Loneliness Can Be A Result of Social Exhaustion!

Do you come home from work too tired to do anything except crash on your couch? Does the very idea of calling a friend sound like too much work? Do you panic at the idea of scheduling a social event into your calendar? Do you end your workweeks so tired that you need the entire weekend to simply pull the blinds and recover? Do you wish you had time to go meet new friends but by the time you prioritize your partner, your kids, and others in your family-- you've reached your limit?

The Connection Between Burn-Out and Loneliness

Too often we associate loneliness with social isolation, but more often than not these days, our loneliness might be the outcome of too much interaction. Or, more precisely, too much draining interaction.

Harvard Business Review reported this week on the correlation between how our burn-out at work is largely connected with feelings of loneliness. They write, 

Close to 50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work. This is a shockingly high statistic — and it’s a 32% increase from two decades ago. What’s more, there is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel.


How to Recharge and Reconnect

Certainly this is a systematic problem in our culture-- we are oriented toward consumerism, productivity, and achievement; rather than toward the relationships that will save our lives. Literally.  (How we answer the question, "How loved and supported do I feel in life?" will direct our health and happiness more than nearly any other factor.) So this isn't an easy fix article.  We can't simply go back in time to when we sat in tribal circles cooking together, waved to each other from our front porches, or simply lived in the same small town we grew up in where everyone knew our name.

Unfortunately turning this Titanic issue around is going to take some time for the world at large (I'm working on it! ha!) but we can start turning the wheel in our own lives and schedules! 

If your loneliness is the result of social exhaustion then the answer isn't to go invite more people into your lifeboat, but rather to first try to plug some of the energy leaks that are threatening to sink your boat.

The quick answer to the question "How do I recover from social exhaustion?" is to do more of what energizes you with the people who energize you and less of what drains you with the people who drain you. But unfortunately this simple answer can be abused if we don't stop to reflect before we assume we know the answers.  Because the truth is that while facing conflict might drain us temporarily, it could energize us more in the long run by creating a more meaningful relationship or experience. Doing what's hard, awkward, or uncomfortable has the potential to lead to greater happiness.  

Let's get clear what's threatening your emotional reserves and brainstorm healthy responses:

  1. Make a List of those Draining Relationships! Who are the first names that pop up?  Who is using up the bulk of your emotional energy? Who is taking up the most headspace in your life? Who feels like they are "sucking" you dry? Maybe it's not just a demanding boss, an annoying co-worker, a guilt-inducing mother, or an unhappy spouse, but maybe it's also groups of people such as "unhappy customers" or "parents at my kids school" or "people on Facebook."  Make that list!
  2. Add to the List any regular Draining Interactions. It's important to take note of the fact that there is a difference between draining people and draining interactions. We can like people but be drained by the type of interaction we have with them-- whether the interaction be largely in boring meetings, filled with the anxiety of small talk, or limited to high-pressure situations. We can love our kids, and yet be drained by certain experiences with them more than others. We can enjoy our work, but be drained by certain interactions with certain customers. We can like our friends, but say good-bye feeling more tired because of what we talked about or what activity we choose.  What interactions, circumstances, or conversations drain you the most?
  3. Do a quick temperature gauge by marking symbols to the left of each name:
    1. Draw a heart next to the names/groups you'd really like to fix and improve-- you have hope!
    2. Draw a ? next to the names where you feel like the drain might be more "circumstantial" or temporary. 
    3. Draw a ! next to the name if you don't even think the other person feels the friction, knows your feelings, or if they'd be "surprised" to know you're not getting needs met. 
    4. Draw the letter O next to the names/groups that scream "obligation" to you-- the relationships where you feel responsibility or guilt.
    5. Draw the word "yes" next to each relationship if at least one thing comes to mind that you know could do to improve/fix it.
    6. Draw a small x next to the names/groups you're not even sure you want in your life anymore. (Or anyone you'd step out of relationship with immediately if only you knew how!)
  4. Reflect:  What truth do you see?  As you look at your list-- what symbols are most prevalent? What surprises you? What do some of these people/groups have in common? Do you see any patterns?
  5. Re-categorize into 3 new lists: Yes, No, Okay
    1. YES! One list is some version of "Yes! I want to transform/fix this relationship!" Which relationships are important to you? Who do you still love? Which relationships do you really value?
    2. NO! The other list is the opposite: "I would be happiest if I eliminated or minimized interaction with this relationship." 
    3. Okay. And the third list is for everyone in the middle-- they aren't a strong yes or a strong no.
  6. For the Yes and Okay sub-lists: Brainstorm any ways that you might be able to repair, enhance, or transform some of these relationships and Interactions. This isn't a list of things you will do, just a list of things you could do! :) Do you need to set better boundaries? Can you think of ways to add more positivity to these relationships? Is there friction that can be healed? Is there forgiveness that would help you feel more peace with this person? Have you spoken your needs and opened a dialogue to solve these frustrations? Is there another way you can look at this situation so it doesn't cost you as much energy? Can the way the meeting is run be improved to add more time for meaningful interaction? Is there a way to respond to those customers that feels more empowering?
  7. For the No sub-list: Brainstorm what you need to do to minimize/end this relationship. While it's always best to try to repair and transform relationships; it's possible that some of those relationships need to be minimized in your life. What could that look like? Where do you need to pull back or end something? Is it time to look for a new job, break-up, or stop hanging out with that group? Are there some where simply limiting the time/interaction is enough or do you need no interaction at all?  Get clear what your wisdom and maturity is trying to tell you!
  8. Prioritize: Where is the biggest drain coming from on this list-- that if you were to fix that hole would make the biggest difference?  Is it someone on the Yes list or someone on the No list?  Pick the 3 relationships that you will act on in order to plug some of the holes in your emotional exhaustion boat!

I so hope that this evaluation process proves helpful for some of you.  Our goal is to become better equipped at evaluating and responding to the relationships in our lives so that we're less likely to forget that our social exhaustion often has less to do with simply "avoiding draining people" and more to do with "knowing how to respond to draining situations."

Hugs to us all as we continue to step out of our loneliness with the confidence that we can move toward more meaningful connections.