Why our 20s are the loneliest time of our lives
By Ellie Pilcher
We have great friends, we have so much before us, we have so much "potential". So, why do we feel more isolated than ever? Ellie explores the loneliness epidemic that defines our quarterlife generation.
When I was younger I used to associate loneliness with grief. I thought it was something only old people experienced when their partners or loved ones died in their sleep next to them. However, upon entering my twenties, I have quickly discovered that this imagined idea of what loneliness looks like couldn’t be further from the truth.
Loneliness can hit at any age.
In fact, young adults are three times likelier to feel lonely than older age groups, says a study from the Office for National Statistics. From experience, I found that it hit me hardest in my early 20s.
I had just moved to London, leaving my family home and my friends for the big city with my best friend and her boyfriend. But, as much as I love my best friend and thought that moving in together was a great idea, I came to realise it wasn’t. We love each other for our differences, but we couldn’t live together for that exact reason. Plus, she had her boyfriend and I didn’t, and as much as I got on with him and was happy to live with him, I still felt very much like the third wheel. The guest who had outstayed her welcome in their home.
I moved into my own flat for the sake of my friendship and my mental health.
But, of course, what I didn’t consider when I did so was that I’d be swapping one semi-social situation for a different, completely isolated one. Sure, I had my freedom and my mental health began to recover with being in my own space, but my loneliness continued to grow.
Having left so abruptly into our one-year tenancy, my best friend and I needed time apart to recover and salvage our relationship, which thankfully we have done.
But during that time, after only nine months of living in a new city, I felt like I was without a friend in the world. That wasn’t strictly true. I had lovely work colleagues who could make my sides split with laughter at work. I had old family friends that kept in touch via Facebook and Instagram and, of course, I had my beloved family themselves.
But what no one tells you about before you experience it for yourself is that loneliness can still exist even in the presence of love and friendship.
That’s why it is so painful and, even worse, why it’s so confusing and difficult to understand. It feels like it will never leave you because you can experience both love and loneliness at the same time.
I was once told that you’re meant to be lonely in your 20s. You’re likely to have left home, left any kind of full-time education and are therefore not seeing or meeting with your peers every day. You’re not in a bubble of closely-connected relationships anymore. You have all the time in the world to fill with what you want to do, but that means reaching out and maintaining relationships, not just sitting back and allowing them to maintain themselves, or waiting for friends to call you in order to fill your time. Occasionally they will, but more often than not, you have to reach out first.
With the addition of social media into our lives, you would think that socialising would be easy.
But, more often than not, our reliance on social media leads to much less social lives. After all, why organise a group dinner with old uni friends when you can just start a group WhatsApp chat? Why buy a train ticket to visit your sister in another part of the country when you can just FaceTime her?
So how do we combat this? It may seem frightening at first, you may feel utterly dreadful - like you’re not loved, like you’re not worthy of being liked, or like there is something wrong with you. Ultimately, there is not. You just have to re-educate yourself on how to network and communicate, and to put effort into building relationships accordingly. Most scarily, you have to be honest and open about how you’re feeling.
You have to let go of that desperation to appear like you have it all together.
For some people this all comes as easily as breathing, but for others like me it takes a little more time and determination. It can even feel embarrassing or like a waste of time to begin with. But slowly you begin reap the rewards.
After I’d started talking openly to friends and admitting I was feeling lonely, people began reaching out to me.
I was reminded that it was okay for me to do the same. I started planning things in advance so that no matter what, I always had something to look forward to, whether that was a theatre trip with a work colleague or a coffee catch-up with my best friend. And every time I feel lonely now, instead of going into myself and having naps that last until the next day, I text a friend and ask how they are doing to strike up a conversation with them. I FaceTime my sister to discuss her upcoming wedding and my role as her bridesmaid, I call my mum to organise a spa day with her, or text my best friend to see if she is in. If she is, I’ll go round for a glass of prosecco and watch reruns of The Great British Bake Off.
Another thing I’ve learnt is, more often than not, people around me are feeling the same and waiting, as I was, for someone to reach out and connect with them.
But it’s true what they say, when you get your loneliness on track and start pushing yourself out of your supposed “comfort zone”, your twenties can become the best years of your life. It’s our time of self-discovery, our time to find our own determination, and ultimately, to find the best friends we’ll ever have. Who even cares whether that’s one friend or 20. One great friend is worth a universe more than 20 unreliable, uncaring ones.
At the beginning of this article I described loneliness as grief of the deepest, most loving kind. But to experience that sort of grief, you need to have a true, honest, deep connection to mourn. I suppose there is something wonderful in that sort of grief, along with the sadness. And to even have a hope of having that bittersweet blessing one day, you have to nurture and build your relationships constantly. You have to build them in a way that simply cannot be done through social media. You have to be brave, and open, and show them you care. You have to bare yourself to them to encourage them to do the same. It is natural for these relationships to come and go. People might hurt you, screw you over, or fail to care about you when you need them to. You won’t feel like you’ve won every time. But if you’re putting yourself out there and being open about your feelings, especially when you’re feeling lonely, you’ve already won anyway.
This article is one in a series we are running as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. We hope it has reassured you that you are not alone in what you are experiencing. But, we also recognise that it takes much more than one article to manage mental health long-term. If you require support, we urge you to contact your local GP services (if based in the UK) or support lines like Mind’s 24 hr hotline at 0300 304 7000.
Image by @stupidfer aka María Fernanda