Long before COVID-19, we faced another epidemic: loneliness. And the pandemic has only magnified this issue.
We often use the terms “loneliness” and “aloneness” interchangeably, but they are not the same. Have you ever been at party, surrounded by family and friends, but still felt alone? This phenomenon can stem from a lack of communication, connection and intimacy — and it explains how people in decades-long committed relationships can feel even lonelier than single people living alone.
So what is loneliness? Although it often occurs when we’re alone, it’s less about our actual situation and more of how we feel about it. When we talk about loneliness, we typically neglect one cohort altogether: parents. After all, many of us parents crave more alone time. As parents, we interact with our kids constantly. While it’s often rejuvenating, we’re always in the supportive role — and not always getting the support we need. As a result, many of us feel socially isolated, sad and overwhelmed. This is especially true for single parents.
So how can we combat loneliness as busy parents? Start with one of these strategies that feels like the best fit for you, but not all five. The goal is to add more connection and fulfillment — not more stress!
- Be selfish. Our culture views selfishness in a negative light, but self-care is a vital part of managing our mental health. Flight attendants tell passengers to put on their own oxygen masks first for a reason. If we aren’t getting what we need, we have nothing to give anyone else … But how do we find the time? Start by making a list of everything you need to do. Classify each task as hot, warm or cool. Hot tasks can’t wait, but some warm or cool tasks can. Try to find a small chunk of time to be “selfish.” If you can, find a babysitter and go out to dinner with your best friend. Attend a concert. Go see a movie that isn’t family-friendly. When we reconnect with things that energized us before we became parents, we become better parents now.
- Move your body. When we get busy, exercise usually ends up on the back burner first, but tough times are when we need it most. Research shows a strong link between exercise and mental health. If it feels like a chore, do something you actually enjoy — and it doesn’t have to happen in a gym. It’s about movement, and a little goes a long way. Take the stairs. Do calf raises while you wait in line. Dance while you wash dishes. It all adds up, and you don’t have to win CrossFit competitions to reap the rewards (unless you want to!). If you do have the time, attend a class or invite a friend to go on a walk. This way, you’ll benefit from the exercise itself and the connection.
- Practice gratitude. One way to cultivate more gratitude is an exercise called “What Went Well” or “Three Blessings.” It’s as simple as it sounds. At the end of each day, jot down three things that went well and why. When we’re lonely or depressed, negativity takes over. When we redirect our attention from our “losses” to our “wins,” we can examine our lives through a more positive lens — and we’re able to see solutions more clearly.
- Strengthen your core relationships. Relationship expert Esther Perel states “the quality of your relationships determine the quality of your life.” Meaningful relationships require intentional investment. Loneliness and the “Woe is me” mentality feed off one another. Even though it may feel like it, you are not the only parent who’s struggling. In difficult times, lean on your loved ones for support. Plan date nights with your spouse. Go out of town to visit your favorite relatives. Like a commitment to exercise, relationships take time, but connection replenishes our souls — and gives us more energy for everything else.
- Nurture self-compassion. Unfortunately, suffering is inevitable. Acceptance is important, but so is acknowledging our own challenges — and our progress. For personal growth, kindness is a far more effective strategy than negativity. Think of a mentor from your past who cared about you but also held you accountable. Try to relate to yourself like that — not like a drill sergeant. Learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward.
At the end of the day, raising kids gets draining and isolating. If you experience loneliness, know that you’re not alone. A more connected, emotionally fulfilling life is possible with a few small but intentional changes. Where will you start?
Michael Dickerson is the founder of Dickerson Consulting Group, a human resources consulting firm. Michael is a sought-after speaker, trainer and consultant on positive organizational culture. He specializes in strategies on work/life integration, mental health and well-being and positive psychology in organizations. Michael holds a Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology and is the creator and host of The Spillover Effect Podcast. Visit Michael’s website at www.dickersoncg.com.