A Rough Guide to Loneliness

Most people are familiar with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Loneliness can lead to feelings of depression.

It’s worse if you are young. It takes a long time to become happy with yourself, if that is ever fully achievable. Most of us experience personal growth as we age. If you don’t like yourself, which is much more likely if you are young, it’s easy to assume that you’re somehow at fault for being lonely.

It’s worse if you are male. Men are more prone to depression and suicide. It’s believed that this is biological.

It’s worse if you have an unusual sexuality or gender identity. Someone who doesn’t fit into society’s mainstream will often find themselves marginalized. This adds stress to day-to-day activities, possibly a feeling of ‘being judged’ or feeling outcast.

Furries fit the description of a high-risk group for depression. We’re young (median age 22 [ref]); male-dominated (80% [ref]); unusual sexualities (69% self-report as ‘not heterosexual’ [ref]) and genders (26% self-report as neither completely male nor female [ref]).

Furries are more likely to be socially isolated than non-furries. Members of the furry community – our friends, peers and, in some cases, de facto family – are spread across the globe.

Non-furries are more likely to make friends amongst those they grew up with. It’s common for people to make friends at school and keep them for life. Their friends and support groups tend to be located nearby, and they are more likely to find value in mainstream bonding activities, such as those you might see depicted on a billboard advertising cornflakes.

Much furry socializing, especially amongst the isolated, occurs online. Online contact can lack nuance and is often a poor cousin to face-to-face contact. Anyone listlessly lurking around social corners of the internet (like FA, Facebook, Twitter or IRC) can attest how easy it is to feel lonely online.

It’s easy to become downhearted by loneliness. However loneliness, isolation, and depression are very normal feelings, familiar to everyone. There is nothing innately wrong with feeling disconnected from the world.

(There is a big difference between feeling lonely and being clinically depressed: the first is a negative feeling; the second is a mental illness. Just like feeling outcast in a social situation doesn’t make you autistic, feeling lonely doesn’t mean you’re clinically depressed. Anyone with doubts should consult a doctor.)

There are effective ways to combat loneliness that are especially applicable to the furry community. Our online culture, our animal-person roleplaying, and our introspective assessment of ourselves and the world are all great tools.

Loneliness and depression is a common human trait. The problem – and a solution – is hinted at in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels. In this excerpt, the yahoo race is an analogue for humans, curiously regarded by a race of rational horses:

A fancy would sometimes take a Yahoo to retire into a corner, to lie down, and howl, and groan, and spurn away all that came near him, although he were young and fat, wanted neither food nor water, nor did the servant imagine what could possibly ail him. And the only remedy they found was, to set him to hard work, after which he would infallibly come to himself.

 

To use a more modern concept, consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (link), a broad psychological theory. The hierarchy of needs is not used in serious psychological circles, but is a useful blunt instrument to frame the problem of isolation.

Maslow posits that we are fundamentally driven by (1) atavistic impulses, like sex and sleep. Once these needs are met, we require (2) personal safety. This is followed by (3) a need for social contact. When this is met, we are able to pursue further needs up towards “self-actualization”.

If you are reading this article here on [adjective][species], it’s likely that you live in a world where you are able to meet these first two basic needs, like food and shelter. For most furries, the need for social contact is the first real hurdle towards reaching self-actualization.

Swift identifies the occasional need for an external impetus to get us out of a funk. Maslow shows that social contact is a fundamental need. With this as a guide, we can take action to draw other people into our world such that we become more connected and engaged. The following suggestions are mine, tailored towards the furry experience – they are by no means exhaustive. Consider it a starting point.

Firstly, consider that happy people are the easiest to get to know and like. Unhappy or aggressive people are intimidating; happy people are welcoming.

It’s very easy to be negative online. This is especially true if you are feeling lonely and depressed, and you’re hoping to share your own experiences.

But there is great value in emulating the way that happy people express themselves: “act happy”, regardless of how you feel. There are three immediate positive effects:

  • If you appear happy, you will be more approachable. This will help you make a connection because others will find you easier to chat with.
  • Acting happy will give you some of the experience of being happy. You will learn the lexicon of happiness, and your body language will change as well (even if you are tapping away at a laptop). The words, expressions and feelings of happiness will then be available for you when you need them – feeling happy will feel normal, not alien. [ref]
  • Acting happy changes your brain chemistry in much the same way as actually being happy, which means pretending to be happy will make you happier [ref]. The adage “fake it till you make it” implies a cause and effect that is very real.

Secondly, try to chat with people in ways that make them comfortable. This means chatting on their turf, and choosing a topic that is the favourite of your conversation partner(s). This might mean visiting someone’s house and asking about their day at work; in the furry world this is more likely to mean using IRC to chat about someone’s thoughts on operating systems.

You’re practising an valuable personal skill – that of empathy – but more importantly you’re helping your conversation partner. People are always more engaged when talking about things that are personally important. Even though it might be a topic with which you have no familiarity, ask questions and try to keep your own thoughts out of it. Your conversation partner is more likely to seek you out for future chats, and the range of topics will naturally broaden.

This technique has the added bonus of removing any personal pressure on the social experience. You don’t need to think of a topic or something clever to say, yet you can drive the conversation.

Thirdly, be active and risky in your conversation. Speak on a controversial topic, or be very direct. This will encourage other people to chime in. As they become engaged, switch to a passive role and ask for more information about their thoughts.

This can be a short route to a fun and active conversation. It’s especially useful in group situations, like IRC or in-person furmeets, where people often tend to idle quietly.

Fourthly, try out some “life hacks”, to trick yourself into doing things you know are good for you.

A 1999 study published in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making [ref] asked people to participate in a (fake) experiment. They were asked to choose a DVD to watch while they waited for the “experiment” begin. They were given a choice between a popular highbrow film (like Schindler’s List) and a popular lowbrow film (like Mrs Doubtfire). Participants who made their selection three days before the experiment were much more likely to select a highbrow film than those who made their selection on the day.

The participants knew that seeing a highbrow film would confer greater value over the long term, while the lowbrow film would be less challenging. People chose the lowbrow film on the day because they were, essentially, procrastinating. (We all want to improve ourselves, but right now we’re listlessly lurking around social corners of the internet.)

The simplest way to overcome this natural procrastination is to plan things in advance. If you commit yourself to a social activity that you know is good for you – perhaps exercise, or webcam chat, or some tabletop gaming – you won’t give yourself the option of procrastinating.

There are some excellent mind hacks, or productivity tools, available online for free. There are three geared towards geekier types that I’d recommend:

Finally, please allow yourself to good-naturedly fail from time to time. It’s inevitable that we all feel like failures, or feel depressed, or feel lonely. It’s normal and natural.

If we feel bad about something, we tend to use black-and-white language. We use words like “failure” or “fat” or “useless”. These terms make the obstacles to success look insurmountable.

But if we feel good about something, we use relative language. We use words like “better” or “thinner” or “improved”. These incremental terms make much more sense, because they reflect the way we change – slowly and steadily. When presented with a challenge, it’s helpful to think of it using relative language.

This article is about loneliness but it also touches on depression and suicide. I encourage everyone to give themselves a free pass for depressive or suicidal thoughts, because they are a normal and common experience. But I’m not qualified to give advice to someone who is worried they may be suicidal.

Fortunately a furry friend of mine is a qualified medical doctor. (And a horse.) His advice follows – please heed it if you’ve read this article and are worried about yourself.

If at any point you don’t feel safe within yourself, call emergency services. Don’t hesitate or second-guess yourself. However you may have arrived at this point, it’s not the kind of thing that gets better when you think about it. You can think about consequences when you feel you are safe.

 

Regardless of how you view hospitals (and possibly psychiatric wards), I cite the emergency services here partly because of my professional background, and partially because their role is to guarantee that your emergency is taken seriously. Somebody will respond and will be there for you.

 

If you don’t like hospitals, or psychiatric wards, or doctors, to the point where you would rather die than see one, and you have a friend that is so good that they could guarantee you the above, then perhaps that’s a viable alternative. They may not be equipped to deal with your crisis, but if you find yourself in this situation then it’s pretty desperate, and may require desperate measures that you can only access in a hospital.

 

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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15 thoughts on “A Rough Guide to Loneliness

  1. This article touches on a lot of sensitive points for me, but I’m quite glad that you’ve written and posted it. It’s very important to realize just how we interact with the world around us: the positives and negatives that help us build relationships both online and off are also the same positives and negatives that help shape the ways we feel, the ways we act, and the ways we better ourselves as people. I know that I’ve written before on Münchausen by Internet (http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2011/12/07/character-versus-self-2/) and how negative feelings can be used to garner attention, but that was not intended to minimize this as an actual issue that many face, and you’ve provided some excellent suggestions for working with what we make for ourselves.

    On a more personal note, I must reiterate the importance of seeking help if you do believe you are at risk for suicide. It’s not just clinical depression that can cause that, but several other disorders such as panic disorder, or even simple emotional trauma. Those of you who have known me on Twitter for a while know that this is an issue that’s deeply important to me. There are an abundance of resources to help you through rough times like that, and I encourage anyone in need to seek them out – I would not be here and [adjective][species] would have stopped in March if there hadn’t been outside resources from which to find help:

    1-800-SUICIDE is the suicide hotline;

    1-800-442-HOPE is Hopeline, an excellent resource

    http://imalive.org is an online resource if you are not comfortable talking on the phone.

  2. From this introvert’s point of view, loneliness isn’t that big of a deal as I don’t need as much social interaction with the rest of the world. That said, I still do crave human contact and friendship, just at a much lower quantity. Hence, I think it is difficult for me to emphasize with the general larger extroverted population that appear to need more stimulus.

    Re: getting over depression: The last I had a major depressive episode, what really got me out of it and feeling good was self improvement, to improve self-esteem. Small steps, daily things that after several years, I look back and go, “damn, I’ve come a long way, and I can do this given time”!

    I also think getting over a depressive period is much easier with the support of friends and family. Assuming you are not isolated from them. Apart from furs, there are lots of other groups like meetup (http://www.meetup.com) that caters to meeting new people and at the same time participating in an activity of common interest.

    1. The experience is going to be different for everyone, and I think your comparison with more extroverted people is a great example. Even though you’re less inclined towards social interaction, you were still able to reach out when you needed to.

      Your internal skill in finding those small steps is really healthy too. I hope you feel proud for the way you’ve managed (and continue to manage) a tough situation.

  3. While I agree with the article for the most part, I actually bristle quite a lot at the whole fake-it-until-it-happens approach to negative feelings. I accept that this is a perfectly viable approach that people can try in regards to negative feelings, and it does work, but in my experience it simply exacerbates the feeling. My personal approach requires me to examine the problem directly and find out why it’s there in the first place. Upon that discovery the problem is, well, no longer a problem and the feeling usually dissipates on its own.

    Pretending to be happy when I’m actually not feels like a massive deception on my behalf, lying to myself and to others. I find it nigh impossible to overcome to knowledge that there is an issue that I need to deal with. At the same, if someone were to suggest a person merely act happy when they clearly are not, that reeks of a flippant and dismissive attitude to what is, I’m sure, a very serious concern for the person involved.

    Similarly I imagine that while my methods are effective for me they are also going to be detrimental for other people to try to employ.

    1. I could write an entire article about ‘fake it till you make it’, and you’ve hit on the most important point that I didn’t include. If you’re using this approach, you shouldn’t be false, rather you should act as if you’re wearing a mask, where you only show a happy version of yourself to the outside world. This mask is similar to the masks that we all wear under certain circumstances, for example at work we usually opt to edit out our sexual selves.

      I removed a paragraph or three covering this, which was originally going to be included in this article. I removed it to stop the article from being too long, and also as to not put too much emphasis on a single suggestion. There is good science supporting a “fake it till you make it” approach, but obviously it’s not for everyone. Hopefully one of the other suggestions – or just the ideas from Swith & Maslow – will help people find their own path.

      It’s clear that you’re able to discriminate what will – and won’t – work for you personally. You’re demonstrating a great deal of self-awareness – I have no doubt that your good internal understanding of Fairbank (or whoever you might be on any given day) puts you in a very good position for self-improvement. It might be worth considering that you’re a long way advanced beyond most people.

      P.S. I hope you guessed the source of the medical opinion given by Dr Horse at the end of the article. (Watch out for those penicorns.)

      1. I did actually, and it took all my self control to chime in that the reason you’re probably feeling so bad is because you’re not home by 8:30 like your promised your mother.

  4. The ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ tactic has a negative connotation that can, as Fairbank noted, merely feel like self-deception. For myself, I’ve simply changed the ‘mantra’ to something more believable that my own internal filters won’t dismiss as implausible, unsupported, or fabrications. As a rough example, I once had to audition for entrance into a club for magicians, and the prospect was somewhat daunting. “Faking it until making it” would have looked like exactly the insipid sham I thought it to be, so instead (and I apologise for the dreariness) I remembered that I had delivered a eulogy for my Dad some time previously. Both the challenge and the potential consequences were thus instantly placed into much more rational perspective, and I faced the audition with confidence.

    If you can’t ‘FITYMI,” perhaps you can build on prior successes instead.

    JM, thanks for the article. Looking forward to the next one.

    *hugs*
    Clay ^^

  5. Never before have I seen an article with truer words spoken. I am a young male fur living in Texas and so you can imagine how hard it is to find other people with the same interests, also counting the fact that most of my hobbies are centered around gaming, art, and intellectual activity. I have been lonely these past few months, and last week I ran into this site. Before finding this site and a few others, I was struck by a very long period of time where I felt unmotivated, unloved, and unnoticed. I even thought about killing myself two weeks ago until I broke down in front of my family. Reading this article only reaffirms what I have learned since then; that there is always hope, people care, and I’m not alone. I am glad you posted this, I appreciate the work you are doing here, so keep it up.

    1. Anthony, thanks for the kind words and I’m really pleased that you got some value from this article. Sounds like you’re doing some good, important, personal work too: keep it up.

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  8. I find that the best way to combat loneliness is to not go out and socialize at all, but instead just focus on doing activities alone. Most of my life as a social outcast, I had no choice but to do this. And nearly all attempts to socialize ended in disappointment, heartache, and sometimes even bullying and abuse, making me even lonelier than before.

    So, why bother? If I keep to myself and my mate and the few friends I already have, then nobody gets hurt.

  9. I find that the best way to combat loneliness is to not go out and socialize at all, but instead just focus on doing activities alone. Most of my life as a social outcast, I had no choice but to do this. And nearly all attempts to socialize ended in disappointment, heartache, and sometimes even bullying and abuse, making me even lonelier than before.

    So, why bother? If I keep to myself (and my mate and the few friends I already have), mind my own business, not impose on anybody, then nobody gets hurt, and everybody becomes happy.

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