have to be able to assert their needs — and for some people, that’s an anxiety-provoking prospect. If you notice feeling distant from your partner, say something. Practice asking for what you want, directly and with warmth. You’ll both increase your self-respect and feel more satisfied as a couple. This Valentine’s Day, if you’re harboring a secret fantasy of the perfect way to celebrate with your partner, tell them. You might have the best one yet.