When one is lonely, it can often feel overwhelming and all-encompassing. Yet, surviving a period of loneliness can serve as further proof that one can do things once not thought possible.
When I moved to Boston (where I currently live) in 2008 I didn’t know anyone. I moved to the city for graduate school having never visited. I felt lonely quite often and spent a lot of time hanging out by myself. It seemed so difficult to make connections and I didn’t feel as though I could find anyone to befriend.
I’ve always felt like someone who didn’t quite fit in. I came to graduate school for a masters in American Studies. There I believed I would find activists, punks, anarchists, and others akin to where I stood, politically and socially. It was disappointing to discover that none of these descriptions fit my peers. I had a difficult time finding much of anyone with whom I could bond in such a big city, which seemed like adding insult to injury.
Graduate school and working part-time also sucked up a lot of my week, keeping me from being able to make new friends. Despite our differences, I gravitated toward my graduate peers but often felt loneliest when at parties with them. I was older than many of them and had difficulty sharing my past with them: punk rock shows and radical politics.
Yet, as time went on, I survived. I’ve picked up a few acquaintances and friends here and there and having a partner has gone a long way, too. I didn’t think I could survive those lonely experiences, but I made it.
I have more strength than I ever knew I had. I am resilient in the face of not just loneliness but now know that if loneliness doesn’t get me down there are other issues in life I am certain I can break through: depression and anxiety, for example. Besides, if I could get through such lonely times, I knew I could deal with loneliness should it hit me again.
When loneliness occurs, it’s good to know that you have a well of strength from which to draw to help you through what can be a difficult time. During my long times of loneliness, I turned to meditation and reading self-help for some solace and ideas of how to deal with what I was experiencing. As much as it was possible, meditation taught me to be okay with myself and my condition.
I wouldn’t suggest subjecting yourself to loneliness as a means to build resilience. Yet it gives a great amount of agency to someone suffering loneliness to know they have power over it. In learning how to deal with lonely experiences, it can empower the individual to the point where it creates self-confidence.
For example, when I was in states of loneliness, I realized no one was going to take care of me when I was ill. I had to go to the drug store and get medication or drive myself to the doctor. This showed me that even at a weak point I was capable of accomplishing things for which I had in the past relied upon others.
I put myself in a situation in January 2009 when I traveled alone to Iceland. It was scary because I didn’t know anyone. I couchsurfed with strangers, and ended up having a great time. I learned that I can plan a trip to a foreign country and be social and meet others. This experience showed me that if I can meet people in another nation with a different culture and language, I can meet people at home. Once again, being lonely but forcing myself to do things, gave me self-confidence to know I could do even more in my life.
Given what I’ve written about loneliness, it might come as a surprise I would say one can find any benefit from it. But I very much believe you can. As Marissa Korda, the founder of The Loneliness Project, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper: “Loneliness as just a normal part of being human. It comes, it goes, it’s something that we experience and it doesn’t need to be as isolating as it is….It’s not realistic to expect that we can cure loneliness and I don’t think we should—it’s part of being human.”
Too often, there is an all-or-nothing take on loneliness and a level of fear-mongering associated with it. It’s an “epidemic” and a “health crisis” that must be “defeated.” They way some write of it nowadays it sounds as if we’re dealing with the Black Plague. In reality, you might as well attack guilt or fear since loneliness is as real and prevalent as those feelings and experiences.
My times with loneliness have shown me that it can be something that is helpful and from which to draw strength. Given its inevitability, it’s important to see what we can learn from it and what lessons it might provide us in our journey as human beings. Thus, in my next few entries, I will write about what I’ve learned from loneliness and what you can get from it when it hits you. There’s no reason to sit and take it—there are methods by which you can get out of loneliness. But while it’s happening, reminding yourself of the benefits can ease the emotional pain it can cause.
I’ve found that the worst part about loneliness is being aware of it when it’s happening to you. Thinking about it can make it worse. That’s why I’ve found the best thing I can do is to keep busy. I tend to work on activities or take on extra jobs (I like feeling productive). But for those in college, my suggestion is to dip a toe in the waters of clubs and organizations.
Think of things you’re passionate about: writing, acting, exercising, film, etc. There are often clubs on campus for those sorts of things. And if there isn’t you can usually start one, either formal or informal. Your university’s website will often list official clubs and student organizations. Getting involved with these groups will not only keep your mind occupied but will also enable you to meet new people.
This way of making connections goes back to John Cacioppo’s EASE method, so the premise is the same. Think about what activities you like and create a list. Then decide what you have time for and what you really want to do. Any time you can spend bonding over similar shared interests is a way to grow closer to others.
Since I never felt I fit in on my tiny, rural college campus, I spent time at the nearby state school. I went to concerts there and got to know people in that music scene. In the end, that was the best way for me to make close connections in the midst of a college setting that otherwise left me feeling lonely all too often.
One of the great things about college is the wide array of activities available. These might include movies, lectures, theater performances, and volunteer events. Many are either cheap or free. If possible, make a point to attend at least one of these every few weeks. Mark it on your calendar and stick to it, even if you don’t always feel like going.
Such events are perfect opportunities to get to know people with whom you want to hang out. Go to an event and then get some food or coffee afterward. That bond of having the same experience will give you something to talk about.
I did this at college on occasion, but I often found myself uninterested because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the one punk kid at an otherwise pretty conservative school. Yet, at some point my freshman year a guy in my dorm invited me to play pool with him. It ended up being a good way for us to connect and build a friendship. I wouldn’t have expected to like pool but I did. And it helped me make a new friend.
Many of the activities offered at college take place on weekends, so a piece of related advice: don’t go home when your classes are over for the week. Some students will do that their freshman year, usually because they have a partner back home. Many times those students have difficulty making new friends.
I went home a few times my freshman year to see people I knew from high school or go to a show, and that’s understandable. But if you’re going home every weekend (or most of them), it makes it difficult to connect. Building relationships (and escaping loneliness) takes repeated shared experiences with others. That can only happen if you’re on campus.
Loneliness at college is all too often made worse by mental illness. When I was in college my bipolar disorder emerged. I had very low self-esteem and didn’t believe there were many (if any) people who wanted to be my friend. Combating serious depression and chronic low self-worth can take a toll on one’s mental health. It makes it all that much more difficult to get out of one’s lonely shell. So, if you’re having chronic depression or other mental health issues, address those. Seeing a therapist at your school's counseling center can be a good place to start.
Handling feelings of loneliness at college often goes back to what John Cacioppo said about “expecting the best” when trying to break out of loneliness. Ask someone from your dorm, that person you chatted with at a party, or someone from one of your classes if they want to hang sometime. It doesn’t have to be a weird date—ask them if they want to study together, go to a concert with you, or get something to eat. And then try your damnedest to be optimistic. I know it can be difficult because it’s all too easy to be cynical. Yet people are making connections all the time and there’s no reason you don’t have to be one of them.
And do yourself a favor: take some time off from social media. Or at least don't check it quite so often. Based on what your friends are posting on Instagram and Snapchat you may think they’re all having a fun time without you. Perhaps they are, but it’s also likely they feel lonely at times. But few people are posting pictures of that.
I’ve learned that if you want accountability for things you want to change in your life, it’s important to let other people know about it. For example, I want to start doing more public speaking about mental health, so I’ve told friends and family that’s a goal of mine. It works the same way when you want to overcome any issue: share it with others and people will follow up with you on it. They can keep you accountable. As I mentioned in the last post, you’re not alone in this. So, if you feel comfortable doing so, share with friends or family how you’re feeling. If nothing else, write about it in a journal. You’re feeling lonely. That’s okay.
Now for a basic piece of practical advice on how to open one’s self to a possible avenue of making friends in college: leave the door open. I lived in a dorm for three of my four years at college. I felt out of place for most of my college experience, but I learned early on that leaving the door to my room open encouraged others to be social. Of course if you need some privacy to study or make a phone call it’s understandable to close the door. Yet it surprised me how many people would stop by and say hey or ask if I wanted to go to lunch or dinner. I’m well aware this may not lead to meeting your best friend, but every chance you have to spend time with new people is at least another possibility.
There is still a lot of stigma attached to saying you’re lonely. This is especially prevalent amongst teens and those in their early twenties. While it’s becoming acceptable to share one’s struggles with mental illness, few want to admit that they don’t have the connections they desire. But statistics show college students aren’t alone in their loneliness. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times: “In a  survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent said that they had ‘felt very lonely’ in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”
The important thing to remember is you’re not alone. It can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you to not have as many friends as your peers seem to have (although looks can be deceiving). It’s hard to be patient when you’re going through so many changes anyway: the attempt to find friends seems like one more thing to deal with. Time can seem to drag while you wait to make those close friends everyone told you that you’d make in college.
Take solace in the fact that there are others like you out there; your fellow students who also want to make friends. You never know which person it is in your group for a class project who may become your new friend. Or someone who lives on the same floor with you in the dorm.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.