Most of us experience loneliness and/or social isolation now and then. It's part of the human condition. But there are some strategies experts suggest can soften the blow. Below are five tips for LGBTQ+ people to keep in mind, especially during the time of year when it's common for people to gather.
"Loneliness and social isolation aren't clinical diagnoses, but they do have clinical significance," says Zoe Steinfield, a social worker and certified addiction counselor who is the behavioral health program manager at Affirmations LGBTQ community center. "Social isolation is more of a statement of fact about one's lack of social connectedness, whereas loneliness is the subjective experience of distress about this." That is, not everyone who enjoys solitude is socially isolated. By the same token, some people experience loneliness when surrounded by others if those bonds don't feel meaningful or supportive.
It's well-established that a constellation of factors put LGBTQ+ people at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation: LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have been rejected by family, experience mental health challenges and have physical health issues such as HIV/AIDS.
Because of general societal stigma against LGBTQ+ people, it can be a challenge to form friendships or romantic relationships. "Add to that the difficulty with trust and secure attachments that many LGBTQ+ people feel as a consequence of formative experiences of rejection or trauma growing up," says Steinfield, "and many people find it even more challenging to build the supportive relationships they may truly desire." Covid makes it even harder, because places like LGBTQ+ community centers, trans and nonbinary potlucks, and queer-friendly bars and restaurants might feel unsafe or are closed altogether.
But it's not all bad news. Here are some proactive tips for queer folks to consider:
- Figure out what kind of connection you actually need. "There's a lot of social pressure to be around families of origin during the holidays, or out partying on New Year's, but there's no law that says you have to do that," says Steinfield. Check in with your feelings. If you'd honestly be happier staying in and reading a book, watching a season of "The Golden Girls," hanging out with a pet or just connecting with a limited number of people, give yourself permission.
- Decide which family will cause you less loneliness. "Chosen family is family," Stenfield points out. "Some of our families of origin are reliable sources of emotional support, closeness and warmth." Some are not. If your family of origin doesn't affirm your LGBTQ+ identity and relationships in your life and your friends/chosen family are more supportive, it's entirely valid to spend the holidays surrounded by those who do affirm you instead.
- If you're visiting with a cissexist or heterosexist family of origin, protect yourself. Plan ahead. You may want to be upfront about who you will bring, what name or pronouns are acceptable and what topics are off-limits. "'Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously,'" says Steinfield, quoting writer and movement organizer Prentis Hemphill. "Visiting your family is an expression of love that needs to also include self-love." Consider planning virtual check-ins with someone who shares your values and respects your identity. That could mean a friend, partner, likeminded family member or therapist. Support can be just a call, text or video chat away.
- If you're feeling lonely from Covid-related isolation, know that you're not truly alone. Steinfield says that while it's especially hard meeting people right now, many are in the same boat. "Reach out to the people you'd like to be closer with, let them know, and turn towards people when they reach out to you," she says. If there's a positive byproduct to the pandemic, Covid has actually opened up a world of possibilities. "Isolating makes geography meaningless in some ways, so now more than ever, you can find a virtual discussion group or support group with people anywhere in the world who share an interest or identity," Steinfield says. Keep in mind it's safer for you and others to attend small in-person group events together if you're all fully vaccinated.
- Don't give up on making connections. "Short-term loneliness is normal — and even healthy — as it can give you perspective and a deeper relationship with yourself and the natural world and usually resolves itself with an increasing drive to seek out connection," says Steinfield. But she warns that longer-term loneliness can act as a feedback loop. This happens when loneliness causes depression and anxiety, which can cause distorted thinking that motivates people to isolate even further. When this happens, try the counter-intuitive approach by reaching out and strengthening connections — even as you feel like crawling under the sheets. If this sounds like you, it may also be a good idea to seek out a mental health professional. See resources below.
Steinfield let us in on a "secret." Even therapists are not immune from experiencing loneliness and isolation.
"In the past, I suffered from romantic loneliness for years, in part due to stigma against trans women, and the way I had internalized that," Steinfield says. "Something that helped me a lot was realizing that I actually thought I was pretty cool, and that rather than wait for just the right person to notice I was lovable, I was going to go out and find them."
Steinfield did that by reaching out on social media and using dating apps where she set up as many low-pressure dates as possible, then let go of any expectation of a second date. "When I reminded myself that there were lots of people out there to meet, it didn't disappoint me so much when it didn't work out with any particular person," she says. Because Steinfield didn't get discouraged, "it didn't take long to meet someone I really clicked with," she says. They're still together two years later.
Meeting people and dating is harder now, but not impossible. "Zoom dates, outdoor dates, and vaccinated dates are all a great idea," Steinfield suggests, adding that more recently she's had to deal more with social loneliness than romantic loneliness, due to her move to Detroit. Between the need to build community here and the need to maintain her relationships back home, the options she described have been "incredibly helpful," she says.
What's helped this stay-at-home writer during Covid is a regular "date" with a family member who lives nearby. Beginning last spring, most Tuesday mornings we meet to take a walk and catch up. Not only do we enjoy each other's company, all of us (including her dog) benefit from the Covid-safe workout.
Are you struggling with social isolation and loneliness? Steinfield recommends these resources:
The Trevor Project is the world's largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people. Call 1-866-488-7386, 24/7. Text "START" to 678-678, 24/7.
Trans Lifeline's Hotline is a peer support phone service run by trans people for our trans and questioning peers. Call us if you need someone trans to talk to, even if you're not in crisis or if you're not sure you're trans. 877-565-8860. The Hotline is open 24/7, but operating at reduced capacity. Operators are guaranteed to be on call from 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
The Detroit COVID-19 Virtual Therapy Collaborative, coordinated by the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, aims to remove stigma and barriers to treatment for African-American males, single parents, transitional-age youth, the hopeless adolescent, the isolated member of the LGBTQAI+ community, and the otherwise overlooked. Call or text for help 24/7: 313-488-HOPE. Find more health and wellness resources compiled by Affirmations.