I’ve been ill and alone – now relationships seem meaningless | Philippa Perry

The dilemma I’m only now able to get back into society after 20 months of having to isolate. Due to medical complications, I was only recently vaccinated and had been completely solitary out of fear of dealing with Covid. I was ill with a life-threatening infection at one point during lockdown and luckily got through that, but it showed me how alone and vulnerable I am.

I have also been made redundant. I have been applying for jobs, and going to interviews. Inevitably, I am being rejected and even when I’m not, my value is being questioned and negotiated down.

I feel so let down by what I thought were solid friendships. Colleagues and friends dropped me when I could not offer them work due to losing my job. You are totally on your own in life and relationships are all meaningless.

At 39, I’ve given up on the idea of a romantic relationship and having a family. Men want to know on the first date whether you’re attracted to them – it takes me longer to know. It’s as though there’s no value given to nurturing relationships. I’m not looking for anything major, just responding either way to a text suggesting meeting up for a stroll, being available for a laugh and chat from time to time, or to go on a date without expectations.

The door to the world might now be open but I am struggling to go through it.

Philippa’s answer I’m sorry, you’ve had more than your fair share of knockbacks and illness and isolation.

We can have some bad experiences dating, or with people we thought were friends and it’s natural we think that this is a pattern and that all experiences will be like this in one way or another, proving to you that humans are somehow bad, and relationships meaningless. Our challenge in circumstances like these is to not lose our faith in the inherent goodness of most people.

When a pack animal is taken from their group and isolated then reintroduced, they don’t throw themselves back into the centre, they stay on the periphery, don’t take risks and they stay relatively isolated. This experiment has been done with rats and with fruit flies. And I don’t think humans are much different. Isolation and loneliness makes us wary of others, distrustful. If something happens once or twice we can experience it as a pattern, and we withdraw to protect ourselves from it happening again. We become wary of being vulnerable to shield ourselves from further rejection. And we can make very reasonable-sounding excuses to do this – just like you presented me with your evidence. Reasoning can become our enemy when we use it to back up our instinct to shy away from new people after a period of isolation.

But we have the edge on fruit flies and rats because we can also use our powers of reason to override those instincts which tell us to hide. We can lead with the brain instead of with our instincts.

There is also the danger of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go to a gathering of people and you think as you enter the space, “Nobody likes me, no one wants to talk to me, relationships are meaningless,” how would that show in your body language? What vibes would you be giving off? You’d probably stay on the edges, avoid eye contact and be guarded in any conversations. Now suppose instead you think, “Everyone is interesting and attractive and pleased to see me and I’m interesting, valuable and attractive. I want to talk to them about what I’m thinking, and I want to find out what they are thinking about,” then how would that show in your face, body language, eye-contact and the vibe you give off? It’ll make you more approachable, friendlier and relatable.

Both scenarios are speculative fantasy but I always say if you are going to have a fantasy about other people make it a good one. Make it the best one and believe it and it will show in your face and it will turn your life right around. How do I know this will work for you? I cannot possibly know, but I believe it. I’ve done it, my clients have done it and I get very excited about it. If you cannot do it, go to a hypnotherapist until you can. Reprogramming yourself from “everyone is horrible” to “everyone is lovely” can make the biggest difference in your life. You may find it easy or it might take all your courage to flip this switch. You’ll need to turn your attention away from the evidence you’ve cherrypicked which backed up the stories you used to tell yourself about relationships and look the other way towards hopefulness and evidence that some seeds do germinate (but they won’t if you don’t sow them).

Now, repeat after me: “everyone is interesting and attractive including you and me and we are all very pleased to see each other”. It will take practice. You have acclimatised to “everyone is not worth the effort” because you’ve practised that. Time to upgrade to your next self-fulfilling prophecy. We only have one life (apparently) – don’t be a fruit fly.

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk