For a number of reasons, loneliness in your twenties is something that isn’t really talked about enough. A time in life when socializing is of such high importance, admitting you’re lonely can feel a bit like you’re also admitting some sort of personal failure. Even the word ‘lonely’ seems like a term reserved mostly for the older generation, i.e. the lovely old lady down the road, only survived by her cat and a few house plants. She can say she’s lonely and that’s ok, we would expect that, but in a supposed era of life that’s all about going out, exploring and meeting new people, an open admission of loneliness can feel like you’re inviting a reaction that’s more ‘whats wrong with you? how could you possibly get lonely in your twenties?‘
When I was 26, pretty much everyone I knew was getting stuck into their careers, moving in with their partners and suddenly being able to afford things like smoked salmon and premium coffee. I was back at square one in love, career and, most awkwardly – my social life. I say awkwardly because to be honest, I was just really embarrassed about this. In fact, forget embarrassed, I was mortified. When I looked around I realized I didn’t really have a friendship ‘group.’ I mean I had friends and people I knew, but I just didn’t have this ‘group’ thing that everyone else seemed to have. You know, the people you call on when you want to organise a ski trip or fancy hosting a dinner party. You probably met at University, or on a sports team, maybe lived together at some point, and in a few years you’ll all be going to each others’ weddings and on couples’ weekends to the Cotswolds – you get the idea.
In University I hadn’t exactly been shy, and I’d never had any previous problems making friends, but suddenly I felt like the weird kid at school and found myself incredibly lonely – and deeply ashamed of it.
At my core, I’m an introvert and have no problem spending time by myself, but the shame of being lonely in my twenties was like harboring an embarrassing family secret. I wasn’t supposed to be lonely now. Not at this point in my life. I felt I should have had this big fixed group of go-to people by now, complete with private jokes and endless invites to bottomless brunches – but I just didn’t. I felt that obviously something had gone wrong here as you’re not really supposed be lonely at 26…are you?
But then again it makes sense. We have begun to completely over-celebrate independence, congratulating and admiring things like solo travel, individual achievement, moving half way across the world for a job (‘aren’t you brave!’) and self-reliance. Independence is seen as favorable and dependence often subtly criticized (‘you don’t need a relationship!’ ‘don’t be needy!’) – which in turn makes it all the more uncomfortable (but not really surprising) to admit that sometimes, despite our 1546 Facebook friends, high powered job and recent solo expedition to Iceland, all this doing things alone, is well, a bit lonely.
The world today is also becoming more and more obsessed with travel and moving about, with many people setting themselves up as ‘digital nomads’ and the such like. Sure, it gives you the freedom to work when and wherever you want, but the emerging accounts of many of these people are revealing the price you pay for that freedom can often be a secret loneliness – something which I hope we will start to talk about more. Having moved around and done a fair few solo adventures myself, the familiar echo of intense isolation has re-appeared several times on my trips, often leaving me wondering what the heck im doing. Fortunately, the feeling has only ever been temporary, but admitting it in the first place has always been a real motivator to make friends.
Anyway, to quickly return to earlier no-social-life me, after a few glasses of wine and much resistance I admitted yes, I was in fact very lonely, it was awful, I was embarrassed about it, and now how do I fix it? Much to my relief, I began to discover I wasn’t the only one to have felt this way at this age and it was even more of a relief to realise I wasn’t lonely because I was a boring, defective, unlovable human being (thank goodness..) – that was just my negative self-talk. I was lonely because sometimes that’s just how it goes. Even in your roaring, highly-sociable twenties. Circumstances can still betray you, and you may somehow end up living alone with a cat, at 26 years old, quietly wondering how you’ve got to this point a few too many decades earlier than planned. For me, the combination of a long distance relationship, a lost degree, subsequent job changes, a revolving door of flatmates, struggling with my mental health and just being generally exhausted by the whole fiasco of things (I mean I’m even tired writing that!) – meant I just hadn’t fallen into a comfy little ‘group’ like it appeared everyone else had. Logical really – and much more common than I thought.
The same goes for you if you’re in a similar situation. It happens. In an age where everyone is moving all over the place, or if you yourself are, creating and keeping a close circle can be hard. Loneliness in your twenties is normal, far more common than you think, and absolutely not a reflection of your worth.
There is also zero shame in needing the company of other people and the best thing you can do for yourself is to admit you need it and go from there. It’s actually really normal and healthy anyway – we’re simply not wired to always operate alone.
The most revealing study on human happiness; The Harvard Study on Adult Development, followed 724 men over 75 years from a variety of backgrounds. The results of the study continuously showed that above all else including monetary gain, professional success, physical beauty and meaningful work, good relationships keep us happier and healthier than anything else – and that loneliness kills. (It kills I tell you!) Those who had stronger, more fulfilling relationships with those around them were happier, physically healthier and ultimately lived longer.
So, if you think of it on a primal level – it’s just plain old common sense really. In the past, wandering off on your own would have just made you more vulnerable to being eaten by a lion, and other members of your tribe may have just thought you were a bit stupid – and not wanted to mate with you. (In case you wandered off with the kids and got everyone eaten.) So ya know. Harvard might be on to something here.
Loneliness at any age is completely normal and doing things alone can be empowering yes, but it’s also completely healthy and acceptable to admit when you’re feeling lonely and seek out ways to change it. After all, if you don’t, you could end up being eaten by a Lion.