Lessons I’ve learnt from loneliness

Our culture’s approach to aloneness is alienating and unhelpful.

Art by Ellie Stephenson.

You can do all the self-care in the world, but loneliness is an overwhelmingly awful feeling.

It comes at unexpected times. Like when I can’t split an Uber with someone at the end of the night. Like when I want company at the supermarket. Like when I really need someone to cry to.

I’m almost 22 and have never been in a relationship. I’ve been dramatic. I’ve done the midnight drives. I’ve been sad, confused, and resentful. But I’m not alone in loneliness:  it is an inevitable feeling. At some point in our lives, we will all feel lonely.

Here’s what I’ve learnt.

Lesson 1: Society has a fucked-up perspective on solo activity.

There’s nothing I despise more than the trend of “taking yourself on a date”. I have two problems with it. Firstly, it implies that for something to be rewarding, there must be a ‘date’ connotation attached to it. Why does going and getting sushi by yourself on a random Wednesday have to be a ‘solo-date’? Why is it not just ‘getting dinner’? Must every experience be framed in this quasi-romantic light, as if spending time by yourself can’t be understood without imagining spending time with others?

Secondly, it suggests that doing things alone is a special experience, and one that is uncommon. The idea that doing things alone is a big deal diminishes them, because it makes them feel abnormal. I go to the movies by myself a couple of times a week. It is neither weird, nor something that makes me feel lonely. I’ve always been confused when people react weirdly to it, because watching movies is an inherently solo activity. I enjoy getting meals by myself too. I can order whatever I want, leave whenever I desire, and put my AirPods in and watch something on my phone if I feel like it. I am completely at peace with the experience.

Lesson 2: Don’t listen to your friends in relationships.

Almost all my friends are in long-term relationships, which means they have little to no perspective on the trials and tribulations of going on first dates. First dates are normally uneventful, mentally exhausting, and a huge waste of a Saturday night. Meeting people has become far harder since COVID. Fewer people go out to bars and clubs on the weekend, and instead turn to house parties and pub sessions. People are shy. They don’t like introducing themselves to strangers. Fair enough too. 

I guess being gay makes this harder, because you don’t even know who in the crowd shares your preferences, but I still think it is a universally difficult experience. That’s why, when my friends in relationships tell me that something is ‘right around the corner’ and that they ‘have a good feeling’ about a first date, I want to scream. I want to tell them that they will never understand (or have forgotten) the frustration of going on first date after first date, and all of them leading to nothing. I want to tell them that all I want is for them to listen and agree with me. There is no easy fix, and nothing they say will change how I feel.

Lesson 3: Occasionally, it will consume you.  

Sometimes I lie in bed and lament the fact I haven’t used my time at university to be in a relationship. Because I know that dating when you work full time is harder, and that, if you do find someone, you have less time to spend with them. I know I’ll never have the experience of a uni relationship. That makes me sad.

I told a friend the other day that I’m starting to feel jealous when someone tells me they’ve just started a relationship. He told me I was being insanely selfish. Maybe I am. But I can’t change the way I feel. It’s frustrating always being happy for others, and never being the one on the other side. However, sometimes you just have to be upset about it. You will sometimes get stuck in the rut of ‘is it me? Am I the problem?’. However, I think it’s productive to feel like this sometimes. It’s cathartic. It means you don’t overreact every single time a date goes badly, because you’ve let it out.

I know this won’t be forever, but I don’t know when things will change. What I do know is that you can learn a lot in being by yourself. You can critically evaluate your relationships, and you can have incredibly high-quality friendships. Friendships that can, a lot of the time, make loneliness less all-consuming. I’ve learnt that some friendships aren’t worth pursuing, and that not everyone will give you what you want. I have only been able to refine this skill being alone. You can learn how to leave situations you feel uncomfortable in. You can feel fully comfortable in yourself, without the desire to please someone else. I know exactly who I am. I know what I like doing, who I like doing it with, and what makes me happy. I feel lucky to have discovered this so young. This doesn’t mean it’s easy. Getting to that stage is really hard, and sometimes, almost impossible. 

To anyone else in my position, I feel you.

Sometimes, it sucks. And that’s okay.