Even during the best of times, which safe to safe we are not collectively experiencing right now, the holidays press on our belonging. How connected do we feel to our tribe? Do we feel intrinsically woven into our community, our friends, our families, or do we feel marginalized, peripheral? Throw a pandemic into the mix and the sense of isolation may increase exponentially.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation’s finding released in October, two-thirds of the public are worried they or their family will get sick from the coronavirus, up 13 percentage points since April.
Prep yo’self: The holidays will look different this year, since we live in a time when extended family get-togethers, group celebrations and even holiday shopping are now considered a risk to our health. Whereas before holidays meant overdoing and overwhelm, now the fear is uncertainty, isolation and the loss of routine and tradition.
If you know you are facing a gauntlet of solitude as the holidays approach, take heart. Loneliness, the thing you turn away by letting in, bears tender consideration better than harsh resistance.
Jeremy Nobel, MD, who is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and founder of The Unlonely Project (more on this later) says, “Often loneliness starts with a sense of estrangement or disconnection from who you are. How do you fit into the world?”
If you can channel your loneliness into an opportunity to reinvent yourself, create a truer version of yourself, than you’ve made good use of the limitations this pandemic imposes. You are reframing your identity on your own terms, on your own unique mission in life, rather than looking to other people for their attention or approval.
Here are several strategies for transforming loneliness into a gift—and building a more authentic self at the same time.
Understand you are not alone
If you feel like everybody else is a’gathering and you are the only one alone, take comfort in the fact that Facebook feed to the contrary, many people feel alone right now. You are not being singled out and punished, many others are in the same boat. Can you accept that events are beyond your control? Remember, being away from the people and things you love is only temporary. Make the most of this unusual moment by digging in deep to your inner resources.
Change your expectations
Adjusting your mindset and expectations is key to avoiding feelings of loneliness. Instead of bemoaning what you don’t have, focus on one thing that’s meaningful to you during the holiday. What do you treasure most about this time of the year? If it’s sharing your gratitude during thanksgiving, think about creating a virtual gratitude circle that invites people to reflect on what they are most grateful for in their lives. Focus on the one element you hold most dear and give it time, attention and care. While you won’t get everything you miss this season, by identifying one important aspect and putting effort into manifesting it, you will have created an important slice of holiday magic.
Don’t wait until Christmas Eve to make a plan for the holidays. Figure out something that will make you excited, such as a walk with a friend, a movie, a favorite dish you can make. Invite a relative to share a cocktail during a happy hour Zoom call. Branch out of your comfort zone and do something alone that previously you have only ever done with others, such as skiing. If you catch yourself at any point spiraling into bleak fantasies—this isolation will last forever, you’ll never hug anyone again — bring your attention back to present. See what you can do today to give yourself a sense of control instead of envisioning future catastrophes.
Connect with yourself and ask what you truly would like during the holiday. If it’s to connect with others, don’t be afraid to ask for that. People can’t read your mind—and everyone gets a little siloed during the festivities. Reach out to people and see what they might be willing to offer and what you can offer them. Even the smallest gesture can help you reconnect. think about dropping off some cookies or a handwritten card to a friend. Ask your neighbor if you can pick up some grocery items for them on your next trip. And don’t be afraid to let people show up for you—it gives them a chance to feel good too.
(But) be vigilant about social media use
If scrolling social media leaves you feeling warm, fuzzy and happy for your friend’s wellbeing, then by all means keep up the feed. However, if it intensifies your fear of missing out and negative comparisons, consider limiting your use of social media, particularly during the holidays. If you do engage with social media to stay in touch with friends, instead of just liking or a brief comment on posts, make the effort to interact one-on-one through text, email or call. the intimacy of the messages and the depth of the interactive conversation will prove much more sustaining than cursory commentary.
(Still) connect by any means necessary
As you home in on your identity, recognize what’s important to you. A whole world of online, live-streamed classes has opened up, from voice lessons to knitting to bread-making. Choose one that lines up with what you hold most dear. There are other online opportunities as well. The UnLonely Project, founded by Jeremy Nobel, harnesses creative expression as a catalyst for connection. Through its Stuck At Home Together initiative, you can watch a short film, then participate in an online conversation. You can view others’ art or share your own. And for motivation to get started, the group has designed creative challenges, like crafting a self-portrait from objects around the house.
Give more than you take
Volunteering or giving to others is a new tradition you might want to consider. Not only does it make you feel good, but it imbues your life, enriches it, with a tangible sense of purpose. There are many ops to volunteer virtually, such as becoming a citizen scholar. The Smithsonian invites “citizen scholars are invited to transcribe historic documents including diaries and working papers of prominent Americans,” according to the Smithsonian website. To get involved, you can check out the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
Signs of depression to watch out for
If you are struggling with something that feels more persistent than simply the holiday blues, here are some signs to watch out for, in you or loved one.
- Do you seem to be more withdrawn than usual?
- Are you behaving more erratically and impulsively?
- Are you more irritable?
- Do you typically respond quickly to a text or phone call, but now are not responding at all?
One option if you’re feeling sadness or anxiety that interferes with your day-to-day life is to consider seeing a therapist, many of whom now work online as well as in person.