Monday, June 14, 2010

Acknowledging and Working Out an Emotion: Loneliness

In last week's post, I wrote about long-term strategies to stop my emotional eating. A key paragraph from that post was:

I try to force these emotions to the forefront so I can figure out what they are, what is causing them, how and why they are affecting me, and how can I work them out. Basically, I have learned that unacknowledged emotions, particularly when they are negative, often drive me to overeat or binge. They’ll hurt me more long term if I ignore them than if I make myself go through the sometimes painful or uncomfortable process of acknowledging them, figuring them out and working them out. It is helpful to not judge myself through this process.

How do I do this? How do I acknowledge an emotion and work it out? It varies. Self-awareness is very important to this process, but serendipity can be as well. It can often start with reading, writing, attending Weight Watcher and even RWA meetings or talking with friends or
family. I try to pay attention to what resonates, and often, the greater my reaction the greater the emotion is tripping me up.

I have subscribed to Oprah's O Magazine for years. Reading it gives me a boost of positivity or optimism and plenty of ideas on how to improve my life. Each issue has a theme. Several years ago, I picked up my mail and saw that the theme for that month's issue was loneliness. I thought that was such a strange topic for a magazine. What could anybody write about that? Curiosity more than anything else
convinced me to pick that magazine up later that week and start reading it.

A couple of hours later, I closed the covers of that magazine having read it word-for-word, and I was shocked. Every
article on loneliness had resonated - even the one about a single guy and his cat. I just sat on my futon for a couple of minutes feeling lost and tried to process it all. This was not good. I had a new filter through which to view the past several years of my life, and I did not like what I could see. Some of the stuff I had even been proud of, such as my ability to go out to a restaurant and eat alone, did not look so healthy when I acknowledged how much I would overeat at those meals because I was probably feeling lonely. What should I do?

Luckily, the Martha Beck article in that issue was all about what one should do when she felt lonely, so the first thing I did was reread that article. She talked about levels of loneliness and what one should do at each level. I pretty much felt like I was at the rock bottom level and used her advice in that section as a starting point as to how to evaluate my current social life and make some positive changes. It was typical stuff - join groups centered on what you are interested in, do volunteer work, start reaching out socially, etc.

Figuring out what to do and implementing these changes did not happen overnight, and it was often uncomfortable. But, as Beck had said in her article, one can reach a point that maintaining the status quo is worse than making the necessary changes. So, I forced myself to think about what was wrong and right with my current social life, what had worked well with my social life in the past, and what I could do to recreate that.

The biggest problem with my DC social life at that point was all my friends were married, and some were even starting to procreate. Our lives were diverging, and these married friends were going to become less and less a part of my life and less like me. I had an active, online social life, but it was nowhere near meeting my social needs. (An interesting editorial on that topic can be found
in Saturday's New York Times.) It became obvious that I needed to make some single friends in DC. How could I do this?

The easiest places I'd ever made friends in my adult life were at school or at RWA meetings. Work, my closest equivalent to school, and RWA were full of married people, so I couldn't rely on those two groups to meet my social needs. I did reach out to single people at work and in RWA, but I needed to do more. I had to do what had been almost unthinkable. I
needed to go to singles events.

I did research online, again thought about what I had done in the past and remembered that I had gone to alumni groups in the past. I looked up the alumni groups for my undergrad school, my grad school and even my sorority, and started attending some of their events. It turned out there is an organization called Ivy Singles in DC and other major cities. To quote from the DC Web site, it is: "a coalition of Ivy League, Seven Sister and other prestigious schools' regional alumni associations that sponsors social activities. Our events are open to all single alumni of member schools and their guests. Most of our attendees are in their 30's, 40's or 50's, but all ages are welcome." This Web site also had links to other single groups in the DC area, and Single Volunteers looked really interesting.

So, I signed up for my first Ivy Singles event. I'm as much an introvert as the next writer. I hate walking into a room of strangers and having to socialize, but I have to do it for work, and I needed to do it for myself. I dressed up in a suit that I thought was the most flattering one I owned. It was a plus size suit, I weighed more than 200 pounds, I didn't expect to get a date, but I had to do something to improve my social life.

The first few minutes were tough, but it got better. One of the first people I spoke to was a 22-year-old recent graduate of Stanford. He had just talked to another woman whom he thought I should meet, and he introduced me to my new friend May. This reception just got ten times easier and gave me forward momentum to continue these efforts. I did some single volunteer projects and went to the next Ivy Single event and met even more new friends. The majority of the participants at these events did feel like they were in their 40's and 50's, so the late 20 and 30-somethings at this one started a list of "younger" Ivy Singles and started to plan alternative, free events. Eventually, I helped organize some of them. A few of my new "Ivy Single" friends introduced me to some of their other single friends. Slowly, I built a circle of single friends whom I greatly value.

With that base set, I felt comfortable reaching out socially in other places and started to do a high level of volunteer work in my local RWA chapter and built more ties there. Most of my closest adult friends have come from RWA because we seem to get each other. I've even heard an author call her RWA friends her soul sisters or soul mates. I needed more soul sisters in DC.

Through this process of acknowledging and addressing my loneliness, I learned how important my social life is to my happiness and well being. I need to be social. I'm willing to organize social events, and that helps so much. The photos in this blog are from my birthday last week. I organized a dinner with my single friends the night of my birthday (Friday, June 4) and an afternoon tea with my local female friends, married and single, over the weekend. I've done many things for my birthday. I celebrated my 30th by going to Italy with my sister, and I've done nothing but make up stories of how I celebrated with friends to tell my parents and sister so they wouldn't give me a hard time or feel bad for me. I'm much happier if I do something social to acknowledge the occasion.

Acknowledging and working out an emotion does not seem to mean that it will never bother you again. I'm sure that I've occasionally overeaten since I made my group of single friends in DC because of loneliness. Loneliness is a very real thing to many of my single friends, and we'll talk about it. I know what I need to do to ward it off. I even set an annual goal of doing at least 4 social things a month and touch base every so often to make sure my inner hermit has not come out and taken over my life temporarily. I'll occasionally ask myself: Are there other things I should do to maintain or improve my social life? I've dabbled with online dating and may try to do more there. Some of my beloved single friends are starting to pair off, and I may need to do some outreach to make more single friends. I'm slowly realizing that I may even have to go to some more Ivy Singles receptions and Single Volunteer events by myself to make sure I meet new people.

Yes, making sure I'm aware of whether or not I'm feeling lonely and whether or not I need to do more social things take work, but my life (and butt) are better for me making this effort. I do this same kind of work for other emotions. I realize that many of the followers of this blog are married and stories about loneliness may not resonate, but the process of acknowledging and working out an emotion that troubles you may be similar to what I just described.

How do you acknowledge and work out an emotion that may be negatively impacting your life? What works best for you?

Michelle Butler has made becoming a healthy writer a priority. She lives, works and writes in the Washington, DC, area. You can follow her on twitter at:


Anne MacFarlane on June 12, 2010 at 7:52 PM said...

Michelle, I so admire you taking the initiative in dealing with loneliness. I'm single now but I have daughters still at home although one is a university student and the other going into her last year of high school.

I realized a few years ago that the day would come fairly soon when I would be an empty nester. That's when I started making an effort to have more of a social life. Accepting invitations, reconnecting with old friends, having movie nights and drinks with some of the members of my RWA chapter.

One thing I have noticed is that as my married friends get older and the kids leave, they're much more available for "girls" nights and travel than they've been since they were first married.

I still need to do more and you've given me some ideas to explore.

Michelle Butler on June 12, 2010 at 8:46 PM said...

Thank you, Anne. I owe a lot to whatever editor decided to build a magazine issue around the theme of loneliness - and including an article that would tell me what to do while I was still feeling stunned.

I had no idea how big of a factor it was for me. I was very, very good at repressing, numbing out or refusing/being unable to recognize what I was feeling. It was a hard lesson to learn, but doing what I had to do to address loneliness has been invaluable. I still could do more and will use some of your ideas too.

Best wishes with the empty nest when your daughters grow a little older. How smart you were to start preparing for it years in advance.

Keri Mikulski on June 14, 2010 at 7:13 AM said...

Wow, Michelle.. Way to step to the plate, acknowledge what was going on, and do something about it.. And to share it with others is so greatly admired.

I always have a hard time figuring out what is bothering me.. Usually I'm just stressed. Sometimes writing will help because I'll be in the middle of writing and bam - I'll start writing about what's bothering me.

Great post.

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) on June 14, 2010 at 8:57 AM said...

Another wonderful, thought-provoking post, Michelle. And even though I'm married, I can relate. Most of my friends are married but also have kids. Since I don't have kids, I have nothing to contribute when those types of conversations start in groups. Plus, when people have kids, most of their time is consumed with kid-related things when they're not working. I can get lonely for just friend gatherings sometimes, especially since I work at home now. That's why I enjoy RWA gatherings such as chapter meetings and conferences so much. I get a big dose of girlfriend time.

Elise Hayes on June 14, 2010 at 10:09 AM said...

Great post, Michelle! I definitely struggled a lot more to make friends once I finished school and started my professional life. My husband and I have been in the DC area for over 10 years now and while we have a core group of good friends, they're friends we usually only see four or five times a year socially--both because work and family take up so much time, but also because in a large urban area, distance and traffic become huge problems. Most of our really close friends live 30-60 minutes away (depending on traffic). That makes it a real time commitment to try to get together.

I have been trying to be better about making that effort this year and have somewhat succeeded--but it's a struggle.

Sally Kilpatrick on June 14, 2010 at 1:09 PM said...

Michelle, you never cease to amaze my by how you grab a bull by the horns and set off to fix whatever it is that bothers you.

I, too, need to meet more married friends with children of my age. I'm sorry, but it really doesn't get easier when you have kids. I've done some of the same things you mentioned, and I do have friends. However, my closest friend still lives over 6 hours away.

Oh, and I did have a breakthrough I think. I eat when I'm nervous. (And when I'm happy, and when I'm sad...) No, seriously, the only time I eat with reckless abandon is when I'm nervous--especially good nervous. I think reading about your journey has helped me to discover that, so I say thank you!

Rachel Kleinsorge on June 14, 2010 at 3:31 PM said...

I'm blown away by the raw honesty in your post. After the death of my only 'girl' friend in March, I'm in the position you were in before, except I have a husband. I always heard from people that we lose our ability to make new friends about the time we stop going to school, but your example says otherwise. I'm going to challenge myself to your 4 social events a month goal... except I might make it 2. I'm not that brave. :P

Button Fuzz on June 14, 2010 at 7:30 PM said...

Wow, excellent post! (can you tell I'm not a writer?) Insightful - it's hard to self-diagnose like that. Proactive read.

Michelle Butler on June 16, 2010 at 9:48 PM said...

Writing can really help me figure out what is bothering me. If I'm just feeling fairly overwhelmed by a negative emotion and can't figure out what is bringing me down/making me mad/etc., I'll pick up my journal (often after awhile unless it's REALLY strong) and start writing. Usually, the heart of the matter will come out in a few pages. Once I discover and face what is bothering me, I can often "work it out" enough that it no longer has such a hold/influence on me.

Michelle Butler on June 16, 2010 at 9:50 PM said...

Thanks! I hear you about girlfriend time at RWA.

When I went to my 10-year college reunion, all the single girls couldn't believe how many women were married. The married women with no kids could not believe how many married women had kids. And, the married with kids women were pretty frazzled watching their kids while trying to get some adult time with beloved, older friends. Is there a way you can make more married with no kids friends?

Michelle Butler on June 16, 2010 at 9:52 PM said...

Thanks, Elise! Living right next door to friends (or in the same dorm building) makes it so much easier to socialize. I also think we're thinking back to a time when we had so much more energy and so much less commitments. :)

Even though I enjoy the socializing so much, I have to make the effort to do the work to arrange it. And, I have to remind myself to do it. I do have to be that "mechanical" about it at times. That's great that you are able to be more social this year. :)

Michelle Butler on June 16, 2010 at 9:55 PM said...

Thanks, Sally!! I don't know how old your kids are, but are there ways to make friends with other parents at school, church, etc.? I've also realized that not all friendships have to be super, super deep. Having folks to just hang out with at times can be so valuable. :)

Awesome about figuring out the nervous good energy making you eat. Perhaps you can figure out a way to distract yourself at those times?

Michelle Butler on June 16, 2010 at 9:57 PM said...

Awesome, Rachel!! It was so hard to go to that first reception, but my life is so much better for it. We only have one life to live, and I want to do the best job of it that I can. :)

I went to an awesome workshop today on the power of story and how it can be effective in communications/PR. (I've been out of town in NYC for several days - hence my late responses.) The instructor said that feeling is what convinces folks to change. That was the case in my post above. Best of luck!!

Michelle Butler on June 16, 2010 at 9:59 PM said...

Thanks, Button Fuzz!!! Your writing is just fine. :)

I guess one of the benefits of being introverted is it helps me be more introspective. I'm also analytical. Both help in figuring this stuff out. This seems to be the kind of effort I have to make to lose the weight and improve my life.

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