One Therapy Key-Ingredient To Alleviate Loneliness!
Updated: Oct 23
If you're part of the loneliness epidemic - there's one thing that is essential when you're looking for a therapist.
I'm going to be honest with you. Sometimes I freeze when I encounter the abundant absence of this one thing in other therapists. It's my red flag, which is more like an air siren. All the GTFO. It doesn't feel great to admit that I freeze when I want to educate and advocate, but it definitely happens. Therapists are also human.
Why therapy for loneliness?
Whoever you are, you deserve to be able to find quality therapy that honors your experience. Solid therapy can be a key ingredient in cooking up a life that's more delicious. Chronic loneliness leaches away life's flavor, leaving us with a bland experience.
Chronic loneliness is the struggle with having mainly surface-level relationships, absent of having adequate meaningful connections. If this is you, you're not alone. The U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has declared a "pandemic of loneliness" in the United States with heavy ramifications. In a recent NPR article Dr. Murthy advised that the health impact of being disconnected is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Meaningful relationships aren't optional. You very literally need them. Their absence has physical impacts. Heart disease, dementia, and stroke are linked to loneliness.
Therapy Red Flags
What's my therapist red flag?
When identity is framed as a deficit my inner air siren is piercing. Sometimes (unfortunately) I still freeze.
What does this mean?
I was once talking to a colleague about why I offer "therapy for Atheists". I acknowledge that being an Atheist (hi!) in religious social contexts comes with challenges, and having a therapist who is knowledgable about these challenges could potentially be helpful to clients. Curiosity getting the better of me, I asked how they navigate being trained in a biopsychosocial-spiritual model of care (standard therapist training) with clients who don't describe themselves as spiritual. The response? They try to gently introduce spirituality in therapy. My inner air siren blasted. What I think I said was, "Oh."
While some folks describe themselves as both Atheists and Spiritual, that's not universal. Our job as therapists is not to tell anyone who to be or what to (or not to) believe. What it is, is to honor their identity. You deserve to be accepted and supported in your experience while sorting out what matters to you, and working on your goals for therapy.
Perhaps one of those goals is to cultivate meaningful relationships.
If that, in the service of addressing ongoing chronic loneliness, is one of your goals for therapy... that doesn't work with a therapist who doesn't accept and support your identity.
The essential ingredient in good therapy
If what doesn't work is having others' values projected onto you then the secret ingredient is...
Did you guess acceptance?
Acceptance is close and a value that we Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) therapists hold dearly. Really, it's a specific type of acceptance called affirming care or, in therapy, affirming therapy. Affirming care moves beyond being welcoming and supports you in embracing and living your personal values.
How is affirming care a type of acceptance? Russ Harris, ACT celebrity therapist and author of The Happiness Trap describes 3 stages of acceptance: 1. Allowing 2. Acknowledging 3. Appreciating (also thought of as celebrating/embodiment). Celebrating and embodying your unique identity is what affirming care is all about.
This is a must if you feel like you're always on the outside looking in. If you get the message from a therapist that you being you is wrong... if it's in the initial consultation or an early session, it may be worthwhile to seek out a different therapist. If you've got an established, mostly helpful therapeutic relationship, it's for you to consider how you want to address this. Maybe sharing this article can help you begin the discussion.
Affirming therapists won't always get it right. Therapists are people and people aren't always aware of their biases (this is why I kick myself later when I freeze when a red flag pops up in convos with therapists). They also aren't seeing your life through your eyes. What makes a therapist affirming is their commitment to honor your experience, making peace with and celebrating what makes you you. If you address feeling invalidated in session with an affirming therapist, you can expect accountability and openness to your experience.
Once you connect with an affirming therapist there are a lot of different ways they might work with you. They might not be an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy therapist. Or they might. Affirming therapists have different approaches.
How does affirming therapy help with loneliness?
Brené Brown shared that in her research she found that "the opposite of belonging is fitting in". Belonging is the antidote for loneliness. Therefore, being able to access belonging requires making space for difference. You're the not the same as everyone else. You may share some lived experiences with a therapist -sometimes that's really helpful in getting started- but in some areas you are definitely going to be different. Even being part of the same community, or using the same word to describe your identity, doesn't mean you'll experience that in the same way.
If your goal is to cultivate meaningful relationships, those will be relationships where you have permission to be different. In giving up "fitting in" you get to be you. If that's a goal of therapy, there needs to be space for that in the room.
When interviewing a potential new therapist, ask them:
What does affirming therapy mean to you?
by Helen Dempsey-Henofer LCSW, ADHD-CCSP
Founder & Therapist at Divergent Path Wellness