How can you support someone when you can’t be there for them physically?
Loneliness. At some point in our lives, we’ve all had to experience some form of it. Whether you’ve moved home, started a new school or college, suffered the loss of a loved one, gone through a relationship breakup or experienced any other situation that’s left you feeling alone, we’ve all felt it. And, despite there being over 7.9 billion people in the world, it’s still possible for us to feel alone in a crowd. It’s not a pleasant experience, so it’s vital we do all we can to ensure those we care about don’t feel alone.
In today's hectic society, being there for one another has become a difficult undertaking. Everyone is consumed with their own troubles, life or work and it’s often impossible to be physically there for someone who needs to be cheered up.
How to support someone when they feel lonely
So what can you do if you can’t physically be in the same place as someone experiencing loneliness? Well, to explore this more I’ll indulge you in a brief side-story.
I grew up with my family in North London. I have two older brothers, both married and divorced with children, my parents divorced when I was a young child and my dad remarried. Skip ahead to 2022 and it’s now been about 8 years since my entire family moved home in the same direction, away from London and towards the Suffolk coast. I’m the only one who stayed behind because I love the city so much. After all, there’s no place like home and London, where I live with my husband, is my home.
When it comes to loneliness though my main concern is my mum. She has plenty of grandchildren (the current total is 7) to keep her occupied, but as a single mother of 3 boys she always put us first and never found ‘the one’ for her. I do worry that she might get lonely sometimes and since we’re so far apart, I always make sure to check in with her regularly, usually by FaceTime so we can see each other. Since the pandemic, this method of communication has become a real blessing.
Yet in the grander scheme of the global pandemic, communication, physical connection and human contact have ultimately been altered in ways we never would have thought possible a mere decade ago. National and international lockdowns introduced the term ‘self-isolation’ to common vocabulary and at a time when we needed to be with loved ones more than ever, the opposite became the reality. In-person meetings ceased, face-to-face gatherings were outlawed and the combined mental health of our communities suffered for it. Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that a quarter of adults (25%) in the UK reported feeling lonely during the pandemic. The figure was even higher for the younger generation with 38% of people aged 18-24 and 34% of people aged 25-34 consistently reporting feelings of loneliness throughout the pandemic.
Even now as we emerge on the other side, the zeitgeist has changed and we haven’t completely reverted back to levels of pre-pandemic human contact. Many of us are understandably still anxious about Covid-19 and there are also the vulnerable, many of whom continue to remain shielded. But just because it’s more difficult to make connections with people in person, does that mean we shouldn’t bother trying at all?
So without being physically present, what can we do to assist someone (loved one or not) in getting through a period of loneliness? Well, as I previously mentioned, FaceTime (or video calling) is my preferred method for keeping in touch with my mum - you can of course try calling your loved one by phone. But as fewer people use mobile phones for actual phone calls each year, and the younger generation preferring text or ‘DMs’ to traditional calls, one way you can potentially reach out effectively is via text message.
In this article we’re going to dive into some strategies and give you the tools you need to hold meaningful discussion with someone in need, via text - be that WhatsApp, iMessage, text message or any other text based communication. Effective messaging by text is a transferrable skill you’ll be glad to have under your belt, so take note.
Strategies for holding meaningful conversation via text
1. Give them your undivided attention
First and foremost, devote all of your focus on them for a period of time. Despite the fact that the communication is conducted by text, it can be quite obvious if someone isn’t really paying attention. If they’ve contacted you and you aren’t available at that specific time, set some time aside, let them know when you’ll be able available and stick to the agreed time.
Another point worth mentioning is that this shouldn’t be a one-time talk. Loneliness is a sensation that persists even after a few conversations with others. Loneliness quite aptly doesn’t simply go away on its own. Someone feeling lonely needs to know that someone cares about them. As a result, try to let them know that you will always be available to them (or at least most of the time), and regularly check in with them to see how they’re feeling - or to let them know that you’re still there for them.
It’s also really important to take note of their circumstances and if there is any worry or concern of potential harm, highlight the option of seeking expert help.
2. Avoid sending scripted texts
There are plenty of motivational quotes online. There are endless online pages of inspirational quotes available but despite their prominence, they may have lost their meaning and significance over time through over-exposure. Sending your friend or loved one the same overused inspirational phrases may not have the desired effect and could lead them to believe you aren't really paying attention, or that you don’t really care. For want of a better phrase, it may make the interaction sound scripted.
When someone is feeling low, they’re in a negative mindset which makes them more likely to be emotionally sensitive. So, especially if it's someone close to you, try to be real in your texts. Use your own personal experiences and encounters with them. Make every effort to be unique and avoid becoming repetitious. When you're depressed or stressed, reading the same thing again and over might become irritating, and the individual may distance themselves, or become closed off to the communication. Obviously this wouldn’t be the desired outcome so it’s important to consider each of your responses carefully.
3. Express your gratitude and appreciation to them
Sharing how you’re feeling, especially when it’s at a point of low mental health can be challenging. When someone confides in you and expresses their sentiments and concerns, you must do all possible to make them feel at ease. One of the best ways to do this is to show your gratitude for their decision to open up to you. “Thank you for telling me” and “Thank you for having the courage to open up to me” are two good examples.
When they read the text and realise how grateful you are, it provides a feeling of validation and an understanding that their feelings aren’t a burden to you. This helps to create a safe space and connection, and will encourage them to open up to you more next time.
4. Make a conscious effort to listen more than you speak
It's better to let someone talk more while they're opening up to you since they need to express themselves. As a result, try to pay attention (you’ll know the phrase “a good listener.” Well in this case, you’ll need to be “a good reader”).
If you want to do it well, remember that a deep text discussion is all about balance. If you chat too much, people could believe you're not paying attention and if you don't text enough, they might think you're still not paying attention, so be careful.
5. Don’t make it a one-time conversation
As I mentioned before, it’s important to check in regularly to see how they’re feeling. You must continue to maintain regular communication with the individual, even after they have expressed their thoughts. If you don’t, or if you forget, it could seem to them that you didn't care in the first place, making them feel they shouldn't have confided in you perhaps.
So, text them now and then and keep an eye on them. But do it without making it brutally clear that you're doing so in response to that one chat. Instead, act genuine and send them a witty message, enquire about their day, or invite them to lunch or dinner. Doing this shows that you genuinely do care and think of them when you’re not there.
6. Validate their feelings and avoid judgement
When someone shares how they’re feeling with you and you respond by disagreeing with them, you’re dismissing them and invalidating how they're feeling. If you start correcting them or judging them for how they feel, they may stop venting and their negative thoughts may begin to play on their mind once more - more so after the communication has ended. To avoid this, wait until the appropriate time to discuss (rather than imposing) your views and opinions on a topic.
7. Make sure they don't feel like they're bothering you
This is probably the most important point on this list. When a person is vulnerable, it is quite easy for them to shut down. They might feel like no-one cares about them, no one wants to listen or no-one will understand. Coming forward and admitting how they’re feeling can be really daunting, and the fear of rejection, especially during a state of low mental health can be overwhelming.
They may feel that they are a burden to you, that their sentiments might upset you and that they shouldn't bother you in the first place. Even if you sincerely care for them, their brain will tell them differently. Do your best to communicate that you genuinely want to support them through this time and you’re not just responding to be polite.
So there you have it: some guidelines for comforting someone through text when they’re feeling lonely. As I said at the start of the list, these are transferrable skills so it doesn’t have to apply only to people feeling alone. If anyone is struggling with depression, low-mood or anxiety these suggestions can all be helpful. Equally if a friend or loved one comes out to you as LGBTQ+ these are all tips that can be useful. The true magic is in the specifics, which you'll have to find out for yourself because they're unique to each individual and scenario.
It all comes down to paying attention, truly listening and being there for them. I hope you found this helpful and employ these techniques when you next need to communicate with a loved one in need.
Now, I’m off to FaceTime my mum.
Written by a Schoen Clinic employee for Mental Health Awareness Week, anonymised for privacy.
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