At times in my life, I have been utterly lonely. At other times, I've had disgusting infectious diseases. Try admitting these things in our culture, and you'll find they evoke identical responses: Listeners cringe with a mixture of pity, revulsion, and alarm. In a culture where everyone wants a happy family and a sizzling relationship, the phrase "I'm lonely" rings like the medieval leper's shout of "Unclean! Unclean!"
Fortunately, we now treat disease not by isolating its victims but by diagnosing and healing them. Finding those who can comprehend the emptiness of your heart, diagnosing and ameliorating its ailments, can keep you productively engaged when your loneliness is at its worst.
The Time-Tested BLD System
Allow me to introduce the Beck Loneliness Diagnostic System, which is based on years of research I've conducted by brooding about my own problems during bouts of emotional eating. My system divides loneliness into three categories—absolute, separation, and existential—each of which has different remedies. I prescribe two courses of action for each type: quick fixes (to feel better immediately) and long-term solutions (to banish it for good).
Type 1: Absolute Loneliness
This malady occurs when we believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is no one who understands us and no one who wants to. Absolutely lonely people have few personal interactions of any kind. Isolation creates indescribable despair, for which typical self-help advice—"Have a bubble bath! Try aromatherapy!"—is ridiculously inadequate. The only saving grace of this state is that it often hurts enough to motivate people to try the following prescriptions.
Basic human contact—the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words—is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain. If you're feeling abandoned by the world, interact with anyone you can—today. If you can afford it, hire a good therapist; if you can't, hire a bad one. Attend a 12-step group, claiming codependency if you have no addictions. Sift wheat from chaff later—right now, it's "Hail, fellow! Well met."
If you're living completely on your own, you must find understanding somewhere, somehow. No matter how scary it is to learn and use social skills, absolute loneliness is scarier. The best method to break out of solitary confinement is to seek to understand others, and help them understand you.
A simple three-step communication strategy is the most effective way to accomplish this. When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity; offer an honest compliment (step 1) followed by a question (step 2). Say "Cool hat. Where'd you get it?" Most often this approach will result in a brief, pleasant chat. Occasionally, though, someone will answer in such an interesting or charming way that you'll want to respond by volunteering information about yourself (step 3), such as "I can't wear hats—they make me look like a mongoose." Repeat these three steps, and you'll gradually connect at deeper and deeper levels.
The key word is gradually. Understanding is a dance of seven veils in which strangers take turns revealing a little more about themselves—not everything at once. Be patient, and the three-step combo can take you all the way from discussions of headgear to conversations like "You're amazing. Shall we get married?"