Clinical psychologist Dr. Guy Winch shares some insights and tips on dealing with loneliness. Guy is the author or the book Emotional First Aid. Paul also reads some surveys over his dog’s objections.
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Welcome to, uh, mini-episode number 163, uh, we're gonna talk about the topic of loneliness with my, uh, return guest, uh, PhD Clinical Psychologist, uh, Guy Winch.
Um, before we get to that interview I just wanted to read a couple of, uh, of surveys, um, on the topic of, of loneliness. Um, this is an excerpt from the shame and secrets survey, filled out by, uh, a woman who calls herself Chris. And, um, she's in her twenties and, 'what if anything do you wish for?'
'I wish I didn't spend every day inside avoiding people, avoiding life. I wish I could make things, do things and talk to people. Instead I just wait for my debt to explode, for my landlord to kick me out, for my mom to reject me. I wait for that injury that makes not having insurance a problem and for the explosion that will happen once others discover my withdrawal from life. I wish I could just be a normal person and go about my day running errands, exercising, having friends, working, finishing school, making some marks, having fun-- having some fun. Instead, I'm just an inert zombie, waiting for time to pass, trying desperately to make it fly by faster by engaging in perpetual distraction and completely ignoring my health'.
Well, I'm sending you, uh, you a hug, Chris. I think there's a lot of people that, uh-- and she also, um, isolates and binges on food and, and porn. And, um, just want to remind you are, that you are not alone. A lot of people battle, battle those things. And isolation is, uh, super common with those of us who are in pain.
Um, this is from the shouldn't feel this way survey, and this was filled out by, um, a woman who calls herself Anas, Anastasia. She is, um, in her twenties. And she writes, 'I'm supposed to feel free living on my own and not with my emotionally incestuous and emotionally abusive borderline mother but I don't. I feel terrified, petrified in my loneliness, abandoned like I could die right here in my big empty apartment and nobody would even know until the neighbors started complaining about the smell. I'm supposed to feel thankful that for all my, uh, loneliness I at least have one best friend who knows all of my struggles and can sympathize since she's been through similar pain but I just feel like the worst person in world when I tell her how I feel because I feel like I'm dragging her down with me, even when she insists that she want to be there for me. I can only hate myself that much more for being this great big black hole sucking the life, energy and happiness out of everyone and everything around me. And then I feel like a self-centered fuck for thinking that I could make that much of an impression or dent in someone else's life, when really I'm just a pathetic inconsequential waste of space.'
Wow. You have out-hated yourself. You have out-hated my hatred of myself and the hatred of many, many, many people who have filled these surveys out. You-- to me that is so clearly, soun, to me, sounds like the residual effects of having a, a an untreated mother, um, who I'm sure manipulated and browbeat you and, um, gaslighted you and it's gonna take some time to undo that stuff. And let your friend love you. Believe your friend-- that your friend wants to be there for you. You know? Sending you a hug.
Um, this is from the struggle in a sentence survey and this is filled out by a guy who calls himself Southwest Sinapore. And, um, there's a new question I added to this survey which says give us a, a snapshot moment from your life that highlights one of your issues or struggles. And, uh, this isn't really a snapshot that he gave but I, I thought it was worth reading. He says, 'I feel weak, insignificant, like a failure and angry at the same time whenever I log onto Facebook, but I can't stop'.
I can not tell you how many people have an addictive, abusive relationship with Facebook. And I know a lot of people who have started giving it up. And I encourage you not to give it up forever but take a break from it and see, see how that feels, um, cause so many people have such a, view it through the lens of social competitiveness. And, um, I don't know. My two cents.
Um, and then I want to read this last one before we get to the, uh, section with Guy. And this was fro, from the shouldn't feel this way survey filled out by, um, a woman who calls herself A.S. and she's twenty-six. She writes, 'I'm supposed to feel grateful to have a job but I don't. I feel resentful and depressed about having to spend forty hours a week bored hurting my wrists and eyes through computer usage so I can afford to come home to my apartment and do nothing because I'm emotionally drained from working forty hours at a job I don't like. I'm supposed to feel happy and relieved to be away from my emotionally abusive ex but I only do sometimes, other times I feel sad, lonely, wish I could have been what he wanted. Wish he didn't look down on me. Wish he still loved and respected me. I'm supposed to feel good about being single and quote 'free' but I feel lonely and sexually frustrated and worry that nobody will ever truly love me without hav, my having to pretend I'm someone else.'
You know, the thing that leapt out at me when I read that was about your, your emotionally abusive ex. Understand when you're with somebody who is emotionally abusive the game they get you to play is to constantly try to be somebody that you're not. That's how they derive their power from. You could never-- see, guys like him are afraid of emotional intimacy and, and to avoid having to look at that in themselves they project their anger and their dislike of themselves onto other people. And they have you running laps around them, tap dancing, trying to be everything that they can be so they don't have to look at themselves. It's a drug. It's a drug to, to the person who's being manipulated and to the person who's doing the abusing. So, um, find some friends that you can get honest with and, um, that's-- Guy Winch is gonna talk about relationship muscles in this and that would be a good place to, um, put on your, your relationship, uh, training wheels and start creating some healthy templates for, for relationships. Or go fuck yourself. Either one. I leave it up to you.
Let's catch up with Guy Winch.
Uh, we've talked previous about rumination, uh, about rejection, uh, what's another large issue that people deal with that you have some tips for?
GW: So another big one, um, is loneliness. Um, loneliness by definition is a subjective experience. It's not about the quantity of friends you have. It's about whether you feel a certain amount of emotional or social disconnection. And people can be married but very, very lonely. And people can seemingly have a lot of friends but feel very, very lonely. It's entirely subjective. The problem with loneliness is two fold: uh, number one, it really impacts us psychologically and behaviorally. And number two, it has a whopping impact on our physical health. Um, they did one study for example in which they noted college freshmen-- incoming freshmen-- and they were giving them flu shots and as part of the question is as they did that they were asking them do you feel lonely, which a lot of times college freshmen do, but then they saw the college freshmen who claimed they were lonely had much poorer responses to the flu shot than the non-lonely college freshmen because one of the things loneliness does is it depressed our immune system.
GW: Literally. Um, it depressed our immune system. It puts us at risk for depression. And, and late in life altimers', uh, disease, for a more rapid progression of altimer's disease (sp?), for cardiovascular disease. And when scientists looked, at well, all these health risks what they found was when you look at them, it actually cost us years of our lives and longevity. Lonely people live less long than, uh, non-lonely people with the same health, uh, profile. Number one. And number two, they concluded that chronic loneliness poses as large a risk to our long time health and longevity as cigarette smoking.
GW: As much as cigarette smoking and cigarette packs come with warnings from the surgeon general and loneliness does not.
PG: What a great point. So what are some, some tips and tools for people who are experiencing loneliness and they don't know how to get out of it?
GW: Well, first of all, it's indeed, very difficult to get out of it. There's a certain trap that loneliness presents because when you're, uh, emotionally withdrawn or when you're socially withdrawn then you start to not use certain skill sets. You're not using your social skills if you're socially withdrawn or isolated. You're not using your empathy and sympathy and supportive listening skills. You're, you know, in a marriage but you're emotionally disconnected. And those skills atrophy with time, uh, when we don't use them. Um, and the other thing that happens is that lonely people tend to evaluate their friends and their friendships as less desirable than they actually are, um, then how they would evaluate them if they were not lonely. So there's a big self-fulfilling prophecy that happens with lonely people. They are convinced that people don't want them. That they won't be desired. That they won't be wanted. And so they approach people with a certain amount of suspicion. With a certain amount of distance. With a certain kind of vibe that actually pushes people away. And then it gets, self-reinforces, you know, I'm not gonna go to that party because I won't know anyone there. So I won't go. Or if I do go no one will want to talk to me so I'm gonna park myself right here by the hummus and the vegetable dip and sure enough no one's talking to me.
PG: (laughs) That's so true. It's so true and I, I have acquaintances, um, and I suppose friends, like that, who are just, you can see them caught in this cycle and, and you can tell them they're great personable people, you know, you can meet them for coffee and, you know, sometimes it'll shake them out of it a little bit but it seems like ultimately they need to take charge of it. Like they can't be caretaken and pulled out of it. They need to make the decision to say, 'I'm in a cycle. I need some new, some new habits. I need a new change in my consciousness'. Even if it feels phony at first, um, almost like going to the gym, of saying, ' I don't want to go to the gym but I'm told this is good for me so I'm just gonna do it until my body feels more invigorated'.
GW: You, you're absolutely right. It is a little bit of 'fake it till you make it' first. And the thing is that it's very, very difficult because you really are convinced, you know, and number one and number two, you really don't see that you're pushing people away. You do not see it. I, I did this one radio show, uh, where people had, were calling in, were writing on the Facebook page of the show and they were giving you those questions during the show. And one person actually, and we're talking about loneliness, and one person actually, they were, they read from the Facebook page, 'I have trouble meeting new people because I'm just in no kind of circumstance in which I can meet or can communicate with people who feel like me'. When you're on the Facebook page of the show with a hundred other people who feel like you.
GW: But he could not see it. Could not see it because he was like, 'no, there's no one that feels like me'. Just-- it's Facebook, your name is on there, so is the name of everyone else. You can friend them right now. But it's just the blindness, you know, it's just so hard to see.
PG: Is it because we're always searching for an identity for ourselves and they've latched onto that and so that they're looking for things to reinforce the identity that they've given themselves?
GW: In part. But it's also because, they, you feel so emotionally raw. So to put yourself in a situation where you might actually try to friend someone and they'll say no-- you become very risk adverse. And very rejection adverse. And the best way to protect yourself from rejection is to not put yourself in that situation which is what you have to do if you're going to come out of the loneliness.
PG: And vulnerability's so frightening.
GW: So frightening, and number one and number two, you know, if, if you have the flu and you're in bed for a week and you get out of bed for the first time, your legs are gonna be wobbly and you're like, 'ah, my muscles are weak, I have to strengthen them'. It'll be very clear to you, yeah, they're weaker than use them. But if you haven't dated for three year and you go on a date, those muscles are gonna be weak too. You're going to be rusty, probably not going to go that well. But when it doesn't go well, you're not going to conclude, 'Boy, my dating skills are rusty, I need to keep doing this and practice'. You're going to conclude, 'See? I am undesirable'. And that's wrong. It's your skill set.
PG: Yeah. That makes total sense. So, uh, any other tips for how to, uh, deal with loneliness?
GW: So, yeah, so the first thing is you really have to accept that you are doing things that are not helping and you have to have an open mind about it. It's very, it's the most difficult thing because you really feel in such pain, that you feel like 'no, now I'm to blame as well?' You're not to blame. This is what happens when we're lonely. This is a psychological response, uh, our brains and our minds, you know, uh, have to loneliness. So you're not to blame per se, but yes, you are doing something that you need to do different. If you're gonna call a friend who hasn't reached out to you for a month, don't call and say, 'you know, I haven't spoken to you in a month'. Call and say, 'hey! Let's have coffee!” Now, it might be difficult to put on the smile and, and, and your tone of voice and say, 'hey! Let's have coffee!' when you're sitting there annoyed like A- you haven't called me in a month, why do I always have to call you, excreta, excreta but that's the fake it till you make it. But on the smile and say 'hey! Let's have coffee!' and they'll be much more likely to do it.
PG: And know that you're just strengthening your emotional legs.
GW: You-- and I call it the relationship muscles.
GW: You need to strengthen the relationship muscles.
PG: What are some other tips?
GW: So another thing about loneliness-- and this is one of the, you know, the, the-- a lot of bad things about loneliness. I, I don't want to scare people but I want them to understand that it's really dire. That you need to take action. Don't just succumb to it. But it's contagious. It turns out. When we look at social networks and you track social, uh, people all the time and social networks, lonely people get pushed to the periphery of those networks. And the people closest to them get pushed out as well. Loneliness is a stigma. And that's why when you're coming across negatively you're stigmatizing yourself in that way. You are coming across as too needy or two suspicious. You're labeling yourself as, you know, the stakes are too high. And you're usually doing it in a casual situation where the stakes shouldn't be that high. That's why it's important to fake the smile, you know, fake the hello. You know, I say to people, you know, you-- 'how many friends do you have on Facebook? Oh, two hundred and none of them will have coffee with you? How many people are in your address book or in your email address book? It's just not possible that you're not-- you know, that, that-- if you just feel, 'they won't so why reach out?' Indeed they won't. So you really have to check those self-defeating prophecies.
PG: It would be great if people could see thirty seconds of their face in social situations and see what they're presenting to the outside world.
GW: That would be amazing. Is there a way to do that? That would be so good.
PG: I don't, I don't know. Um, maybe have lonely people meet each other in casino and have the pit boss then go and get the film.
GW: Okay. They would have to be facing the cameras. But, uh, you know, ano, another interesting thing about loneliness, you know, since we, you know, lonely people find these kinds of interactions stressful. Even the casual ones. They did one study where they, lonely people who were housebound and they gave them three kinds of visits. They gave them a visit from a volunteer who came to sit with them and talk with them. A visit from a volunteer that brought a dog. And a visit from just the dog. And then they ask them who they would like to be visited by again.
PG: The dog.
GW: Of course, the dog! Now, the thing is, now I don't know-- by the way, they said to the volunteers, 'yeah, you know, you came in second to the animal that likes to lick itself and drink out of the toilet'.
GW: But-- I don't know. I hope they didn't. But it's the dog because you're not stressed out about the dog. You're not worried about what will they think of me, what-- will I have enough to say, what'll-- and you are thinking about those things when you're relationship muscles are, are weak and rusty.
PG: So, what-- is that a way for that person to, to ease in or is that just used for
GW: Yeah, accept it, accept that you need to strengthen those muscles. Your first few dates are going to be bad.
GW: You know, like, you know when you interview
PG: Not that you should date a dog in the beginning.
GW: Well, depending, it might be good. But, um, if you are going on job interviews after a very long time, go on the, the one you care about least first. Get that out of the way. Kind of, you know, get into it a little bit. And same thing with the dates. Go out on the ones you're not that interested in first. Get some practice.
PG: What a great idea. What a great idea. I-- your tools are so helpful, so pragmatic and so simple.
PG: I'm really, I'm really glad to have you, um, as a guest on the, on the podcast. Um, I think the listeners are gonna get so much from your, your advice and I want to encourage them, uh, to get your book. Um, Tool For, uh, uh, Tool For Emotional First Aid or just Emotional
GW: Just Emotional First Aid.
PG: Emotional First Aid. And your website is Guywinch.com (sp?). Uh, any other tools for, uh, for dealing with loneliness?
GW: I think those are the main ones. I mean, there are a few others in the book, but I really-- it's a leap of faith. You know, you do-- it's bravery. It's a leap of faith. And it's a decision like 'I'm breaking this cycle'. Because you are caught in a cycle.
PG: And something else that I would add to it, because it has saved my life, is trying to imbue my life with a sense of meaning and purpose. And it is impossible, for me at least and people I know, to get a sense of meaning and purpose without connecting to other human beings.
GW: Yes, because, actually, you know, it's hard to find that on an island.
GW: No, no, I'm serious.
GW: Meaning and purpose is by definition about people. And so that connection is vital.
PG: Guy Winch, thank you so much.
GW: Thank you.
PG: Thank you, Guy. And, uh, we've got three more installments coming up, um, in future mini-episodes. The next one will be on failure. Um, would it be ironic if I failed to put that one up? Mm, not really, Paul. Uh, the one on that, uh, after that would be low self-esteem and then after that, uh, guilt and I've invited him to come do more because, uh, the feedback that we've been getting has been, uh, has been really positive. And, um, I'm glad you guys, I'm glad you guys like him.
So, I just want to read, um, a couple more surveys and then I'll send you on your way. Than you can put your gaberdine jacket back on and, uh, go, go down to the local donut shop and, uh, as Andy Kindler (sp?) would say and a third thing.
Um, this is from the shouldn't feel this way survey filled out by a woman that calls herself Laura and she's in her twenties. Uh, 'what would you like people to say about you at your funeral?'
'Mostly I would like to hear them recount memories, but not of big events that happened in our lives: graduation, weddings or anything like that-- but of small moments, like us sitting around, we had a nice conversation and I said something that was memorable. Or we shared a beer and had a nice time. Anything like that. I often think', uh, 'about people in these small moments and the things they've said and done but I'm terribly afraid that people don't think about these kinds of moments about me. Also, this sounds very selfish, but I just want them to keep talking about how much they will miss me. But only sincerely. I constantly feel like if I just completely left people's lives, not necessarily because of death, they would not miss me at all. There's a bit from the film 700 Hours that put it really well, just after James Franco's character has met two girls who invited him to a party. And is left one of them asks the other whether she thinks he will come to the party. The other girl replies, 'I don't think we figured in his day at all'. That is exactly how I feel all the time. Like I don't figure in people's lives at all. I'd like to see people talk about how much I figured in their lives, even in small ways.'
'How does writing that makes you feel?'
'Mostly it makes me incredibly sad that I won't actually witness any of this even if it happens. And in real life I'm too scared to ask people to tell me these things even though it would probably not be so bad.'
You know, I can tell you the friends that I've made as I've started healing and doing my support groups and all that stuff, I do have those kinds of conversations. And I do try to tell people how much they means to me and, and memories I have of them and moments that I think about and sometimes when one will come up to me I'll just txt somebody and say, 'I'm just thinking about you' or 'I'm thinking about that', you know, 'that time we laughed'. Um, and you can have those. You can have those.
Um, she writes, 'I'm supposed to feel loving about my younger brother and want to help him become a better person but I don't. I feel resentful'.
Uh, then you know, I say take a break from it.
Uh, 'I'm supposed to feel alright about not having a boyfriend but I don't. I feel incredibly lonely and worthless.'
'How does writing that make you feel?'
'It makes me feel a lot better. Like I'm finally confronting these feelings.'
'Do you think you're abnormal for feeling what you do?'
'I know that logically I'm not but just emotionally and in my head I feel abnormal every time I think these things.'
'Would knowing other people feel the same way make you feel better about yourself?'
Well, take my word for it, Laura, lots and lots and lots of people feel exactly that same way. I'm sending you a hug. Um, I haven't decided if I'm going to do it through the post office or UPS though. I've been spending a lot of money sending hugs via UPS. And you know what? I'm getting resentful at it. So, fuck you guys, you know, fuck-- I just realized there's monthly donors that support this show and they fund that. I take my resentment back. By the way, can I overstate how much I'm hating this bit that I'm doing? I cannot. But I'm not gonna rewind.
Um, this is from the shame and secrets survey and there's just the, a couple of sections I wanted to read. This was filled out by a guy who calls himself May As Well Be Alone. Um, 'darkest thoughts?'
'I often fantasize about my entire--'
Oh, and he is, uh, twenty.
Um, 'I often fantasize about my entire family and friends circle dying or otherwise leaving me. I've never been seriously abused by my family or friends, but I feel like I may as well have been an orphan who grew up with no friends. I feel like no amount of talking to people, even professionals, could get them to understand the whirlwind of confusing, terrifying and sometimes life-threatening thoughts that go on in my mind. I feel as if life would be easier if I was a complete loner because suicide and/or drug addiction would be much easier for me. I want my life to be short-lived, with moments of drug induced highs before ultimately overdosing. And I think it would be best if no one knew me when this happened because the pain I live with can't be passed on to them.'
'What if anything do you wish for?'
'I wish for a life where I didn't crave love and acceptance so much. I wish I didn't care that the people who were once so important to me are no longer a part of my life. I wish I could enter into a coma and wake up five years later and start a completely new life.'
Um, that breaks my heart, that line 'I wish for a life where I didn't crave love and acceptance so much'. Don't. Don't. That's, that's your humanity. That is the part of you that you should try to keep alive. Because once we stop wanting love and to be seen for who we are, um, you know, that, that, that's when life loses it's, it's luster. Even in my darkest, darkest times, um, I, I still have, have always held on to the, to wanting to love people and to wanting to be loved. And I'm, I'm grateful to that because sometimes I think that's, that's helped keep me alive. It's given me something to, to kind of reach out for, so I-- don't, don't try to, don't wish to lose that.
Um, boy my dogs are really, uh, they're showing up on this episode. They're (laughs) digging the carpet. Which is that? Is that Ivy or Herbert? Oh, that's Herbert. Herbert's got a cone on his head, by the way. (noise of dogs scratching at carpet) Oh yeah, dig it up. Why should you be quiet? Why should you be quiet in this twenty minute section I'm recording in-- completely quiet the last four hours but flick that mic on and oh! (laughs)
'Have you shared these things with others?'
'I've only told these things to professionals and their response is mostly asking me to think rationally about whether or not my problems would go away if thes-- if these wishes were true. I don't know how to respond to that but I think they missed the deeper problems I was trying to convey to them.'
'How do you feel after writing these things down?'
'Like there's a lump in my throat. Like I'm stuck in this mindset. But I also feel hopeful that maybe one day I'll meet someone who can love and accept me for thinking these things.'
I can tell you there's a gazillion people out there that would love and accept you for thinking those things. And sounds cliché but I, I, I hope you can get to a place where you, you love yourself and then you get into a relationship and you got love to give to that person as opposed to trying to love yourself through them, cause that can be kind of a dead end.
Oh, I know Herbert. This is all very exciting. He's, he's been having hot spots on his ass and he doesn't care for it. That's why he's got the cone. Oh yeah. I'll be done in a minute. Fucking looking at me.
This is, uh--
(dog making noises)
Herbert... can I read one more survey?
I'm gonna read one more survey. I don't care what he says.
Hey! He's giving me the stink eye. This is from the happy moments survey, filled out by a guy who calls himself Miles O Pain. And, uh, this, this is the happy moments survey and he writes, 'I am a recently,' uh, 'divorced 41 year old dad who has also been financially destroyed. For financial and child care reasons, I share two small bedrooms,' Um.
(more dog noises)
'Two bedrooms-- I share a two bedroom'
Herbert, you're fucking me up, buddy! I'm ki-- should I kick him out of the room?
'For financial and child care reasons I share a two bedroom trailer with my parents. One weekend when my kids were here with me I was laying in the bottom bunk I share with my six year old son. My insomnia and depression were battling it out. I starred at the bunk bed above me, unable to stop the tears or the thoughts that I couldn't go on. My son shimmied down the ladder from the top bunk and hopped in bed with me. He put his arms around me and said, 'I love you, daddy'. I was so elated to hear my son say those words, I wasn't the least bit disappointed when his next words were, 'Can I play angry birds?'
(laughs) That's awesome. Thank you for that, Miles. And thank you guys for, uh, for listening. And, uh, I hope you know that you're, you're not alone. And loneliness is a, is a mother fucker. Um, I think Ben Franklin said that. Alright, see ya. See ya Friday!