Finding the Right Friends

Finding the Right Friends

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

As a therapist and life coach, I often hear people (particularly adults) having a hard time making new friends. And that’s all part of working on our personal growth.

Recently, on the last Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I spoke with author Lydia Denworth about the importance of healthy friendships and how vital they are. She spoke at length about the positive impact of friendship on our mental, emotional, and physical health and how we all need to prioritize healthy friendships in our lives.

Finding Friends You Can Count On 

People say that when you need a friend, you can count on anyone. But that’s hardly always true. A friendship you can count on is one of the most important ones to nurture. Finding real friends takes time and work. 

Today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast is devoted to helping you cultivate relationships with honest, true-blue friends who can offer the emotional intimacy and support you’re longing for. 

If you’re seeking to increase your social circle with friends who have your back (and weed out selfish people who take more than they give), this episode is for you.

Author and former therapist Val Walker joined me to talk about her new book, 400 Friends and No One To Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community.

In this powerful and emotionally intimate interview, Val shares her own story about being at a vulnerable moment and becoming aware that while she had lots of “friends,” she didn’t have friends she could count on when she needed help. 

She shares her story of rebuilding her health, her life, and a strong social support system. Val has lots of insight into what it takes to form strong friendships. 

She’s sharing her wisdom and tips to help you get all the love, thoughtfulness, and support YOU have to share flowing back to you, too.  

Podcast: How to Make Friends (Good Ones)

If you’ve been saying to yourself that the time is right for you to find supportive friends and create a good friend circle, I hope you listen to this episode with Val. We’re discussing:

  • How it’s so easy for everyone to fall into “lite” relationships
  • Why genuinely supportive friendships are so essential
  • How to make trustworthy friends
  • Where to find friends
  • The essential parts of an authentic friendship
  • Ways to build a community
  • The difference between “fun” friends and friends you can count on
  • What healthy friendships look like
  • Concrete strategies for making new friends
  • How to deepen your existing friendships
  • How to be a really good friend to others

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How to Find a Community of Friends

But… while understanding the importance of healthy friendships is essential because it helps you prioritize the time and energy required to cultivate relationships, knowing this is not the same thing as knowing how to build a strong community of friends you can count on. 

The “how to make and keep good friends” part is much more challenging. Mainly when you’re focused on the good part, developing solid, mutually supportive friendships can be vastly different than finding people with common interests or who are “fun buddies.” 

Those types of friendships, while enjoyable, are a dime a dozen. Finding friends you can count on is a different game. Not all of your so-called friends will respect you. And, yes, you can stand up for yourself and still have friends

Navigating Feeling Lonely During the Pandemic

Truthfully, it can be challenging to find and maintain solid friendship connections as an adult — now, more than ever. Before there was an actual pandemic, the idea that we were already in a “loneliness epidemic” was already getting recognition. Too many people often feel alone and don’t have close friends to turn to when they need them. 

Even if they have social connections, these relationships can feel superficial. Combating loneliness was on the radar of Denver therapists and online life coaches due to the benefit of positive relationships and strong friend networks, but now having trust in friendship is even more vital.

For many, a primary source of social interaction happens through their work. Before stay-at-home recommendations in coronavirus life, it wasn’t uncommon for me to hear about “weekend loneliness” and about how hard it is for busy adults to find new friends in my therapy and coaching sessions with clients. 

As we stay at arm’s length from each other to ward off COVID-19, we’re also cut off from the supportive social networks that we need for our mental health, our emotional wellness, and even our physical health. 

For many people, their social interactions are currently limited to the people that they live with and can peer at periodically through our computer screens. For people living alone during social distancing, their loneliness can be so intense it feels like a pang of hunger.

Dealing With Loneliness

Everyone can feel lonely, even people who are friendly and intelligent and interesting and attractive. Feeling lonely does not discriminate. However, even though many people feel lonely, they also often feel shame about their loneliness — and so they don’t talk about it. 

Loneliness is the big, dark secret that weighs heavily on the hearts of so many. Staying silent about loneliness only increases feelings of isolation and disconnection. This, in turn (ironically), can make you feel more lonely.

Everyone is vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. People can (and do) feel lonely in their marriage. People can have many friends and still feel a longing for a genuinely intimate emotional connection. Loneliness isn’t about not having any people in your life. Loneliness is about feeling like you want more connection than you currently have. 

But “connection” alone does not satisfy loneliness because feeling lonely is also about wanting a more meaningful connection. Let’s face it: you can feel very lonely in a crowd.

You can spend lots of time hanging out with people and still not feel like you have honest, genuine friendships with any of them. Sometimes, it’s not until you need a friend you can count on that you understand how many real friends you have in your life. (If at all, for some).

Thank you for being part of OUR community!

With love,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Finding the Right Friends

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. Welcome back to part two of our explorations of friendship. Last time we talked to author Lydia Denworth about friendship and her research into why it is so fundamentally important that we are all investing time and energy into our personal relationships. That is, of course, not the whole story. For many adults, it is difficult to form positive relationships. When you’re younger, it’s easy to put a lot of time and energy into our social life, not so much when you have a full-time job, and a house to manage, and a primary relationship, and kids to wrangle. It gets a lot harder. Many people struggle with feelings of loneliness. 

Our show today is going to explore this topic from the other angle, which is really getting into the nuts and bolts and nitty-gritty of how to develop not just fun friendships, although that’s great, too. But the friends and friendships that we can really count on when the chips are down: supportive friendships, friendships with people that we can call when we need help, and who are going to be there for us, just like we’re going to be there for them. 

So in service of that goal, today, we’re going to be talking to author Val Walker, about her book, 400 Friends and No One to Call, about how and why we all experience loneliness. Also, not just talking about it, theoretically, but she’s going to share some very concrete, real-world strategies for how to create those kinds of supportive relationships, even now, during the era of social distancing. Not only can it be done, it is more important for us than ever to do exactly that. 

Val Walker, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. I’m excited to speak with you. 

Val Walker: Thank you for having me. Glad to be here. 

Dr. Lisa: Thank you. Before we dive in to your amazing research and all the fantastic advice you have to share. Maybe, we could start a little bit by just talking about your background. I know that you have all kinds of different training and professional experience. We could start there, but also talk a little bit more about how you became to be such an authority on this particular subject, both personally and professionally. How’s that for a big, huge question?

Val’s Journey of Writing Her Book

Val: Oh my god. Well, part of the reason I have such a long history of experiences is I’ve gotten into my senior years now. I’ll say that this is my sixth decade on the planet. There’s a little bit that you gather over the years from experience. I started out, actually, before I became a counselor, before I became a rehabilitation counselor, very proud to say rehabilitation counseling I got my masters in was such a practical, if you like, really tried and true, very evidence-based way of being a counselor because rehabilitation counseling is all about building on people’s strengths and building a really good relationship with that person. Rehabilitation was about helping people rebuild their lives back into life, building a quality of life. 

Usually, when you are working in rehabilitation, you had people who had enormous setbacks such as illness, accident, or an ongoing disability of some kind seeing by society as disabled. The rehabilitation field was, even before it got more into addictions and that, the rehabilitation field was so much about helping people feel that they could contribute to society. Not only that, but that they were worthy of human rights and access through the such as Americans with Disabilities Act and all of that. I’m proud to be from the rehabilitation council.

Dr. Lisa: I remembered I worked for a while at a community mental health center. I remember thinking, so often, that rehabilitation counselors and also caseworkers were like angels on Earth. That kind of work that you’re describing, I think, is so profoundly important and really focused, in many ways, to people who need it the most, and not that everyone isn’t worthy of having that support, but such good work. I’m glad you’re like, “I’m proud to be a rehabilitation counselor.” 

Val: I found as a so-called counselor, I did some case management, some counseling. At some point for five years, I did more psychotherapy as well. The license depended on what state I was living in. But basically, my role–and this segues into why I wrote my book–my role was to be a companion to assist people into building community: people who had been disenfranchised or on the margins, or pushed away by society through stigma, such as mental illness, homelessness, poverty, we had any issue where people felt not accepted and different. 

It was the rehabilitation counselors’ job to help them get plugged in to feeling vital in their community and to build up support systems. A lot of my folks I worked with didn’t really even have a whole lot of family support. A lot of them had been… So I would say the majority of the people I assisted either had mental illness or brain injuries. I worked with a lot of veterans also, who had brain injuries due to being in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

I basically helped people rehabilitate their lives by finding and building community. I became a diva of how do I get somebody connected? “Well, you’re not ready for a job yet. So I’ll get you working as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.” They love animals. They hate people. They don’t connect with people. I might have somebody who’s really withdrawn, or heavy-duty PTSD, don’t want to do people. What are they going to do for a living? What are they going to do to feel like part of the community if they don’t do people? 

I had to get wicked creative. That was what being a good rehabilitation specialist, counselor, call it what you like, was working with that person’s strengths and helping them find how they could fit into the world. What an honor. I could even have somebody trust me to like, “Well, not only do you have to do the thing with me if you hate people, but I’m going to actually help you find another person out there to work for, or to help out, or feel that you’re connected.” 

Long story made short, once upon a time, this woman at the age of 58, seven years ago, now everybody knows how old I am. But back in 2012, I had been living in Maine for over 10 years. I’d had a job. I had built up what I thought was plenty of social support because I’m the guru of social support for all these people I had worked with for 25 years. I should know how to have social support for myself. I had especially a couple of really close friends in Maine and had a lot of other colleagues. Originally, I’m from Virginia, so I was a transplant–

Dr. Lisa: Me, too.

Val: Oh, cool. What happened to me, in June of 2012, was I had a hysterectomy and a cancer scare. Turns out I didn’t have the cancer, but it was a very stressful, very sudden, and urgent hysterectomy that was needed in surgery. I had a week to get myself prepared and I organized a couple of friends to help me out. I thought I had my bases covered. So after my surgery, I was lying in my hospital bed the very next morning. I was groggy, and I had my IV wrapped around me, and I was very helpless and groggy. My phone’s vibrating and I picked it up and looked at it and went, “Oh my God.” I saw a text from one of my friends who said, “Family emergency. I’m so sorry I cannot come today.” 

Long story made short: the hospital, even though I had no one to pick me up and no one to help me out for two days, the hospital still discharged me at three that afternoon. I could write a whole book on people who have connections who get discharged from hospitals without the support–

Dr. Lisa: That thing in the news, that trauma. I mean, photos of being on the sidewalk in a wheelchair.

Val: Exactly. We don’t even go there with what’s happening with people in the hospital with COVID because they don’t have the social support. But to have no social support, and being kicked out of the hospital, and I had to sit in the lobby, and wait, and wait, and wait. It was a long story. It’s a sad story. But I finally begged to beg a friend of a friend to take me home. That person didn’t even stay with me, I still had to pay somebody to help me out. 

What shook me up was that here I was, I thought, after all these decades on the planet, after being a mental health counselor, a rehabilitation counselor for over 20 years, and all that I built up. I’d even written my first book. I had built up what I thought was a professional and social support system, and I couldn’t even find a person to take me home, or take care of me. What was wrong with this picture?

It was such a big disconnect. It took every single bit of pride and meaning for having been a counselor for so many years. For having been an author of a book and all the ways I felt like I was a worthy person, that I had contributed to these friends. I thought we had to give and take going on. What’s with this picture? Lo and behold, I found out much later that one of the friends, in particular, had a crisis that day: a terrible crisis with her daughter being in a car accident. But aside from that daughter, she had other stepchildren who were dealing with addiction to the opioid crisis.

What I’m trying to say is part of my realization was that other people can be as isolated as you are because they’re going through crises in their lives, and they’re having enormous, isolating forces in their lives. I started reading research to understand how could this happen to me? How could this happen to my friends not being able to help me? How can this happen to people? 

Reading a lot of social science was comforting for me because I wanted to understand. Otherwise, I was gonna go down the pity party of all pity parties and I was becoming bitter. That summer of 2012, I was feeling really bitter and really disillusioned with humanity because something was wrong with this picture. Thanks for letting me get into that because the book really starts from there. I knew I had to heal that.

Dr. Lisa: Well, thank you though for being so authentic, and vulnerable, and transparent because what a profoundly traumatizing experience for you, personally, on so many levels, but also sharing an experience that is so profoundly relatable to anyone listening to this conversation right now, who has also felt really let down or betrayed by people that they thought they could count on in their moments of greatest need. 

People, I think, don’t talk about those experiences and what it’s like in the aftermath of the trauma publicly. Thank you on behalf of all of those who are voiceless in that experience to be talking about it and so beautifully. Thank you. I know I just cut you off, you’re about to go on, but I wanted to honor what you just said because it is important–

Val: I am not going to do a dissertation or a dramatic story, too. I want it to go back and forth. Thank you so much for that. Absolutely, I’m so glad you understand and can give us the words. See what happens is, you either feel really mad, or angry, or disappointed in yourself because “What did I do wrong? I didn’t do the right thing. I must not have picked the right friends, or maybe, there’s something wrong with me, and there’s a damn good reason those friends don’t give a rat’s ass. Maybe there’s a reason for it. Maybe there is something wrong with my personality. Maybe there’s something wrong with being too needy. Maybe I’ve made myself too vulnerable.”

You doubt yourself in these situations where you feel lonely, left out, isolated. You doubt yourself, and you turn it against yourself. I think that’s very much human nature when we’re not feeling supported or abandoned. We immediately turn to ourselves, “There must have been something I did.” The other thing is, if it’s not that, maybe, you blame the others. You go, “Well, she could have had her shi–stuff together better.”

Dr. Lisa: You can say shit on the show, it’s totally okay. 

Val: It’s like… I don’t… Wait a minute here. You don’t just leave your friend lying in a hospital after that and just no show. But then I understood what happened to her. You’ll see if you read my book–I don’t want to spill all the–but there’s a really good reason she disappeared for a while out of my life. I find out much later. There’s beautiful forgiveness. 

But I’m finding the good thing about reading all this social science research and starting to talk to people about being left out, being isolated, being alone, being lonely. I started finding that, at least, when I could point to studies and social science research I went, “I’m not the only one going through this. This is becoming an epidemic.” 

Let me lay out some of the fascinating statistics that really opened my eyes that I continue to write the book about. Did you know that, since 1985, three times more Americans say they don’t have a friend they can talk to about anything, a confidant? 

Dr. Lisa: Not sure I have heard that statistic. 

Val: That’s 1 out of 5 of us has absolutely no one they can talk to about something that’s troubling, that can’t talk to anybody, like anybody. They don’t even have a close friend to talk to that. Back in 1985, only about 1 out of 10 of us could have said that. Now, 1 out of 5 of us says that.

Another big statistic is that 2 out of 5 Americans, according to a sickness study, that was just last year, was saying that 2 out of 5 Americans say that they don’t have meaningful conversations very often with people, that we just take care of business and conversation’s been really shortened. Conversations get interrupted and having those good, meaningful conversations just aren’t happening as much. People are missing them more. I would say that 2 out of 5 Americans say they lack meaningful conversation in their lives. 

Many many other pieces of evidence were coming out, I read with the AARP Connect2Affect studies. They did a study of people over 50 and what were isolating forces in people’s lives. It was really helpful for me to understand, even though I had been counseling people with building community. Boy was this an eye-opener and this was a big part of my book. 

What I discovered is that there’s a big difference between isolation and loneliness. Isolation, often, it means a lack of contact. Usually, isolation is inherently something where you’re in a situation where you’re isolated by a certain force in your life. It could be a socio-economic force where say you’re 22 years old, and you’re working a lot of gigs. This is pre-COVID. Say you can’t find enough work in one job so you’re working so many jobs. You don’t have time for social life. You’re just doing gigs all the time. 

Or you’re a caregiver, and you’re taking care of a mother with Alzheimer’s. Or you’re a mother with a toddler or somebody who has a child with a disability. You don’t have time for a social life. You can be isolated by being a caregiver. You can be isolated by a serious illness, obviously, or a disability where if you’re in a wheelchair, or you have a hearing or visual impairment, or you have a brain injury or you have… 

Lots of people have illnesses or disabilities that create a lot of isolation in their lives. I know that from working as a rehab counselor. I saw them all the time. They need extra help getting connected because they, on their own, just are struggling so much to have a community, to have friendships, to have people around. They are so isolated, if you’re in a wheelchair, you have cerebral palsy, or you have illnesses like diseases. Long story made short, you can be isolated by certain forces in your life. 

But I looked a lot at the socio-economic forces that isolate us: losing a loved one or being divorced. If you don’t have a loved one around close to you or you’ve lost a loved one, it’s natural when you’re grieving, actually, you don’t have the energy to have a social life. Grief takes a lot of energy. 

Dr. Lisa: It does. 

Val: You don’t have the energy to put out there to get out and–

Dr. Lisa: Smile and make a conversation. Yeah, exactly. 

Val: We are isolated by a lot of forces. 

Dr. Lisa: Can we also, like, the whole COVID-19 thing, that experience of isolation, I think, has been so powerful, even for people who are doing a great job at trying to maintain connections through this experience. A sense of isolation, particularly for people who aren’t partnered, or who live alone, it’s profound. 

Val: It is very profound. It really is. It’s definitely magnified. There are lots of studies coming out now: very clear that COVID has increased loneliness and isolation for people. If you already were one of the folks who were isolated by some of the reasons I was just talking about, if you were isolated… 1 out of 4 of us is single, lives alone. 1 out of 4 of us. 1 out of 3 of us if you’re over 65, lives alone. 

That is a huge force at this time, obviously, living alone through this. My God. Just not even being able to be… If you ever had a job where you were connecting with people, a lot of us who are single, and I’m for one. I don’t have children, and I’m single, and I’m in my 60s, and I live alone. Let me tell you, I don’t mind sharing, along with many, many other friends of mine, and many other people who are younger than myself, those of us who lost jobs or can’t work with people where we were getting our, if you like our warm fuzzies, hanging with people. 

Dr. Lisa: From your professional interactions. Yeah, I get it. 

Val: Zoom doesn’t really cut it completely. I mean, thank God, we have it. But for a lot of us, we’re feeling… We’re lonelier. We miss the contact. We miss the physical contact. It’s really different when people are really there. So it’s really showing that up with COVID. People are… Even people who have a lot of social support are feeling lonely, too, because they’re missing the people in their lives, whether they were working with them, or they were volunteering jobs with them, or others. We can be isolated by something like COVID. We can also doubly, it’s like a triple whammy, be isolated by those forces that I was talking about. It layers on and it magnifies. 

Val: Now what’s interesting is that back in 2012, when I went through my isolation experience, it was really hard for me to admit to anyone else that I was as lonely and isolated as I was. In fact, I didn’t dare put it on Facebook or anything that nobody had picked me up from the damn hospital. I wasn’t gonna tell anybody about that. 

Dr. Lisa: We hide our shame, don’t we? 

Val: Yes, we do. I did a lot more study on shame and loneliness. One of the biggest reasons that we become isolated when we’re lonely is that we don’t feel we’re able to talk about it. There’s a stigma around loneliness, much research on that. As a human being in our society, we’ve been trained, it’s taboo to let anybody know that you’re lonely, or God forbid, you’re needy.

Dr. Lisa: I’m just incorporating other research. I had the privilege of talking recently to Lydia Denworth, who is a science writer, who’s done a lot of research on the subject of the significance of human relationships, and the impact that they have on us. It was so interesting. One of the things that are coming up for me, as you’re speaking, was her comments about how our need for meaningful connection is a survival drive that it’s on the order of thirst, and hunger, and that everyone experiences at some times when we don’t have as much connection as you would like. 

What you’re saying is that that’s true for everyone. It is profoundly important and nobody talks about it because we experience shame and stigma from that experience.

Val: Yes. It can make you, especially if you don’t have social support. Let’s say you don’t have much family around for whatever reason, we won’t even go down that ladder. There are all kinds of reasons we might not be close to our families. Maybe we’re close to our family, they’re just not physically near us to help us either. 

If for whatever reason, you don’t have anything to show for your social support, we compare ourselves. “Oh, my God. They’ve got so much more than I do. She’s got the love of her husband, and she’s got those kids and those grandkids. Who am I? I’m not even married. Where are the grandkids? Where’s the love?” 

Dr. Lisa: Older people. Adolescents. Adolescents, too, I think on social media. “How many friends do I have? How big is my following? How many likes did that thing I shared get compared…” Like, I mean, quantitatively. There’s agony around those comparisons aren’t there? 

Val: It’s easy to blame social media, but there is a definite link that the lonelier you feel, okay, if you’re lonely and especially if you’ve been isolated, you’re going to turn to social media as your only way of connecting with people.

Dr. Lisa: It makes so much sense. 

Val: Of course, you are. When I worked with really withdrawn folks with schizophrenia and really lonely, lonely withdrawn folks who wanted to stay connected, boy did they depend on social media as their major way, a lot of them. Yet, you can go down a downward spiral. You become so dependent on it that you start measuring yourself around how many likes you get. Your whole sense of being a decent human being is reflected in social media. 

Some of us are far more vulnerable to that than others. I think it’s important to say it’s not necessarily social media’s fault. It’s just that when you are vulnerable and lonely it can be, it can magnify all of that. Unfortunately, getting people away from that screen… In fact, getting a lot of people under 25, they’re finding in a lot of research that a lot of Generation Z, especially, needs the structure of what’s onscreen to help people make connections. Sometimes, just doing it casually, just having a good old-fashioned chat with somebody, just face-to-face is harder for them. 

I’m going to quote wonderful Jean Twenge. I’m going to recommend reading a great social scientist, Jean Twenge, who wrote wonderfully, writes a lot of books about the younger millennials and Generation Z and the difficulties they have with relationships because of what technology does to their relationships and their self-concepts. It creates a great deal of anxiety. I want to let the world know that even though I’m not that young, I do have an understanding that people under 25 are often very lonely because of the high pressure, the high stakes of building relationships around technology. Right now, they’ve blown past Facebook, it looks like it’s TikTok and others, Instagram things. 

But my point is that if you are missing out on more casual conversation, just natural organic conversation, we get out of practice. It makes you even lonelier. I’ve done a lot of research on this because I work with people who lacked so-called social skills or conversational skills. Because they spent so much time alone, it’s like, your brain is what’s called plasticity. You have to condition, just like when you condition yourself to be fit. The same with verbal skills. You don’t use them, you lose them, and then you’re sitting there, and you’re miserable trying to start a conversation with someone.

Dr. Lisa: Oh, yeah. 

Val: If we don’t have the practice, we get lonelier. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, no, I absolutely think social anxiety, too. Social anxiety makes people feel more inhibited and withdrawn in social situations. They have less social situations. Then, when they do make contact with people, they feel like, “Am I being a weirdo?” Then, if they keep withdrawing, they aren’t as good at making conversation and being with people. It turns into this downward spiral, anyway. 

Val: It’s heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking. You see people getting lonelier, but until you’re able to– How do you talk again?

Dr. Lisa: That’s the question.

Val: What do you do to get started? If you’ve been out of the–

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Let’s talk about this because we’ve been talking a lot about the very real, and just the obstacles, and the profundity of the impact, and how easily people can fall into isolation, and loneliness, and all of the reasons why, and it’s like this hole that can feel hard to dig yourself out of. I also know that you, in that moment, that rock bottom moment were like, “Where is my community that I can count on?” 

I think there are a lot of people listening to this who are like, “How do I begin even to rebuild, particularly in the absence of really feeling safe to go out and interact with people in the same way? I’m not going into my job anymore. How do I connect with… How do I even begin reestablishing those connections with others?” I know that’s another multi-part question. But what does the upward trajectory look like here? 

Val: Well, thank you for asking because that’s really what I’ve prepared. I can take from my book, three or four basic, in a nutshell, ways that not only was I able to break out of isolation, but I found it was common, those ways that I was breaking out of connection was happening to the 15 other people I profiled in my book from all different walks of life, isolated for different ways. 

Let me preface before I name it, I’m going to say four really solid ways, evidenced-based, the sciences behind it. I’ve done lots of research. Before I lay out the four, I just want you to know that I’ve traveled this. In my own life, I’ve traveled this for 25 years as a rehab counselor, the same basic four things kept coming up, and coming up, and coming up as to sure bets, evidence-based ways that this will work better than a lot of other ways. 

I just want you to know that I wanted my book to have a chance to introduce this. Of course, I get to tell a lot of stories with my book but I’m gonna boil it down right now to one of the first things you can do is just to realize that helping people, just when you’re able to help someone in any way, and find those people, maybe it’ll be a person who might be lonelier, and more isolated than you are. One of the best things I could say is, for starters, if you’re lonely and isolated, think about maybe helping out someone who might be lonelier or isolated than even you are.

Dr. Lisa: Pain makes the self focus, doesn’t it? It’s all about us. It’s so easy to internalize and “People hate me and I’m worthless.” I love this. Look outside of yourself to see the suffering in others.

Val: A lot of the reason we don’t think we can help, and I really come from this place, truly, that when I flunked human beings 101 because nobody bothered to show up and take me home from the hospital. I thought I had flunked being a successful human being. I didn’t feel qualified to think, “How can I help somebody if…” You see what I’m saying? What we do is we stop ourselves from feeling that we can be helpful to others because we think we have to qualify. We write too many damn self-help books. I’m sorry that I wanted to write almost an anti-self-help book.

Dr. Lisa: Thank God. 

Val: No, it’s not about fixing yourself. It’s about accepting yourself and saying, “Even if I don’t know what to say or what to do, I’m going to show up. I’m going to be able to show up and I’m going to help somebody who looks miserable, who’s having a hard day.” There are lots of little ways you can show up in somebody else’s life and make a difference for them. If you’re in doubt, and you feel like, even if you don’t have friends, even if you don’t like or trust anybody right now in your life, at least, there are some people around that could really use your help. Whether you actually volunteer in your community, or you help your neighbor do something, or somebody around who just needs a little bit of help: it can be hands-on help, it could be emotional or moral support. 

So during COVID, one of the best ways to handle anxiety is to create a structured, regular way to help people. It could be that you make a list and you check in with certain people. Or it could be that you volunteer locally at your senior center once or twice a week and help them get groceries delivered or you help do checking calls with them. You find something structured and regular, something that you can do again and again that becomes a routine where you’re helping somebody. 

Now, a lot of times really lonely people, and even myself, when I was coming out of my isolation, I started volunteering and that really helps. There are lots of online and remote ways to volunteer now. Get on volunteermatch.org. If you’re over 50, get on createthegood.aarp.org. Know that there are ways you can help others. If you’re feeling lonely, at least you could do a little something to make somebody else feel better. There’s a lot of science behind volunteering, but not just volunteering, anything you might do to help somebody else whether it’s a person you’re truly volunteering with a job. But it could also be just helping, something constructive you do for somebody else it really, it works wonders. 

Dr. Lisa: Isn’t that interesting? There’s almost a paradox built into that because somebody who’s been isolated and lonely and suffering, they want so much to have their own cup filled up, if you were. You’re saying that one of the big answers is actually this paradox: it’s to fill someone else’s. 

Val: It doesn’t work when it comes from you. It just doesn’t work. It’s funny what happens when you reach out and help somebody. If you’re thinking about it well enough and you go about it the right way, it’s usually going to be a person who’s going to appreciate it. But you’re not doing it to be appreciated. You’re doing it because there’s something human about connecting with a person and nurturing another person. That nurturing goes on. We feel it when we walk our dog or when we…that nurturing and that helping. There’s a lot of science that shows how anxiety, when we’re feeling helpless or depression, helplessness is a big part of anxiety and depression, that when we feel helpful, it counters that effect of feeling helpless, powerless, meaningless.

That’s one thing is to help others either through in a formal way, through volunteering, or just helping out in your community, or helping out in your household in a structured, regular routine way. It’s got to be something, often, that is mutually beneficial. One is helping. 

The other is finding people who are isolated by the same things you are. This is number two is look for support from people who would understand your situation. If you’re in an isolating situation plus COVID, let’s say you’re isolated: you’re stuck at home with your little kids, so what helps is really able to, thank God for Facebook, and events, and meetings. You will probably be able to find support groups of mothers, go and, “Oh. help me.” 

Dr. Lisa: Out in the bathroom, messaging each other on Facebook. Yes. 

Val: It’s really important for, say you’re really frustrated mother who… If you find other people isolated in the same way as you are: other fellow caregivers, fellow parents, fellow people who have to work from home and take care of the kids. Believe me, you will find the communities out there. You can, if you like, have somebody to bitch with. We need that person. Not just vent but I mean, get down. We need that as well: to find people who can really understand where we’re coming from. 

A lot of us are feeling different, and misunderstood, and ignored, and like we don’t matter. But when we find others who are going through what we’re going through, it could be that you have an illness. Find a support group for people who suffer the same illness as you. Even if it’s an online group, while we’re going through COVID, it’s a lot better than–

Dr. Lisa: Being in your head.

Val: –being way too much in your head. Reaching out to others who are going through the same kinds of isolating things. Now, what I found in my book was people who reached out to others who were isolated in the same ways, say through addiction, or through illness, or through being the parent of a child with a disability, people who were really isolated in their life situations, who found others in the same way, built community around what isolated them. There’s a really big message in my book that you’ll see over and over that what isolates you can be turned into a way to unite you with others. 

Dr. Lisa: Isn’t that a wonderful message. That exactly what feels like the barrier is actually the road to connection. 

Val: Thank you. You said it better than me.

Dr. Lisa: It’s just perfect. It’s such an important message that what feels like the obstacle may actually be the solution. 

Val: Exactly. You see when you stop blaming yourself, when you’re lonely and saying, “Well, it must be me.” You look for the force that’s isolating you. That’s half the way back out of isolation is to name that thing that’s isolating you, and find others who are going through the same journey as you are getting out of that isolation. That’s a big thing about finding a support group or finding a group that has the same kinds of goals and cares about the same things you do. 

Dare I bring out race relations now when people feel isolated around divisions in our country. But boy, I will say, when you have a cause, and you’re feeling like you’re on a track to make a difference in a constructive way, a lot of people are finding that isolating forces in their lives, like racism, or prejudice or stigma, look at the people with mental illness who fought against the stigma of that. Look what NAMI did, organizations like that did for people with those isolating forces. 

Unifying with these other groups, and feeling mobilized, and feeling like together that you can make a difference, giving you a sense of mission or a sense of purpose, that can mostly be a good thing. Of course, hopefully, in a constructive way. I hope that makes sense.

Dr. Lisa: Yes, that makes sense.

Val: That’s number two: find support around that. That includes if you need a therapist or a person to help you with your isolating issues. That sometimes, maybe, before we’re ready for our support group, we just need one person to talk to. If you don’t have a close friend or a person in your circle, naturally, that’s around to talk to about the pain you feel, certainly we know 300%, there’s been a 300% increase in the use of mental health services in this country since March of this year. 

The COVID crisis has really shown us how much we can use extra support because we can’t do it all ourselves. Our own families and our own friends might be so overwhelmed we can’t really rely on them either. I find it a good message to me, as I’m a mental health practitioner, as you are, to see people turning to support. 

When I was talking about getting out of practice talking or getting out of practice, being able to verbalize what you’re going through because you might be so dependent on social media or technology that you stop talking to people? Well, a good thing about COVID: not only are more people turning to mental health services to talk to people, but also we’re finding, I’ve been seeing a lot of people say, “Well, before COVID happened I didn’t have as many long conversations. I used to be much more interrupted and distracted for conversation. Now, it’s like when I Skype or Zoom with my friend across the country, my long-lost cousin, people I’m reaching out to, I’m actually having longer and better conversations. I am seeing some hope around conversation returning. That’s a good thing. 

Dr. Lisa: The strategies that you shared are rock solid. First, you look for other people to help is important. Also, find ways to unite around what feels like the most challenging issue in your own life. There are two more. 

Val: There are two more. I can go through those a little quicker. One of the nicest things you can do is to make things for people. When you write a card, in this day and age, if you can’t hug somebody and see somebody, a beautiful thing you make with your hands can show your love, can show your care. Even if you’re feeling lonely and down and isolated, when you make something, create something for someone, in honor of someone, especially to say gratitude to someone, my God, it feels good. 

It’s a keepsake. It’s something that person can treasure. Whether you write a song for the person, or you make a video for that person, or you send a card, decorate a card, maybe you quilt something for a person, maybe take beads, make a beaded jewelry for some person. Making stuff for people. It’s thoughtful things that you create for others is an enormously satisfying way to get out of your loneliness and get out of your funk. If there’s one person on the planet that you really are grateful for, do something wicked nice to them.

Dr. Lisa: Wonderful.

Val: That makes you feel really good. Then the other, the final one, I would say, is making lists. This sounds really funny, but people are doing it all the time anyway. But I really want to make note of it. You know all those folks doing Spotify music lists? They’re thinking of a person that they care about and creating lists for them, like a playlist of any kind.

Dr. Lisa: In the 90s, we called it a mixtape.

Val: There you go. So Spotify lists, or TikTok, or making… When you have people in mind that you care about and you want to reach out to, okay, we’re talking about if you’re feeling isolated. But a way to connect with somebody is to think about things that they love or that they like, and wrap your mind around that, and make a list of it. If you hear certain songs that make you think of them that they might like, or Netflix movies, stuff you see that you want to share. 

I would call them share lists, where you’ve thoughtfully put together things for that person. Make things and share things. The things you share like favorite movies, favorite podcasts, favorite music, it gives you something to talk about and connect with. When you’re lonely and you can’t see that person during COVID, you’re sending them things to share. Then, you can talk about it later. You can have a nice “How did you like that movie?” Those are four really good ways to stay connected during COVID that were also helpful for me when I broke out of isolation. It works across the board for a lot of people. 

Dr. Lisa: Well, and they’re so so practical. Your rehab counselor background is coming through: very practical steps which is exactly what people need. But the thread that I’m also hearing running through all of this and maybe the big takeaway is that, what all of them are really is like, connecting empathically with what someone else is needing and feeling, and then turning that attention away from that lack into one of generosity. That is actually the path. 

I just think this thing is so important. I think so much of what’s a lot in self-help or on making friends is to be fun and to be interesting and to be like blah blah blah. I think that sometimes, especially younger people, feel they need to have a job of a certain status or have some… You’re saying exactly the opposite of that is that it really does not matter about how interesting and amazing you are. It’s really how able are you to turn your attention towards someone else and invest in that relationship. That is the paradoxical path to building those connections in your own life. If I’m hearing you right.

Val: You are. A big message in my book that I discovered wasn’t to get support, it’s about giving support. When you give support, eventually it becomes two ways. You start getting the support. It is a matter of putting it out there. It’s proactive. You also learn to become an advocate. I’ve been through loneliness. I’ve been through loss. I’ve been through grief. I know a little something about it. I’m going to put it out there and let you be my companion in this journey we’re taking together. 

I’ve been thinking more of people through this COVID time. I’m really gonna bring out the word companion that maybe we’re feeling like we’re missing out on a lot of things, but if we can think of ourselves in a humble way as just being a companion for each other as we muddle through these times, not to have all the answers. Who’s got the answers right now? We can’t see very far ahead. If we can just be like a companion with each other. 

Companion means back to the Latin, it means com and panis. Panis means bread. It’s the person you share your bread with. A companion is a person you share a meal with or share your bread with. I like to think of that through COVID. If you find a companion, you’re sharing that little bit of nurturing, that bread together.

Dr. Lisa: What a beautiful idea. I love it. Thank you so much for your companionship during our time together today. Really briefly, so Val Walker, the book is called 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking through Isolation and Building Community. If people wanted to learn more about you and your work is valwalker.com? 

Val: I got it. Well, somebody else had that. So mine’s valwalkerauthor.com.

Dr. Lisa: Okay, noted. I’ll be sure to link to that. 

Val: I have some classes on building a social life, too. I just want to put it out there. I’m doing also, I’m here in Massachusetts. I’m going to be on a panel with the Council on Aging in Newton, MA. I got some Zooming going on all over my Facebook page about if there’s some events you might want to go to. I’m doing a big talk for recovery counselors dealing with addiction and Braintree, MA coming up. If you go to my Facebook page, through my 400 Friends and No One to Call I got a page about brave new friendships for that. I’ll keep you posted on events that you can Zoom into and join on some of our lectures and whatnot. 

Dr. Lisa: I’ll be sure to follow you and to stay posted. It sounds like you’re doing all kinds of things. Alright. valwalkerauthor.com, Facebook is a good place to find you. Val, I hope we have the opportunity to talk again sometime in the future. This has been a lot of fun. Thank you. 

Val: I enjoyed it. Thank you.


Episode Highlights

  • Val’s Journey of Writing Her Book
    • A lot of Val’s work revolves around giving social and emotional support. 
    • As a rehabilitation counselor, she has worked with people with disabilities, traumatic experiences, and war veterans.
    • When Val had surgery, none of her friends came to pick her up from the hospital.
    • This experience urged her to do research on social isolation and support. 
  • What Val Found Out in Her Research
    • You doubt yourself in moments where you are isolated. Alternatively, you can also blame others for what happened to you.
    • We have an epidemic: two out of five Americans say they lack meaningful conversations with their peers.
    • Furthermore, one out of five Americans lives alone.
    • Isolation happens when you are isolated by certain forces in your life, such as socio-economic factors, disability, and grief. 
  • Shame, Loneliness, and Social Media
    • We tend to feel more isolated and lonely when we don’t talk about our situation.
    • However, we are wired to feel shame around needing help. 
    • The more isolated you are, the more likely you will turn to social media to connect with people.
    • As a result, people who are under the age of 25 find it harder to have a casual face-to-face conversation.
    • Unfortunately, if you don’t practice your verbal and conversational skills, you’ll lose them. You will then get lonelier.
  • Reestablishing Connections With Others
    • Find structured ways to help people such as volunteering. Think about a person who is more isolated and lonely than you are.
    • Next, look for people who have the same situation as you. What isolates you can actually be the thing that unites you with others.
    • If you’re not ready to interact with a group, you can also seek professional mental health help.
    • Third, make thoughtful things for people. Through this, you show them you care.
    • Finally, make lists for someone you care about. Think about the stuff that they love and share it with them. 

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