I’ve been thinking about connection and loneliness lately. I have always considered myself an extrovert, energized by spending time with people and pretty willing to entertain a crowd. As I get older, though, I find myself feeling less and less inclined to have a large circle of friends and acquaintances. When we’re around people at events and parties, I’m happy to talk to as many people as I can. If I’m honest, I feel some gratification in knowing so many of the parents of the kids my girls know from school – my own mom was never good at connecting in this way and I often felt a bit left out that my parents weren’t particularly interested in socializing with school families.
But the ranks of close friends, those people I can be truly vulnerable with, have been winnowed down over the years and I’ve found myself skipping out on social engagements that I would have sought out only a few years ago.
As a therapist, changes in routine are something to be investigated and curious about so I’ve been wondering if its a sign of something that’s not working the way that it should or if it’s the settling and adaptation that comes with age.
My first question is whether I feel happy. I think when clients first come to therapy, they’re unaware of the times that they’re happy during the day because the sum total of the moments they find difficult or overwhelming is swamping the good moments. They’re missing the joy or happiness they might feel from time to time because they’re always worrying and focusing on the things that are making them unhappy. If it’s something like depression, I would find it difficult to be happy EVER. That persistent weight would be dragging me under. It would be like swimming straight for shore when caught in a riptide…thrashing about and exhausting myself but making no progress.
That’s not what this feels like. I am happy for parts of every day. Right this moment, sitting on my front porch writing this, my chest feels open and warm, my thoughts are calm and peaceful, my coffee is cold and sweet, and the sunlight on my toes is warm but not yet oppressive. I’m happy. I’m content.
I also know that this is a good day because I forced myself to go for a run this morning when I really wanted to go back to bed for an hour or two after dropping off Number 71 at school. But it wasn’t THAT hard to get myself out – I’m motivated to run a half marathon next month.
So I think it’s safe to rule out depression.
But then, I’ve been emotional eating again. I work with people who binge eat so I recognize the signs of a binge – the mindlessness, the blankness that descends when you eat beyond tasting and enjoying. The feeling of guilt after you realize what you actually ate. The urge to eat more to wipe away that shame. I’m definitely prone to these behaviors. But, and I tell clients this all the time, it’s ok to choose to eat emotionally from time to time if it works for you as a coping strategy and isn’t in the way of your life/goals – so long as you make a conscious choice to engage in the behavior and have considered alternatives.
Again, curiosity is important – what’s driving me to eat? Is it shame? (It’s so often shame). I feel pretty good about life these days, but I have noticed some anxious thoughts about middle school for Number 71 and making sure that both girls are doing alright in their classes this year. I think the times that I’m choosing this coping strategy are the days that I’ve worked a long day with clients and have a lot of driving for the girls. It’s a response to stress and fatigue (when I start I actually AM tired and carbs – blessed crackers – are a natural craving for a short energy burst. The sense of resentment towards the sheer volume of driving is probably contributing to the urge to continue eating after hunger is satisfied).
So maybe it’s anxiety.
That said, I’m sleeping pretty great and my anxiety tends to wake me up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts and panic about what I failed to accomplish the day before.
So I don’t think it’s that.
Maybe it really is that I’m going through a period of feeling content to interact less. I think those are pretty normal even for extroverts. I would be a pretty poor therapist if I wasn’t able to validate a client’s desire to listen to their urges and pull in when needed. But I’m also conscious of the urge to pull in and then pull up the ladder, cutting off all contact. I hear clients sometimes talk about the appeal of being an island – avoiding the hurt and disappointment that come with connection and reliance on others. The reality that we have to accept when we seek connection is that people will disappoint us. They will fail us. Not out of maliciousness, but out of their humanity.
So I think the important take away from this self inventory is to avoid that absolute thinking. That because I feel like spending time alone that I will ALWAYS want to spend time alone and then forcing myself to do the things needed to maintain the connections I value with others even while I’m gentle with myself and accepting of my need to pull in a bit.