Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Fighting Loneliness, Part 2: Very Basic Steps

The previous discussion about fighting loneliness included tips for people with average to expert social skills.  Then mdlbear said this:

Terrific post; there's a lot of good stuff here. And some good suggestions: "Restore our support of people who are doing the hard work of sustaining others."... "Practice and teach social skills." "Build the biggest, strongest social network that you can."

Trouble is, these are all aimed at people like you who know what they're doing, and using it to help people who don't. I'm one of those people who never learned what I needed; I'm trying to learn it now, and I'm finding it tough going. Especially now that I'm also trying to help people.

So I'm going to add a very basic layer of tips for folks who may not have learned about self-care and socializing from their family while growing up.  In addition to all the stuff here, you can also read  about these topics and skills.  Hunt around until you find something that seems applicable for you.

Taking Care of Yourself

When you take good care of yourself, you are showing love and respect for yourself.  This puts you in a stable position to help other people.

First check your physical needs.  You should have nourishing food to eat, comfortable clothes to wear, a secure residence, and enough sleep.  Skimping on those tends to reduce your energy level and makes it more likely that you will get sick.  Pay close attention to signals from your body because it will tell you if it needs something special.  If you aren't sleeping well, you may need a different bed or a darker room.  If eating wheat upsets your digestion, you may need to remove it from your diet.  If your background included people telling you to ignore such things, or that you weren't really feeling what you felt, then you'll need to get rid of that interference so you can understand yourself clearly.

Next check your emotional needs.  People benefit from having a least a few, and preferably more, people who love them.  This can be your parents, sibling(s), spouse(s), child(ren), friend(s), or whatever.  They should be people who say nice things to you, support your successes, sympathize with your setbacks, exchange favors, and otherwise share your life.  If the people around you are nasty, they can undercut your progress, and you should consider replacing them with more wholesome relationships.  Ideally, contemporary relationships span both local (facetime) and distant (cyberspace) venues.  But if you haven't yet found local relationships that are supportive, you can practice your social skills in cyberspace until you do find local connections.

Consider the difference between need  and want.  Modern American society actively tries to blur this line, which is a very destructive thing to do.  Needs are things which cause harm if not met, and in some cases can be fatal.  You need  an adequate supply of safe, healthy food; if you don't get that, you might lose or gain too much weight or suffer from deficiency diseases -- or even starve to death.  Wants are things that may make you happy or unhappy based on whether or not you get them.  Furthermore, wants belong in the middle ground: it's bad for you if you never get anything  you want, but it's also bad for you if you get everything  you want.  If it's cold, you may need  a sweater.  You might want  a fancy angora sweater, but a plain wool sweater would keep you just as warm.  You should never feel ashamed of meeting your own needs.  Aim to meet some  of your wants.

Exploring Yourself

If you didn't get enough opportunities to learn about yourself while growing up, you can do it now.

For physical needs, start with the standard human baseline unless you've already discovered some differences.  So for instance, most humans need about 8 hours of sleep.  (Our society doesn't make that easy to get, which causes many problems.)  If you don't get enough sleep, you'll feel tired; but if you get too much, you'll also feel tired!  So, try to get a few days when you can sleep for 8 hours.  Note how you feel.  Then try 7 hours, and then 9 hours, again taking notes.  Compare results.  Most folks will find their optimum sleep time around that range, but you can go wider if necessary.  It may not be possible for you to arrange your life to give you the right amount of sleep immediately, but sometimes it is; and if nothing else you'll know what to aim for.

Now transfer that basic process to other situations.  Exploring yourself means choosing a topic to investigate, looking at some different options, and trying on different ones.  Then you compare the results and aim for the one that suits you best.

If you're used to taking guidance from other people, so that you freeze in situations where you have to pick something yourself, there are ways around that.  The most straightforward is to pick a guide that is not a person.  For instance, you might pick something from a list by starting with the first item on the list, and then next time try the second item.  Alphabetical order, left-right order, and chronological order can also be useful.  After you've worked your way through a list once or more, you may discover that you like some things better than others, so you can pick those more often.  Or you might decide that just working your way through a list is comfortable for you.

Some good things to explore early include colors, foods, clothing styles, home decoration, and entertainment.  (If you got pushed into a particular career, religion, family life, etc. by other people then you may need to revisit those choices -- but those are a lot more serious and complex, so learn your self-awareness and decision-making skills first.)  In addition to the try-it-on methods described above, you might also find it useful to explore some personal analysis tools.  There are some very heavy-duty ones such as the Myers-Briggs or astrology, for which it's best to consult a professional, but you can find approximations elsewhere.  There are also many quizzes online and in print that can tell you fun things about yourself; they are not necessarily "reliable" but they can give you things to think about whether you agree or disagree with the results.


Most humans come equipped with some very fancy wetware that facilitates or even automatically performs such functions as face/name recognition, language acquisition, and social interaction analysis.  If you didn't get the whole standard bundle, or your upbringing overwrote it with malware, or you got a different bundle, then that will make your life harder.  It is often possible to fix some or all of the problems by cobbling up something in your head that will do most or all of that work.  And if you have the standard bundle but lacked opportunities to use it fully, some of the same basic steps will help expand usage.

First, in order to socialize, you need other people.  At least some of them should be healthy decent people.  If you can handle diversity, that's a good thing, so try to find different kinds of people to be around.  It's okay to be around nasty people some of the time; they have their uses too.  If you don't already have people to be with, look for some who will share your interests -- so if you like reading, hang out in libraries or bookstores; if you like sports, go to sporting events or supply shops.  Most communities have some kind of free or cheap classes on various topics offered at a community center, park, store, library, etc.  There are also community events such as fairs or picnics that attract plenty of people; worth a try if you're okay in a crowd.

People are easier to approach when you have a common interest or other icebreaker.  If you see someone holding a book you've read, you can talk about the book.  If you see someone with a dog on a leash, you can talk about the dog.  If you are both at an event, you can ask someone what booths or panels they have visited.  In some areas, especially big cities, people try to tune each other out most of the time so it's harder to make new friends unless you're in a venue that really lends itself to that -- which is why those places tend to have "singles dances" and "friend parties" and so forth.  In towns or rural areas, people are often more open to chatting with whoever is nearby.

Observe other people.  What are they doing that works?  What are they doing that doesn't  work?  What makes you feel good when they do it?  What makes you feel bad when they do it?  Many social interactions are essentially rote scripts that can be memorized; that can be very useful for smoothing casual interactions.  If you have quirks that make people react funny, try different approaches and explanations until you find some that lower the tension; that's better than avoiding people altogether.  Certain things can go a long way towards facilitating social interactions: chief among these are smiles, "please," and "thank you."  It's hard to overuse those.

In particular, it helps to have some people in your life who are happy and functional, and some who are not.  Whenever you find someone you admire whose life is working, you can observe that person and try to copy what they do.  Then keep any of those habits or practices that seem to work for you.  We often admire people who are manifesting what our own strengths would or will be when fully developed, so this can be a step in the right direction.  Whenever you find someone who is obnoxious and annoying, with a life that doesn't work very well, you have a bad example.  They will show you all kinds of things not  to do.  That's really useful information if you find people shying away from you but don't know why.  Most folks are aggravated by people who have the same kind of flaws they do.  So if you have a hard time seeing your own flaws clearly, the people who are most annoying to you will probably be good mirrors.

Helping Others

If you're just getting started helping other people, and especially if you're still trying to get a handle on your own personality and processes, keep it simple.

Check for physical needs first if someone comes to you upset about anything.  If someone is hungry, feed them, and try to make it nourishing comfort food.  If someone is cold, warm them up.  If they are tired, encourage them to take a nap or sleep over.  It's amazing how often people don't take good care of themselves -- and how big an improvement it can make once the basic needs are met.

Listen for expressed needs and wants that you could meet.  Sometimes a situation is really complicated, but other times all someone needs is a ride to the supermarket or someone to water their plants.  Quite frequently, all they need is someone to listen.  Whatever social skills you're developing, learn that one, because listening gives you the most bang for your buck.

Whenever someone does something nice, say "Thank you."  It takes two seconds, you can memorize lots of situations if you don't have an auto-prompt for this, and it's hard to go wrong with this.  It makes people feel great to be noticed and appreciated.  You can thank people for favors done for you, or for things done for other people.  If you want to make a big impression, get a carton of paper thank-you notes and send those when someone does something special.  This used to be routine but is now rare, so paper cards get you extra credit.

Watch for occasions when the help needed is simple and obvious.  The classic example is opening a door for someone whose hands are full, but there are plenty of other opportunities.  (If you're not sure help would be welcome, you can ask, "Would you like me to ...?")  This is the kind of social glue that helps hold a society together, but is getting rare.  You can improve that.

Watch for people drifting to the corners of an event or activity.  You don't necessarily have to pull them into the middle, but it will help if you just acknowledge their presence.  Say "Hi" or something like that.  Some people purposely migrate to the fringes because they don't really want to be there; they'll try to shoo you away, and that's okay.  But some people wind up on the fringes because they don't know what else to do, and sometimes they are really eager to talk and make friends, if somebody else makes the first move.  Then there's a third group: some folks know that their best match in most groups will be someone else on the fringes.  These people nab a corner or a wall and watch for each other.  You can see them scanning the room and they'll usually nod to each other when they make eye contact.  All you have to do to get into this loop is follow the same pattern: move to a wall or corner and sweep your gaze across the other people who have done the same.  People who don't want to be noticed usually keep their eyes down or aside.  People who want to be noticed will also be scanning the fringes, and they'll hold eye contact for a few seconds.  Then you just work your way around the edge of the group until you're standing or sitting next to that person, and you can start talking.

Smile.  Unless you're at a funeral or other solemn occasion, you pretty much can't go wrong with this one either.  Seeing someone else smile helps lift a person's spirits -- and it does the same thing for you.  It's not a cure-all but it's a nice little boost, and it's free.
Tags: community, family skills, networking
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