Anne Micholls
EMOTIONAL MAGIC

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Does being alone leave you feeling bad?

Does being alone leave you feeling bad?
Being lonely isn't the same as making time to be on your own. It's OK to choose a bit of time out but that's not the same as loneliness. Some people genuinely prefer to enjoy their pursuits in blissful solitude. If you're reading this, though, you're probably not one of them. When you're on your own but you'd rather be with someone else, that's loneliness, and loneliness hurts.

You might like to know that loneliness is one of the most common problems that brings people to therapy. Everyone feels lonely at some time or another, but sometimes it feels like a trap you'll never get out of.

It is possible to change?
People may have told you, "You should get out more!" or "You should join a club!" But at times that can feel even more threatening than just staying home. Let's have a look at some of the reasons people have ended up feeling lonely and what ways they've found to do something different. In this section there are some wonderful examples of people who've broken out of loneliness. Even shy people. Even blind people. Even the housebound.

Because the good news is: the door out of loneliness opens from the inside - and you're the one with the handle!

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Why does being lonely hurt?

There are various reasons that loneliness can hurt. We can experience just one, or several in different combinations. Each of them might seem logical - or indeed the only way to look at life - but each contains a way of thinking that's not helpful, as you'll see. Every one of these reasons contains the seed of its own solution, so that everyone can find a positive way forward that's tailor-made. Why not use some of your quiet time to discover a new way of thinking that gets you more of what you want?
1. There must be something wrong with me or I wouldn't be alone.
The flaws in the thinking here are believing that a) unpleasant things never happen to nice people and b) "I'm alone" is the same as saying "I deserve to be rejected". Neither of these is true. Just as many nice people have accidents as nasty people. Just as many nice people get dumped, divorced, widowed, sick, redundant, move to a new town ... you name it. Being alone does not mean there's something wrong with you.
2. Everyone else's life is like some great party that I'm not invited to.
If that were true, how come so many people feel lonely? You can be just as lonely in a crowded city as in the middle of nowhere - as I remember from my first months in London's bedsit-land! You can be just as lonely in an unsatisfying marriage as you can on your own. At least when you're on your own people aren't constantly getting at you! Besides, on your own you can make your own choices - and one of them could be that you're going to take your first steps into a new and fulfilling life ...
3. Being on my own is scary
So long as you've made practical decisions about locks and so on - by the way, did you know you can ring your local police station and ask for a security adviser to come round? - the scary part comes from thinking bad things about yourself. You may have inherited critical inner voices from your upbringing. Most of us have, in one way or another. But you don't have to keep what you've inherited. If it's not making your life better, it's not doing what it was intended to do, and you're allowed to put it down. Generally thoughts like "You're not good enough" are intended to make you try harder to be even better so people accept you - but they don't always get you what you want! Imagine putting the negative thoughts in a carrier bag and just mentally stash them in a cupboard because you're going to meet that positive intention - "be even better so even more people like you" - in a way that supports you better. You're adding to your choices, not taking any choices away, so any time you want to dust those old thoughts off, they're still in the cupboard. In the section on Changing Your Mind you'll find one way to deal with critical inner voices, though there are plenty of others. After all, if those voices are following you around, so to speak, they're in your head so you can learn to change them!
4. It's always going to be this way
This sentence discounts your ability to make changes. If what you've been doing is leaving you lonely, you probably will stay lonely unless you do something different. But if you make even a small change, you'll start getting something different. How about smiling and saying good morning to the postman or the check-out operator at the supermarket? If you get a smile back, you'll have proof you can get a positive response from other people. Most people will respond positively to a friendly greeting - and if they don't, you'll know that person's grumpy, hard of hearing, having a bad day, whatever. You're not responsible for their behaviour! You're only responsible for yours. And you've just done something kind and friendly so you can be pleased with yourself ... Just as an aside, one of my best friends is a woman I bumped into by accident in the street. We both apologised, then laughed, then got chatting ...
5. I'll never be happy
How do you know? None of us can tell the future. Do you know what the next song on the radio will be before the announcer tells you? No. Next week's headlines? No. So how do you know you'll always be unhappy? You don't. This isn't logical thinking. It's emotional thinking, where your imagine works overtime to fill you with dread and you discount the fact that you can make different, positive choices. By the way, nobody's happy all the time. The more you can live in the present, doing things that make you feel good right now rather than staying stuck in the past or worrying about the future, the more chance of happiness you'll make for yourself. Being happy even a little of the time is a great first target.
6. Nobody likes me
What, nobody ever in your whole life? There hasn't been a single person who ever smiled at you, said something nice to you, gave you some positive attention? While you may be tempted to go for the automatic escalating response ("No, nobody!"), I invite you to do two things: firstly, think back to any time in your life when someone was good to you. It might only have been for a moment, maybe when you were a child, perhaps for a short time at the beginning of a relationship, or just a shop assistant who was kind, but please bring out that memory and polish it up. Put it in a spotlight in your hall of memory! Remember how good it felt. Think about it often and know that you are acceptable. You can be welcomed. You can belong. And if it's happened once, you know you can make it happen again. By the way, if you really can't think of one kind word, deed or smile, use your imagination. If we can scare ourselves by remembering horror stories, we can also comfort ourselves by imagining good things. Secondly I invite you to imagine yourself being with people who like you. What will it be like, having friends? Someone who cares about you and you care about them? What will you do together? What will you say to each other? The more you can make the idea of you belonging clear and bright and close, the more your subconscious will work to make it happen. (Some people might have problems with this at first. If you're one of them, please read on.)
7. I'm too shy and lacking in confidence to make changes
Keeping yourself apart from others is a great protection against getting criticised and hurt, isn't it? But what does it achieve? Lots of time in which you can criticise and hurt yourself. What you're actually getting is what you set out to avoid. I invite you to think of every good thing about yourself from skills to personal qualities, every kind or positive action you've ever taken, and make it into a list. You can read. You can use the internet. There are two skills. You have the imagination to want things to be different. You are sensitive. There are two personal qualities. Here's another: you can learn. (Like you learned to walk and talk - a massive achievement when you were only a toddler! Think of all the things you've learned since then!) You may not feel that up to now you've behaved confidently or thought confident things, but please allow your future self - starting any second now - to begin learning to be confident. And please value yourself for daring to work your way through this to start making those changes. After all, the longest journey starts with the first step! You don't have to be at the end of the journey. It's enough just to be on your way.
8. Being on my own has to be boring
Being "stuck at home" can be boring ... if we let it. But life isn't what happens when you're not looking. It's what you do, right now, in every minute. How can you make the next minute richer and more fulfilling? You may be bed-bound, or have some disability, but it doesn't stop you being a person with something to offer. You can be a companion for someone else. If they know you're there. And if they don't, tell them! A friend of mine in his 80's couldn't leave his first-floor flat because he couldn't walk - but he waved to people as they passed below his window. Over time people started calling up to him, dropping in, bringing him little gifts and cards, ringing to make sure he was OK. He phoned friends and they phoned him. It was nice to know you could always reach him so you always had someone kind and sympathetic to talk to. A friend of his, also housebound, rang the local vicar who arranged for people to visit her. She also reads the paper to a blind man who comes round with his guide-dog. He's glad she's there. Even a minute of pleasure is precious. Every action you take that brings you closer to your goal is a cause for celebration. Why not make a list of things that you could be doing right now with the resources available to you? Visiting a chat-room based on your area, or on people in your situation, could be one of them. Why not find something you can do which you enjoy? Interest isn't what you get out of something. It's what you put in. Starting your confidence work could be the first item on your list ...
9. Nobody understands
Someone somewhere does. Whatever your situation, someone has been there before you. Out of the billions of people on this planet, someone else is going through the same things now. You might be experiencing it in your own unique way but you are not alone. That means there are resources for dealing with it (this site is just one), and people with the understanding to make those resources, and people looking for those resources. People like you. You can find them. You can find yourself. There are more resources listed at the end of this section.
10. I don't know what to say to people
Just because you haven't felt confident about talking to people up to now, it doesn't mean that you never will. Once you couldn't read. Now you can. You can learn - so you can learn to relate confidently to people. There are tips about building up your communication skills below. And there are people to practice on, whether it's people in shops, at work, in museums and pubs, in internet chat-rooms or anywhere else. If you're willing to make the effort ....
11. I can't do anything about it
You may not be able to magic the circumstances away but what you can do is change the way you feel about things. When people are lonely, the person they are most lonely for is themselves. You can start supporting yourself in getting your needs met. That may sound cock-eyed, but if you're feeling lonely I invite you to work through the following exercise.

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Changing Your Mind
As children we picked up a set of thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that helped us fit in with the people around us. With our limited childish resources we made the best survival strategies we could. Now, though, you're older. You think in a more adult way and you have a lot more resources to keep yourself safe. With your mature thinking you can find and try out different strategies that get you more of what you want ... if you let yourself.

Often what holds us back is critical thoughts about ourselves. Some of them are memories of other people - often parents - criticising us, and some are our own negative thought-habits. But we are the ones who recreate these negative thoughts every day and keep them going. It's difficult not to think something. (Concentrate on a noisy, trumpeting, rough-skinned blue elephant - then try not to think of it for ten seconds!) But it is possible to over-write critical thoughts with helpful, supportive ones.

Your first positive supporting thought could be:
I am now willing to allow myself to make friends with good people.

You can say it aloud, over and over again, every day, and repeat it silently while you're walking around or doing something like cleaning or washing up that doesn't take all your attention. When you're ready to do so, you can also look in a mirror and give yourself this permission. Repeating it aloud forty times a day only takes two minutes - and it doesn't matter if you lose count. Within a couple of weeks you'll start to see the benefit - if you give yourself this permission.

If this triggers painful thoughts, you can get help through counselling, which you can find through your doctor, or by contacting charitable organisations such as MIND (find their phone number from Directory Enquiries), or by emailing admin@ita.org.uk . You could also look in your Yellow Pages under Counselling & Advice or Charitable Organisations. There is a lot of help available.

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Making New Targets
Positive thoughts are a great help, but they can only change your life if you're willing to let them show in new behaviours. You can start with small, achievable targets. These will need to be something that you can see that you've done, so building in a realistic time-limit is a good idea. If any of your targets involve meeting people you don't yet know, do remember to keep yourself safe and stay in well-lit public areas until you know the person well enough to be sure you're safe.

Useful targets might be:
I will say hello to two strangers this week.
I will find out this week if there's an assertiveness course in my area.
I will join it when it starts and attend at least 8 sessions out of ten.
I will join a group or class in September and attend at least 8 sessions out of 10.
I will greet the woman I meet walking her dog every morning.
I will smile at three people on the bus this morning.
I will ask the woman over the road round for coffee next Tuesday at 8 p.m. (Definite invitations work better than vague ones like "Come round for a coffee some time." If Tuesday doesn't suit, you can find a mutually convenient time.)

You can make whatever targets are appropriate for you. Just phrase them positively, make them small, achievable, beneficial, safe and observable by yourself if no-one else. However, do remember that these are targets, not laws. Sometimes you may need to a bit flexible. If you have a broken leg you're unlikely to meet the dog-walker just yet, or maybe the woman over the road is going on holiday. Be realistic, and forgive yourself if something gets between you and your target for a while. You can always realign your targets so long as they're helping you move towards your goal of making new friends. And for each target you attain, congratulate yourself. You deserve it!

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The Four Golden Rules of Good Communication

1. Make other people your laboratory.
Try different things out and watch what effect they have. Discard the tactics that don't work too well and refine the ones that do. (Likewise stick with people who respond fairly positively - and don't waste too much time trying to get blood out of a stone with people who don't make you feel good!) It all comes down to focusing on the other person and seeing how they respond. The areas you're checking out are: personal space, body language, volume, speed and tone, amount of eye contact they're comfortable with. Watch other people talking. How close do they stand or sit to each other? You'll have plenty of clues if you keep your eyes on the other person. How close does s/he feel comfortable? Try moving a little closer or a little further away. How is s/he sitting? Why not try gradually changing your posture until you're sitting the same way? (Then, if you want them to relax, you slowly relax and they probably will too!) Does the person you're talking to gesture much? Why don't you try gesturing the same amount? Do they talk loudly or softly? Fast or slow? Try matching their speech patterns in these ways to build rapport. Notice that all this is about how they respond, not the content of what you or they say.

2. Concentrate on making the other person feel cared for and interesting.
This stops you worrying about yourself, which is one benefit. The other good thing is that just about everyone likes people who make them feel valued and interesting. So your quickest way in is usually to ask them questions about themselves. Obviously you don't want to come across as too personal or nosey, so do note if you're getting a positive response. "Does this weather suit you?" or "Don't you hate it when the bus is late?" are fairly general lead-ins. After that it's helpful to go for open-ended questions. Those are the ones that don't expect a simple yes/no answer. That means it's generally better to ask, "What do you like about your job?" than "Do you like your job?" Other people often feel shy and awkward as well so open-ended questions make their part of the conversation easier too!
Here are some useful openings. The cues spell the word FREE:
Family - and background and friends
Recreation
Experience - work and lifestyle
Education
And now for some sample questions in each area:
F = Family/background/friends: Where do you come from? What do you think of
this area? Do you know a lot of people round here? Do you have family close by?
R = Recreation: What do you do in your spare time? What do you like about it? Where
do you do that? Have you always liked doing that?
E = Experience: What are you doing with yourself these days? Do you come here often?
How long have you been coming/working here? What do you like best about it?
E = Education: Where did you go to school? (college/university) What was your
favourite subject? What did you think of your teachers?
Of course you can give your own answers too, but don't criticise the other person or their choices, which may not be the same as yours. Your response to their statements might be stock phrases like, "Oh, did you? How interesting!" (Or if they're talking about something they didn't like, you can say "How awful!") "It sounds like you enjoyed it/hated it." "So did I/I never got on well with maths. I preferred English because it was more fun." Or whatever.
But remember Rule 1 and check out the other person: if after three or four exchanges s/he isn't showing signs of interest, that's their loss. It's OK to change the subject or make an excuse and stop talking to them. There are plenty of more interesting people for you to talk to!

3. End on an upbeat note
The world is far from perfect and things do go wrong. You're allowed to complain sometimes - but do you want the reputation of being nothing but a Moaning Minnie or a Critical Clarence? In general people prefer the company of those who are uplifting and positive. People who make them feel good about themselves and the world. I invite you to listen to yourself and find out if you play "Ain't it Awful?" This may be a good beginning (especially in Britain where we can usually moan about the weather!) but if you find yourself complaining endlessly in the hope that someone will rescue you, sympathise or look after you, ask yourself if it's a strategy that's been getting you the results you want. If it hasn't, maybe it's time to find a positive comment, preferably one you can deliver without a rueful sigh! (You know the sting-in-the-tail sort of thing to avoid: "Oh well, what can you expect?" or "Whatever they say, I don't think your hair's that bad really.") Better to end with something along the lines of, "...but thank you so much for asking. It's really kind of you," or, "Your hairstyle's really striking!"

4. Compliments are Good Things!
You can always find something positive to say to someone. "I like your earrings," or "You did that really well" are not patronising - so long as they're sincere. "I like your smile" is a useful one. Remember Rule 1, though, and see how each individual responds. While most people like to be complimented because it makes them feel good, others can't take global praise such as, "You're the best thing since sliced bread!" They feel more comfortable with conditional compliments, that is, ones which are specific or limited in some way. (We're back to, "I like your earrings," and "You did that really well!") Taking compliments with grace is also a useful skill. If someone tells you, "I like your dress," they're also saying something about their own taste. If your response is, "What, this old thing?" they'd actually be hearing you criticise their taste! When someone compliments you the best all-purpose response is, "Thank you."

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