Let me start by saying, I’m not a quiet person by nature. My parents laugh about how I craved their company as a child and when I went to university, my flat mates would roll their eyes as I danced into their bedrooms demanding their attention. My mum always called me a social butterfly (mums are good at buttering things up) but really I just struggled to be alone. Growing up I surrounded myself with other people. I’d always be the one to make the plans, throw the party and convince people to go on nights out and since high school, I’ve very rarely been without a boyfriend.
So when I moved to London eight months ago, bright-eyed, bushy tailed and ready to take on the graduate world, I just about had the shock of my life. My family were a five hour drive away, my best friends spread across the planet and my boyfriend living in Scotland. I’d always found it easy to make friends but as a fully-grown adult, living in the big city, it just isn’t that easy. Loneliness hit me like I was Akon in 2004 and I didn’t know what to do about it.
It’s a slow, creeping feeling. You don’t always recognise it when it’s coming, until one day you find yourself sitting alone in your room eating beans on toast (because what’s the point in cooking real food for one) and it hits you. You cry a little, phone someone close to you, send out a Facebook message or two but nothing except real meaningful company is really going to help.
And I know I’m not alone in feeling alone. Research from the Lonely Society, (I know, right – there’s a society?) shows that every year levels of loneliness are increasing - especially amongst millennials. And according to the National Office of Statistics, here in the UK we’re less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than anywhere else in Europe.
So, why are we feeling so alone?
It seems ironic in the digital age, when we can reach anyone that we know (or don’t) with the click of a button or tap of our phones, that we feel as though we’re disconnecting. Apps like Bumble are proving that the loneliness epidemic really has its grip on us by introducing features like ‘Bumble BFF’ to combat the crisis. I actually downloaded this app myself but decided there’s something bizarre about flicking through images of other people and deciding whether you’d like to be friends with them based on their appearance.
Anyway - for me, it was a case of moving to a big, unfriendly city where nobody knows each other. It’s hard to make friends after uni – there aren’t really any societies of life, nights out are confined to the weekend (if you have friends to take on them) and it’s hard to keep up a hobby that will win you friends when you’re living the 9-5 corporate lifestyle. In fact, the Time Out index recently revealed that London is considered the loneliest city in the world and I can totally understand this.
But this isn’t a story about how everyone is getting lonelier and we need to fix it. Because as much as I hated it, loneliness has completely changed me for the better.
Let’s get positive
It’s an inherent part of human nature to be influenced by the people around us. The people in my life have helped define me. My boyfriend has shaped my sense of humour, my best friends have influenced the way I speak and I’ve pinched some of my parent’s mannerisms.
I didn’t realise how titanic the influence of my family and friends was until I’d spent a few months on my own. Of course, I’m still the same person and the mark that they have left on me has been hugely positive but it’s hard to define ourselves properly until we have spent some time on our own.
Feeling lonely was a horrible experience but it was a crucial part of my journey. When I moved to the city, I spent more time by myself than I ever had done in my life. But not all of this alone time was bad. When you’re alone, the fog clears. It’s easier to reflect on who you are, how you perceive the world and what you want from your life.
In fact, I’d say becoming lonely and as a result, getting to know myself, has been a pivotal part of my life. I’ve learned my boundaries, my expectations and my ambitions. Plus I’ve learned to enjoy my own company. When this life is over, the person we will have spent the most time with is ourselves. So we better learn to get on well, asap rocky. Loneliness has allowed me to have fun without relying on the stimulus of other people. A few Sunday’s back, I went food shopping and then had a full-on day of cooking and baking on my own. I had some red wine on the go and the music pumped-up loud and it was honestly the best fun I’d had in a long time. Who’d have thought that spending time alone could bring me so much happiness?
The experience of loneliness has taught me that my happiness is in my own hands. Any choice I make should be based on how I think and feel, rather than anyone else’s opinion. It can be hard to listen to your inner voice when you’re surrounded by other people.
But the most important life lesson loneliness has taught me, is to be independent and to rely on myself. Because while I have family and friends that will support me, I’m the one person I can always rely on.
Being able to support ourselves is key to success and self-support is a lesson quickly learned on your own. When something goes wrong, you’re forced to find the solution yourself. Having to make my own decisions rather than rely on other people’s advice has made me realise both what I really want in life and also to take accountability for my actions. It’s okay if we get things wrong without the help of others, it’s okay to make decisions and learn from our mistakes. Developing autonomy in our lives can be hugely beneficial as we strive to better ourselves.
So a message to anyone feeling lonely right now – I know it’s miserable and I know it’s hard but this is temporary. People will always be in and out of your life. But the one person that will always stick by you is yourself. So use this time as a weapon of self-improvement and get to know yourself (who knows, you might even get on).