All By Myself: Lonely and too ashamed to ask for help
As a counselor, I’m often asked by people about the right time to seek help. This same question comes up with people who are confronting loneliness. We hear a lot about loneliness as a public epidemic and as an issue that impacts our mental health. So at what point should someone who experiences loneliness turn to others for help, even professional help?
Before diving into this question, I want to clarify two things relating to your behavioral and emotional well-being.
First, when deciding whether or not to seek professional behavioral and emotional counseling, trust your instincts. Our bodies and minds know when we’re being stretched to the max, and most times you can determine for yourself when you need the assistance of someone else, whether that be a trusted friend or family member or a professional, to step in and help you seek healing.
Secondly, I’ll be offering guidance in this article about when to take the step to seek help, but I want to encourage you to have a bias toward seeking support, always. If you feel like you’re on the line, seek out the guidance of others rather than bottling up everything and trying to tackle issues on your own. It is necessary for you to be humble. Listen to those who love you the most. If you are hearing or sensing from more than 2 or 3 witnesses that you could use some help, do yourself a favor -- don’t get defensive. There is no shame in asking for support. It is written, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” What does that mean? It means that the people who love you the most will risk losing your love in order to save your soul. We have other humans in our life for a reason. Your real friends, family, and counseling professionals will see it as an honor to help you be the person you want to be: whole, healthy, and impactful in this world.
Ok, so when does loneliness cross a line from something you can handle on your own to something you should deal with alongside a professional counselor?
Let’s remember first of all that being alone and feeling lonely are two distinct things. Being alone is not necessarily a bad thing--actually the benefits of solitude are plentiful. Solitude offers us the chance to recharge, to think, to breath, to generate, to create, to strategize, to process--need I continue? As humans, we need time alone to contemplate our place in this world. In fact, our friends and family benefit greatly when we take time to ground and rest ourselves so that we can come back to our interpersonal relationships with energy and passion.
Now I’ll admit, I hate being alone--even though I know it’s necessary for me. And sometimes when I’m alone, I feel lonely at the same time. I want to connect with other people. And sometimes when I am alone, that recharging and creating and processing I’m supposed to be doing degenerates into brooding and Netflix binging. If you’re an extrovert, alone time can be especially hard. It can be despairing.
And as I noted last week, you can even feel lonely when people are all around you. What’s often worse about this situation of loneliness is that it’s hard to recharge and ground yourself when you’re having to interact with the people around you in a non-meaningful, disconnected way.
What I’m reaching for, ultimately, is that life requires balance: time alone, meaningful time with others, and time when you’re even surrounded with people but don’t feel connected to any of them. These are experiences we’ll have throughout life.
Diagnosing unhealthy loneliness then is not that easy. There aren’t quantitative metrics that can allow us to say, “you don’t have enough friends, you’re too lonely and thus you should seek counseling.”
Instead, I’ll offer two reasons that should be motivating for you to seek help.
First, if your experience of loneliness feels uniquely isolating and is impacting your behavior in other ways, you should consider seeking professional help. If you’re feeling especially anxious, depressed, or angry, these might be signs that your experience of isolation and loneliness is connected to other mental health issues as well. If being lonely is keeping you from doing basic tasks like getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed, or eating, or having a normal life, you should consider seeking help. Maybe you’re overeating, taking too much Adderall or smoking too much marijuana. Any time you recognize behavioral changes like these in yourself is a good time to stop, take a breath, and consider gathering the courage to be vulnerable and to ask for help. Maybe it’s just a friend or family member. Maybe it’s a licensed therapist. But loneliness, especially when it starts causing other mental health issues or being fed by them, demands your attention. As a therapist, it’s been my honor to help many people confront these things that are keeping them from living their most passionate, present, and powerful lives. I’ve seen so many courageous people rise to confront their demons and debilitating experiences, persistent and consistent in their commitment to conquer darkness with the light that resides inside of them.
While we just looked at some measurable behaviors that might be reasons to seek help in regards to loneliness, I also want to note the validity of just feeling extreme loneliness and deciding to seek help. You may be going through life normally. You may be extremely productive at work and even have a large friend group and a long-time relationship. But you can still feel very lonely in the midst of this. This feeling of loneliness, and whatever lies beneath it, is worth excavating--and worth seeking the help of others.
While loneliness is something we will all experience at some point in our lives, know that seeking help for it is an option for you, even if you don’t feel like it’s an urgent need. Long-term experiences of loneliness can be detrimental to our emotional, behavioral, and physical health. It’s worth learning how to be more comfortable with your own identity, to believe that the fight is not pointless. Maybe it’s time to step out on faith. Maybe it’s time for you to believe again.