Do you breeze past engagement photos when you spot them on Instagram? Do you flip right by the rom-coms on cable? Did you decline yet another invitation to what is likely to be an all-couples soiree because you thought you might be the only single person there?
Even though the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that in 2016 there were 110 million unmarried people in America, there’s no shortage of seemingly blissfully happy couples in our social media feeds, making us feel like we’re the only ones that don’t have a genuine connection with that special someone.
Today we’ll touch on some cognitive tips, tricks, and techniques that I’ve found to be helpful when coping with the loneliness and the negative thoughts that often accompany being single.
Tip #1: Give yourself compassion for your sadness, anger, or frustration.
Perhaps you’re getting over a breakup? Maybe you just can’t bring yourself to be truly vulnerable with someone you're interested in? Or, perhaps you’re just plain tired of an endless carousel of disappointing first dates. The single life can be rife with invalidating experiences, so why not give yourself the compassion and validation you truly need? Kristin Neff’s book “Self-Compassion” is an excellent resource for just this. Kristin describes a three-step process of sending ourselves compassion:
1 Acknowledge that you are suffering and what you are feeling; “I’m feeling lonely/frustrated/sad and I'm having a hard time."
2 Remember that almost everyone has been through some kind of similar suffering before. The reminder of the shared human experience is often an effective way to ward off loneliness. “I can’t be the only one this has ever happened to; everyone feels lonely sometimes".
3 Send yourself positive vibes; “May I find some peace today to get me through this; may there be some happiness sent my way today”.
Sitting with your feelings, especially painful ones, can feel intolerable at times. And yet, embracing all the negative emotions that come with life is so important. After all, without the lows of sadness and heartbreak, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the highs of love and happiness. Check out the app, “Insight Timer” for some guided meditations that can lead you through this process.
Tip #2: Notice if there are unhelpful thought patterns getting in the way of your happiness.
When we find ourselves in unfortunate circumstances, it’s easy to get caught up in cycles of negative self-talk. In his book “Feeling Good,” Dr. David Burns describes several of the well-known negative thinking traps we can fall into:
We conclude that something negative that happened once will continue to happen again and again. An example might be if you are rejected when you ask someone out on a date and have the thought “This always happens to me every time.” Is it really true that this happens every time? Challenge yourself by thinking of examples when your generalization has been false, telling yourself you have no proof that such a pattern will occur indefinitely. Take a step back and examine the actual nature of the event. Viewing it as an isolated incident can help keep your thoughts from spiraling.
Black and white thinking
Seeing an event, person or quality from a black-and-white viewpoint assumes there are only extremes. “I don’t have a boyfriend so I’m a failure.” Get comfortable questioning the ‘grey’ area of your thinking. Leave room for doubt so the negative thoughts aren’t disproportionately represented. For example, “I have a great job and a wonderful group of friends... so I'm not a failure.”
I should be engaged by now.
I shouldn’t have to go to a wedding alone.
They should text me first.
Although your goal may be to motivate yourself, these ‘should’ statements usually only leave us feeling resentful and frustrated towards ourselves or someone else. When you find yourself engaging in a ‘should’ statement, slip into the devil’s advocate role and try arguing against what your belief system is telling you. Would it be helpful to look at your 'should' in another more inclusive, less rigid way?
Perhaps you get down on yourself when a date cancels, wondering what you did wrong. Assuming all of the blame for a negative event can be exhausting. Try adopting a neutral, non-blaming attitude; statements such as ‘things happen’ or ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ focus on the situation rather than you as a person. And for those times when you have been rejected, keep in mind that just because some people don’t prefer chocolate ice cream certainly doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with chocolate ice cream. The same is true about you.
Tip #3 Focus on what you are thankful for.
Gratitude is a powerful antidote for feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and anger. By practicing gratitude we actively train our minds to search for positivity rather than negativity. Gratitude is a great way to counter any of the thinking errors we just discussed. Here are some ways you can practice gratitude in your daily life:
1 Keep a gratitude journal noting all of the things you are thankful for. I recommend doing this at the same time every day for a few weeks to build a solid habit. Then, when you've got a consistent list, read it to yourself each day, really letting yourself feel the warmth and grateful feelings.
2 Don’t leave out seemingly small things i.e. running water; a comfortable pillow; a stranger opening the door for you.
3 Try a guided gratitude meditation practice - again, there are plenty of free ones that come with the “Insight Timer” app!
4 Share your gratitude list with someone; the positive feelings are contagious!
Looking at the single life through the lens of loneliness can be grey and murky. By practicing self-compassion, challenging our unhelpful thoughts, and focusing on gratitude, we can start to change our whole perspective. We can accept where we are, one moment, and one feeling at a time.
Burns, David D. (1980) Feeling Good. New York, NY: Harper.
Neff, Kristin. (2011) Self-Compassion. New York, NY: William Morrow.
United States Census Bureau. (2017, August 16). Unmarried and single Americans week: Sept 17-23, 2017. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2017/single-americans-week.html.