“The only way to have a friend is to be one.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
It's a weird paradox.
In a world where technology and social media seem to bring more of us together more of the time, recent research indicates that more of us are feeling lonely more of the time too.
People sometimes deflect their feelings of social nakedness by making a joke of it.
“Look at me: Norma No Mates!” they say when admitting again to having no plans for the weekend.
But it's no laughing matter.
And I get it. I really do. I've been Norma No Mates till recently myself. At least that's how it felt.
Six years ago, I moved out of the city and away from a community of long-standing friends and neighbors.
From a scenario in which I used to go out to work pretty much every day and got about on foot or public transport, now I work from home and go everywhere by car. Not great for those bumping into people in the street moments that can give such rich social possibilities.
Add to the mix that at the same time my husband changed jobs and is now often away for long periods of time, and you can start to understand just how life began to feel very solitary at times.
I was that person making a virtue out of watching DVD box sets of an evening.
“Got anything on the agenda this evening?” a client might ask at the end of a call.
“Catching up on a couple of episodes of Mad Men with a nice glass of red wine,” I'd say, feigning buoyancy, and thinking, “I hope this person can't tell I'm feeling like Norma No Mates.”
And the more I ached for company, the more isolated I felt. The more isolated I felt, the less able I was to reach out. And the less I put myself out there, the worse it all was.
But recently I've broken through this horrible catch 22, and I'm happy to say that Norma has moved on and my countryside life is feeling more sociable at last.
Well, my circumstances didn't, but I did. If you want to ditch your own Norma (or Norman) No Mates Status soon, here are some of my insights for you to riff off.
Feeling lonely is not a judgment.
We can feel lonely for lots of reasons. In my case it was a big change in my living arrangements, and unfamiliarity with how things worked in my new surroundings. For others, it’s caused by focusing on work and achievement to the detriment of relationships and social life.
For others again, it’s caused by the loss of someone or something dear: a parent, partner, sibling, friend, or child, maybe even a career or ability once held.
Someone very close to me right now is becoming profoundly deaf, and I can't tell you just how that's causing him to often feel very lonely.
But irrespective of what's brought it about, there's no judgment on you. You are not a bad person because you are feeling lonely.
Yet I think at times we allow loneliness to say something about our worthiness. I certainly confused the two for too long.
But the truth is that being lonely is one thing. Feeling that you're somehow not okay is another.
So, step one, separate them out.
And know that, no matter how you're feeling, you're already okay just as you are.
Create time and space for connection.
If you want to make friends, you have to make space for them. Energetically invite them into your life.
That seems obvious, but it plays hard.
For me, making space meant stopping being so anal about work, and being prepared to trade time previously assigned to it with social time. It also meant allowing myself to drop the guilt of missing some of my self-imposed deadlines in favor of being more playful.
It's tough to let go of our old, familiar behaviors. But allow yourself to see just how often they keep you feeling lonely, as much as they keep you feeling safe.
Let yourself experiment, and notice how eventually you feel your life enriched by the connections that you yourself have created.
Become your own best friend first.
As you begin to reach beyond yourself, check out how needy you feel.
Needy is never a great place from which to create anything—certainly not relationships of any kind. If you're needy, no matter how you try to disguise it, other people pick up your vibe and are likely to distance themselves from you.
So, while you're waiting for friendships to coalesce around you, do what I did and overcome the neediness factor by becoming your own best friend. Take yourself on dates to the cinema, museum, coffee shop, and restaurants. Let yourself explore that new hiking route. Check in for an afternoon at the spa.
Then friendships become the icing on your cake because they truly are about connection and not about making you feel better about yourself.
Don't wait for others to reach to you.
The Norma No Mates factor can cause us to be reticent about reaching out to others. Instead, we wait for them to come to us.
But that puts us in a pretty powerless position, which doesn't help the way we're feeling at all.
Take the risk. Even if it feels scary, dare to reach beyond yourself and make the first move.
That can be as simple as making small talk with the person behind you in the coffee shop queue, or saying hello to a face that's starting to become familiar in your gym.
And when someone begins to emerge as a person you'd like to spend more time with, don't overthink it. Don't get all up in your head about whether you really do want them for a friend, or what they may say if you approach them.
Trust your gut. If you feel inspired to reach out, do. Then listen to the feeling that forms between you.
That will guide you on where to go from there.
Learn the art of rejection.
Quite often we don't reach out because we fear rejection. But “no” in whatever form—a silence, a straightforward negative, an unanswered phone message, text, or email, something not followed up—is just a “no.”
It's just a piece of information. Someone is in their own way letting you see that they aren't the kind of person you want to befriend.
Seeing the truth of this was another big turning point for me.
By the same token I came to understand that if, having invited someone to coffee I found myself wanting to check my phone early on in our time together, the fact that I'd made the first move didn't oblige me to say “yes” when they suggested a subsequent get together.
In fact, the more you can see that both “yes” and “no” are neutral words and don't need to be laden with shame or guilt, the more lightly you can navigate your way through what begins to become the game of making friends.
Beware the social media effect.
Look, I love social media and have lots of friends on platforms like Facebook and Twitter that I've never met in real life.
These are genuine connections. But it's tempting to make them a surrogate for people you'd have a glass of wine with, or hang out at the weekend's soccer game.
So, sure, keep surfing. But know when to put your device down in favor of making an in-the-flesh connection. One of my happy innovations has been finding opportunities to meet social media friends in person. And then subsequently getting the best of both worlds.
Maybe you could try that too?
My Life After Norma
While it has taken time and a shed load of vulnerability, I can honestly tell you that my new life finally feels a lot more social. The dark loneliness cloud has lifted. I'm happy in a way that I was not for a while, and I notice how that gives a new sense of color, hopefulness, and vibrancy to, well, everything.
Which makes me reflect on how grateful I am for Norma, the challenges her presence made me confront, and the things I've learned and the new people in my inner circle as a result.
So, if you're sitting there feeling like you're doomed never to make friends, don't diss the feeling. Listen to it with curiosity. Try some of the things here that worked for me, and wave Norma a happy goodbye.
Boy sitting alone image via Shutterstock