“I dread being alone”

DSC_0086One of the mental health nurses who mans the crisis line told me there is always a peak in calls as  ‘Eastenders’ finishes. Why? because watching a favourite soap opera staves off the painful loneliness that clients feel, which then comes crashing back as the titles roll. I am often asked in supervision how to go about actively treating loneliness.

That pain of being lonely is actually one of nature’s best-ever inventions. Without it, as soon as the agony of our first relationship break-up kicked in we would vow NEVER to do that again and the human species would die out. Fortunately nature made being lonely more painful than the worst break-up to secure for us all the advantages of social bonding. So the first step in treating loneliness is to stop your client defining the pain of loneliness as, ‘this is a sign that I am a sad loser’. Instead encourage mindful describing; ‘this pain means I am a basically sociable person but my relationships have fallen below my desired level, either in number or in quality’. That’s what loneliness really is  –an alarm that goes off in sociable people to warn that their relationships need attending to.

There are 4 components in the treatment of loneliness: Friend-recruiting, Connection-making, Connection–keeping  (when apart) and Tolerating aloneness.


In this phase we want the client to do 3 things; Seek out other people, speak with them and engage in joint activities. The client is often stuck between a rock and a hard place, the pain of being lonely versus the terror of friend-recruitment. Therapy at this level involves identifying internal obstacles. The thought ‘they might not like me’ (or sometimes, ‘I might not like them’) and the emotion of fear are perfectly normal. Remember to use mindfulness to turn attention away from unhelpful thoughts.

Flooding is my top tip here, ask the client to get out their old address book and contact every person in coffee-drinking distance, and ALSO join 3 local groups and one volunteering project. Rehearse how to say, “Hi my name is xxxx and I am new to this group/project…”

If the client is single ask whether they would like to find a partner. There is nothing more insulting than your therapist assuming you wouldn’t want a close personal relationships without asking you. It implies the person is not date-worthy. So always ask, and – my tip- if a lonely client says no they don’t want a partner, then it is more therapeutic to gently enquire ‘why not?’ than to inwardly heave a sigh of relief, nod and accept that they don’t.

If they do want a partner encourage dating. Say the actual words, ‘We need to get you dating’. Prepare for the storm that follows (your suggestion is preposterous) but do not be deflected. Remember dating is normal behaviour for people who want partners. Even clients young enough to NEVER use the word ‘dating’ will get your drift. It’s natural for clients to hold back because they doubt themselves, but you can help them with the doubt, just activate the behaviour and solve the obstacles as they crop up. Occasionally clients tell me, “There is no one out there who would want me”. For this I set them the homework of sitting outside the local registry office on a Saturday for the whole day to see the newly-weds come out. All manner of couplings are there. I tell them, “your soul mate can’t find you if you just stay home.”



I’m not talking here about shared interests, rather that feeling of being close to someone, social intimacy. For this clients need to learn the skill of mindful relating. This means in this moment staying ‘with’ the person to whom they are speaking. Probably the main obstacle here in the chronically lonely person is too much self-to-self thinking. By this I mean the tendency to engage in a higher than average number of reflections inside their head.  I might explain; “You know how you can be really engrossed in watching a film, completely absorbed in the action?  What happens if you start to think; ‘Hmm, I love this actor, but he was better in his last film, and I hope the dog doesn’t get injured cos I hate films where that happens, and I really don’t like what that girl is wearing’. Most people can acknowledge that they have left off watching the film to have a conversation with themselves about it.

We all have this capacity to make comments to ourselves, and we do it a lot of the time,  but I have noticed that people who complain of poor connections with others do this more. If they are communicating with themselves in this way, there really is no opportunity for their companion to connect with them. You can help clients to break this cycle by noticing when attending to their private thoughts starts to exclude the person they are with.

Use mindfulness to help the client be alert to their self-to-self thinking, which in company might look like this; “I don’t agree with what you said, but I’ll just nod”, “I would never have said what you just said”, “I wonder how I’m coming across right now?” “I think I made a fool out of myself then,” or “You just don’t get me at all” Judgements, queries, doubts, disagreements, all this is mind-traffic that blocks the client from a) properly hearing or seeing the other person and b) truly being heard or seen by the other person. So the connection suffers.

In longstanding relationships that have gone bad, often one or both parties have resorted to almost total self-to-self thinking, to the exclusion of any proper connection. These clients report feeling lonely despite being in a relationship. Sometimes they defend their internal retreat by saying, “I shouldn’t have to verbalise my thoughts and feelings, they should know,” or “I don’t want to rock the boat”. Sadly this still results in loneliness. More verbalising mindfully and some boat-rocking is required for intimacy.

Of course some people go too far the other way and blurt out too much of their inner material – which leaves little room for the other person to be known, but that is often easier for therapists to pick up on and diffuse.


This is about how clients keep connected with friends when they are NOT present. When I go away on my travels my family and friends don’t cease to exist for me, I somehow keep a sense of being connected to them.  But many lonely clients feel a really painful sense of loss when they are physically alone and do not have any sense of absent friends still being there for them.  Normal cues such as photos and keepsakes can help. However, the usual way that we keep loved ones ‘current’ is to mentally reference them as we go about our business. So when we lock ourselves out of the car and have to phone the RAC we think – “oh, I will tell Frank about this when I see him”, or “Kelly will really laugh about this when I tell her.” Lonely clients don’t have much confidence in future meetings, or they are fraught with fear about them, so it doesn’t occur to them to do these routine affirmations of the relationship. But when we do this we are telling our subconscious – we will see our friend again and they are part of our everyday life.

This mental referencing others is an antidote to our old enemy ‘self-to-self’ thinking. With this technique the client has to learn to represent the friend in their mind and mentally conjure up their unique reaction to things. It is very similar (but not identical) to how we keep people alive for us after they have died, we see something and think, “Grandad would have loved this”. In treating loneliness we want the client to predict not only the reaction but the face-to-face contact in which they will experience it. Of course it does rely on the client having meetings lined up, so they still have to work on friend-recruiting.

Tolerating Aloneness

This should only be done when friend-recruiting is on a roll, because some clients will think that if they get good at tolerating aloneness they won’t need any friends. But they do, so focus on that first. However, no matter how popular we are there will be times when we do not have company, so we all have to be able to manage that.

When loneliness hits, the client should ask themselves what time of day is it and what are people normally doing right now? Block any ‘Disney’ fantasies about people in couples or families. Households are not always sitting round sharing their problems with each other and receiving support.  In fact around a third of people in the UK live alone. What are those people doing? Some of my clients wake up in the night feeling lonely – but actually most people in the middle of the night are sleeping, not even aware that anyone else is there! Visualising the rest of the 30% of the living-alone population going about their daily activities can be quite reassuring. Ask the client – if you could see though walls how far do you think you would have to walk before you pass another person who is alone in the house in this moment?

Next, whatever the client chooses to do in their alone time, they need to do it mindfully. This involves turning their mind to information coming in through their five senses, instead of paying attention to the thoughts like, “other people have someone to care for them” and “no one is here for me”.  When they notice those thoughts they can mindfully label them as unhelpful thoughts, and turn their mind back to their (hopefully purposeful) actions.

Some clients get freaked out by being in an empty house, but interestingly only at certain times of day, so it is not the emptiness per se that is a problem, more their interpretation of it.  Being able to say “I am alone in this room” at times when it doesn’t bother them (in the bathroom is a good example) can help them to notice it is being alone plus some other thing that makes it scary. The thoughts might be ‘I’ve no one to watch this TV program with’ or “It’s awful to be on your own”. Blocking those interpretations helps, so the client can learn to state mindfully, “I would like more company, and I am working to increase it.”

One caveat is to avoid telling people, “distract yourself, do a jigsaw or watch a DVD.” In my experience trying to distract from loneliness increases the pain of it ten-fold, because it implies that it is somehow an awful plight. The client then engages in MORE self-to-self reflections on their unwanted situation. Instead we are trying to get people to see that loneliness is normal and just a prompt to improve contacts and connections, and that aloneness is an ordinary and sometimes desirable state. Being alone can be sad, but need not be tragically sad unless there is no plan in place to improve things.

“I Don’t Deserve It”

We all need positives in our life, whether it is an occasional treat or a regular pleasurable event. Behavioural activation, or encouraging people to build new positive experiences is a recognised treatment for depression. But what do we do when the client is aware of that, and although rewarding activities are available they are inhibited from accessing them by the belief, “I don’t deserve it”?

This obstacle comes up a lot when the client has high shame, perhaps they feel bad because of their mental health problems, or because of previous behaviour. When I consult to prison Mental Health teams they often report clients saying; “How can I deserve anything good when I’ve committed a crime?” Sometimes, though, there is no logical reason at all. Clients with low self-worth maintain that it’s as if everything has to be earned, and they are all out of ‘deserving’ points.

There was a time when I would engage in providing contradictory evidence to the client, reasons to justify that they did indeed deserve whatever was on offer. As you might guess, half the clients experienced this as invalidating. The other half found it pseudo-reassuring; “My therapist thinks I deserve it” works briefly, until the next time, when further encouragement is required. We sometimes help people to side-step this dilemma by asking “what would you say to a friend?” but then the client may maintain a covert rebuttal, visibly agreeing, whilst all the time thinking yes, but it’s not the same for me…blog2b

As a behaviourist I now enquire much more about the nature of this phenomenon. How does this undeservedness manifest? Can the client describe it mindfully?  A familiar pattern is that a physiological sensation in the gut happens first, almost like that sign outside a supermarket – ‘Trollies will stop suddenly as they are wheeled past this point.’ It is an uncomfortable sensation accompanied by the thought, “I don’t deserve it” and an irresistible urge to cease or recoil from the activity.

For a number of clients in addition to the sensations and thoughts there will be an association. One of my clients could momentarily ‘hear’ in her mind her mother saying, “You’ve caused us so much misery”. For another there was an image of her stepfather glowering at her. A third would picture her children as they were taken into care. These were very powerful inhibitors, allowing me to validate; “If that happened to me every time I was going to do something nice for myself, I would also think twice.”

Sometimes there are additional controlling variables within the environment. One client told me her partner asked “why didn’t you buy that scarf if you liked it?” when she said “I don’t deserve it” he become irritated and said she was not doing enough to help herself. Sadly his annoyance was entirely consistent with her own view of herself, inadvertently confirming her ‘undeserving’ status.

There is one more inhibitor to recognise; clients have past experience of enjoyment being paired with guilt. This sets up conditions where anticipatory guilt produces the involuntary stomach-clenching which then sets off the thoughts and images, plus the urge to avoid. And so the cycle persists.

It can be really helpful to summarise these very valid reasons for not doing pleasant activities; “You get some anticipatory guilt, a horrid sensation in your stomach, a thought about being undeserving, and associations with unpleasant memories. These factors strip away any pleasure while even considering the activity. Then, if you decide not to do it, all those aversive things vanish. No wonder you feel reluctant.”

So we encourage the client to accept that for them, at least at first, this is going to be unpleasant. The key phrase is, “You are going to have to learn how to do these things even in the presence of the urge to avoid doing them”. This strategy has two helpful components, firstly it is congruent with the person’s subjective experience, and secondly it relieves them of the notion that they are doing something inherently enjoyable, so they don’t have to worry about being ‘deserving’.

Next we can advise clients to simply observe the thought, “I don’t deserve it” whenever it crops up, and return their focus to doing the activity mindfully. This means if either a body sensation, another thought, an association or an emotion shows up they reorient their attention away from it and onto the required task. Breaking it down into these components allows them to label, “That’s a thought” or “that’s a sensation” as an aid to unhooking from it.

So why would they do this at all? Well, we encourage them to use their mindfulness skills to capture even one moment of reward before any guilt kicks in. That’s all, one moment.  We will foster curiosity about it; invite them to just notice any pleasure as it arrives, and also to accept whatever follows. The person learns that whilst ignoring the obstacle of “I don’t deserve it” they can still experience joy. Over time the vicious cycle is broken and the client’s capacity to be open to the whole range of emotion increases.

For further insights into helping clients to have more compassion for themselves see Paul Gilbert on Compassion-Focused therapy  http://bit.ly/1l9BpYo