Being alone is a reality. Yet this truth, and the feeling of loneliness that often accompanies solitude, can be tough to accept. Add in the emotional hangover of a challenging past year-and-a-half and the expectations of the holiday season, and some of us are feeling gripped by loneliness these days.
In her private practice, psychologist Dr. Thema Bryant (known as “Dr. Thema”) is seeing many people grapple with anxiety and grief around spending this season alone. Some feel their pandemic-imposed solitude has been prolonged and that time is passing by, says Dr. Thema. Others feel a need for more connection and support to help them heal after a recent loss, be it the end of a relationship, the passing of a loved one, or other change.
So we wanted to ask Dr. Thema: How can we get through this tough time if we’re alone? What is the best way to cope, to move forward, to be okay? Dr. Thema, who explores these vulnerable topics in her work, offered us her grounding counsel. We’re grateful for how she positively reframed our outlook on the tough parts of being solo. “Loneliness is a desire for either more or deeper connection,” she tells us. “It also can be a sign of growth.”
Dr. Thema’s Tips for Reframing Loneliness during the Holidays
#1. Feel your feelings.
“We want to make this a season of truth-telling where we don’t have to censor ourselves or to other people,” says Dr. Thema. If you’re relieved or sad about a breakup or a loss, allow yourself to fully feel what you’re experiencing. “It is important to give ourselves permission for that grief—and to know that grief is a gift. Grief means that we have loved.” We also want to give ourselves permission to feel more than one thing at the same time. You may feel excited and afraid, angry and grateful. Allow yourself to feel it all without judgment.
#2. Stand in your truth.
The holidays can often make us feel we need to be “merry and bright,” and if we feel anything other, we’re less than. Well, this is not the case, says Dr. Thema. “We don’t have to package what we feel in the decorations of this season. What we feel is a gift to ourselves that we can hold sacred this season by saying, ‘I’m going operate in truth. And the truth in this season is that I am alone and I’m going to own that.’”
#3. Remove the judgment around being single and around loneliness.
Let’s face it: Loneliness is often looked down upon. Dr. Thema says it can elicit sentiments of unlove for oneself. “In some circles, people will say, ‘If you love yourself, you’ll never feel lonely.’ Well, that’s a lie. You can love yourself and still desire connection,” she says. “You can love yourself and still want a partner. Loneliness is a desire for either more or deeper connection than you have in this moment or in this season. It’s important to be aware that loneliness is a desire that people have.”
#4. See loneliness as a sign of growth.
Sometimes when we’re in the immediate aftermath of a breakup or divorce or loss or grief, we choose isolation “because being around people may lead to too much hurt or pain,” says Dr. Thema. “As we process through the grief or through the breakup, we can then get to a place where we are open to possibility. We are ready to connect with people in another way.”
#5. Celebrate the courageousness and beauty of singlehood.
Sometimes when friendships or partnerships have ended, our society calls it a failure. But Dr. Thema implores us to reframe singlehood as a triumph. “If we were in unhealthy friendships or unhealthy relationships, it can be praiseworthy that we chose wellness over companionship,” she says. “Not all company is good company.” A willingness to be selective for yourself, especially after all challenges of COVID and the pressures of life, deserves applause. “Wanting to be intentional about who you share space with and who you share the holidays with, even when you do crave connection, that is praiseworthy.”
Dr. Thema makes one additional note: “During COVID, there have been increases in intimate partner abuse. So, as we think about people’s separation, breakup, or divorce, some people were in very unsafe or unhealthy relationships, so it is a courageous step for them to now be single.”
#6. Be intentional with your days.
A lack of holiday company should not mean a lack of a plan. Think of the seasonal pastimes you love and incorporate those into your days, says Dr. Thema, who suggests thinking of what will bring you the most joy right now. Are the holidays a time to reset? Are these your joyful days? Your pleasure days? Your wear-pajamas-all-day-and-watch-Netflix days? “Organize this time around a theme and think: What can I do for that?” she says. “If it’s reset, you may want to journal or listen to self-help books. Maybe you’ve been working hard, and you don’t want to do anything but relax. Maybe you want to have breakfast for dinner, or there is another favorite food you want to have.” The key is to be intentional and don’t let the days happen to you. You get to craft them. “The beauty of solitude is that you get to do what you like.”
#7. Take the initiative.
Sometimes we wait for other people to reach out. We may hope for them to call us or to be the one to make plans. “But the reality is,” says Dr. Thema, “they might be wishing that you would call them.” If you want to talk to someone, or if you want to plan a meal with someone, take the initiative, she says. “And even if that someone else has plans or is not receptive, don’t overgeneralize. It’s important to build up our internal selves so that we can be open to possibility.”
#8. Remember the cultural or religious meanings of the holidays.
It can be so easy to get swept up in the Currier and Ives vision of the holidays: The perfect decorations. The loud boisterous gatherings. The roast and potatoes. But rather than focus on the external, Dr. Thema encourages us to go back to the deeper spiritual meaning of this time and what that means for you. “If you can connect in with that, there is something really beautiful that can bring you back to your values,” she says.
#9. Also, remember that we are all interconnected.
Yes, solitude is a fact of life. Our connection is, too—but we can often lose sight of this. That’s why Dr. Thema says giving back during the holiday season can be so rewarding—whether that is at a soup kitchen or donating toys or your time or your resources. “This is a way of knowing when you are single and experiencing solitude that you are still connected to the larger humanity.”
Thema Bryant, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who has worked nationally and globally to provide relief and empowerment to marginalized persons. She is past president of the Society for the Psychology of Women and a past American Psychological Association (APA) representative to the United Nations, as well as the incoming president-elect of the APA. Bryant has been honored by the APA; the Institute of Violence, Abuse, and Trauma; and the California Psychological Association for her contributions to psychology. A professor at Pepperdine University, she earned her undergraduate and doctorate degrees in psychology from Duke University, and completed her postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. Bryant has served as a mental health media consultant for numerous print, radio, and television outlets, and is host of The Homecoming Podcast. Her forthcoming book is Homecoming. To learn more visit drthema.com.