how to feel alone without feeling miserable
May 25, 2023 11:33 PM   Subscribe

partially a follow-up to this question

In the months since I posted that post, my friendships have grown deeper. I feel very comfortable around my friends, and I am so grateful to have friends that I feel like I can be myself around! But I still don’t have “my people”. And I still feel lonely on a quite regular basis. I still spend most of my time by myself. I still don’t know who to call on when I need help.

I’ve found myself comparing myself to my roommate a ton recently. She graduated from college two years before I did, so she’s had more time to develop close friendships and just has way more friends from college - whereas I graduated with some close-ish friends but no friend group. We’re both moving out of our apartment this weekend, and when I got home from work today, exhausted after a very long day and a total 2.5hr long commute, the first thing I saw was my roommate and her best friend from college hanging out. Her best friend’s going to help her pack her stuff, and my roommate told me that she’s going to have a few other friends/casual hookups come over to help her pack too. I’m going to be packing up all of my stuff alone. It didn’t occur to me to ask my friends because I don’t think I really need their help (nor do I want to bother them), but after hearing that, it occurred to me that if I really did need help, I would have no idea who to ask…and my roommate’s friends just showed up at our door, volunteering to help!

There’s other little things that have been reminding me how, compared to her, I am so incredibly alone. My roommate has a sort of girlfriend who she talks on the phone with basically all day every day - I can hear her all the time, laughing, having a great time. I’m not even remotely interested in dating anyone right now, but it’s been reminding me of how few people I chat with during the week. Most of my socializing is on the weekends. My roommate is going to be between jobs this summer and is going to spend the summer couch surfing at various friends’ places: a couple weeks in SF, a week in Florida, Chicago, etc. I’m envious of how easily she built up such a wide network of friends.

Hearing about all of these relationships makes me realize just how alone I am, how few people I actually feel close to and regularly talk to. This made me feel deeply, deeply lonely and frustrated to the point of tears. I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Over the past year, I’ve been focusing on myself a lot, and I’ve grown generally more independent and confident. I’ve also become a better friend in every measurable sense: more reliable, more empathic, more present. While that’s been great, I feel frustrated by how lonely this year has been, generally. Even though I’ve grown in so many ways, and this part of my life has certainly improved, I still don’t have the kind of friendships that my roommate has - I still don’t have “my people”, for lack of a better word.

It is finally sinking in that it might be a long time before I find “my people”/create those kinds of friendships, and this thought is filling me with despair. One of the main pieces of advice in my last question was to get comfortable being lonely. I’m struggling to understand how to do that. I plan to talk to my therapist about this but I would appreciate additional, specific advice about how to get comfortable being lonely.
posted by cruel summer to Human Relations (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you feel so sad.

The common thread in so many of your posts is comparison, and I think that's the real issue rather than the specific number of friends you have. "Comparison is the thief of joy" is a truism for a reason, and just like you were comparing yourself to your ex-boyfriend and then your ex-friend, now you've moved onto using your flatmate as a stick to beat yourself with.

Your friend sounds like a (fortunate) outlier in the number and quality of her friendships. It would never occur to me to have friends over to help me pack, either. You sound normal in that regard. It sounds like you're doing a brilliant job at working on your friendships and are moving towards a better place. Yes, it does take time, but you're already in the middle of that process and things will keep getting better as time passes. As you say, she's had longer to make friends and is further along the road than you, so it's natural that her friendships reflect that.

It's the comparison, not the specific person/situation, that's making you miserable again and again. You mentioned in a previous question that you'd been talking to your therapist about comparison. Keep working on it with them. It can take a long time to overturn habits like this.

I would also just warn against using overly dramatic language with yourself like "I am so incredibly alone," - it's tempting when you're feeling bad to reach for superlatives, but it really just stokes the bad feelings.
posted by penguin pie at 2:39 AM on May 26 [27 favorites]

Her best friend’s going to help her pack her stuff, and my roommate told me that she’s going to have a few other friends/casual hookups come over to help her pack too. I’m going to be packing up all of my stuff alone. It didn’t occur to me to ask my friends because I don’t think I really need their help (nor do I want to bother them), but after hearing that, it occurred to me that if I really did need help, I would have no idea who to ask…and my roommate’s friends just showed up at our door, volunteering to help!

First - I seriously doubt that casual hookups are just arriving unannounced to help pack up her apartment. It is a lot more likely that your friend has mentioned that she has a lot of packing to do in a way that made people around her ask - do you want any help? And instead of saying no - she likely said yes to everyone.

Deepening friendship requires vulnerability, not just being a good and supportive friend when other people need it. People like to support people who support them, otherwise they can find you closed off or that the friendship is imbalanced. It involves saying things like:

- "hey - I have a lot of packing to do - any chance you have a little free time to hang out, grab coffees and maybe help me? No worries if not but I'd love to hang out while I deal with all this mess haha" or

"hey - I'd love to catch up on life - any chance I could call you this week?"

I say this as a person who struggles with vulnerability - it pays to get over the risk of being rejected to ask for help or connection in low stakes scenarios. Friends who are there when we REALLY need them were likely there for a lot of scenarios where we only sort of need them first. You will not get universal yesses - people are busy, and sometimes when we ask for things from friends they just aren't interested in more (and that is ok and not a reflection on you) - but you will get a yes from someone.

Pick up the phone and call a person today for even 10 minutes just to see how they're doing - you will feel a lot better just from doing that once.
posted by openhearted at 4:38 AM on May 26 [17 favorites]

Hard agree with penguin pie. There is no peace to be found in competing with/comparing yourself to other people. Life isn't a game or a race and there isn't a prize at the end for the one with the most friends.

If you hate the idea of letting go of the "am I as good as/better than her" game: She is probably lonely too. Life is hard, man. Friendships are a struggle for lots of people and most people are lonely on some level no matter how many people they have in their orbit.

If you're really interested in focusing on yourself (and only yourself) and getting more comfortable with being lonely, be prepared to have no fun. It's a long game. Loneliness is boring. You have to sit with the inside of your head. The key to being okay with being alone is to work on your relationship with yourself. It's not fun or easy. Good luck with this stuff, it's part of the human condition which means that in a weird way none of us are really alone.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:09 AM on May 26 [5 favorites]

We all just need to honor where we are, what we’re doing, and who we are. That’s what matters.

Comparisons don’t make us happier or appreciate life more — they make us feel bad about ourselves. It’s only in comparison that we take what’s wonderful and turn it into something not wonderful.

Appreciate where you are.

Instead of looking at the lives of others, see the goodness in front of you, inside of you. When you find yourself comparing your life to the lives of others, turn to the moment in front of you and appreciate it.

Appreciate each moment, one at a time, and be happy where you are.
posted by SageTrail at 6:12 AM on May 26 [1 favorite]

I’m in the same boat, and I’ve recently realized that it’s probably because my parents are the same way. I never saw that type of friendship modelled, so I have no idea how to form one. I want to try to find a role model or mentor who has those types of friendships and watch and learn from them.

The other thing I would suggest is - maybe you’re being too good of a friend? What I mean is - when I was younger, I had closer friendships. I also had more conflict and disagreement with people because I was pretty socially abrasive.

Now, I’m much more socially skilled, but I will never risk doing anything that might inconvenience someone or get me rejected, even in a very minor way. This means that I get along with most people now, and don’t face much conflict anymore, but I also never get very close to people because I never risk overstepping. Could that be what’s going on for you as well?

Maybe your standards are high, and that’s good. I was very envious of a friend of mine who seems to make friends effortlessly and constantly, but when I met them, I noticed that they walked all over her in a way I would never put up with. I’d rather be alone than spend all my time catering to people’s petty demands.

Same with my roommate - they have friends who come over to help after surgery, and I don’t. But what is the quality of those friendships? I know that they are extremely conflict avoidant, so I wonder.

As for how to get comfortable being lonely, I try to remember how lonely it feels when I’m close to someone and they do or say something that proves they don’t get me at all. It’s inevitable. At least for me, company doesn’t solve loneliness. Being understood does, but since that’s impossible, I’ll always be a bit lonely.

I think most people are a little lonely all the time because they miss being in the womb, where your needs are taken care of without you having to ask. That’s why they expect their partners to be mind readers, and say “if I have to ask for it, it doesn’t count!”
posted by wheatlets at 8:30 AM on May 26 [3 favorites]

i am guessing your friends couch surfing is likely with "acquaintances" and not so much "close friends." i could be wrong, but it's common when you're young and fresh out of college to have those kinds of relationships.

i am 43 and have not had close friends really ever. however i've found one of the things that moves people from "gym friend" or "work friend" to "friend" (not "close friend" though), is asking them to help you with something. it makes them feel needed and appreciated and it can be something super small like meeting you at the mechanic to bring you home when you drop your car off.

another way is intimacy. not like sex, but talking about deeper stuff like hopes and dreams or relationships or health stuff or something. letting people see behind your public facing persona lets them drop their guard, and maybe you'll turn out to really mesh and become close friends.

i am someone who likes being by myself and alone, but who rarely feels lonely (sometimes i do tho!). i credit that to being an only child with no extended family nearby so i grew up amusing myself. and keeping my mind busy: there's always something to read or something to knit or nails to polish or cats to pet.

therapy for talking about your loneliness will help, and whatever techniques you can find to push away intrusive thoughts about loneliness will help too.

i get it. it sucks not having people to do things with or someone to help you pack. but you have to do the things anyway, and maybe you will meet folks that way.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:09 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

I'm not so different in terms of sometimes being jealous of what I perceive about others' lives. You know that cliche about how it's important not to compare your insides to other people's outsides? What you are doing is comparing your feelings -- of loneliness -- to what you see, which is your roommate being with people a lot. It doesn't sound like you are talking to her about this, and seeing that she never experiences loneliness. So, for example, this:
I’m envious of how easily she built up such a wide network of friends.

That makes a lot of assumptions. Maybe it hasn't been easy for her. Or maybe she feels insecure about it. Have you tried talking to her about it?

I have a new-ish friend I've known for about a year. He is incredibly social and extroverted, with some very strong friendships. I really admire the way he invests in his friendships. He also puts a lot of time and work into those relationships. It's been "easy" for him in a way, because he likes spending time with people. But I also know from conversations with him that he's put a lot of intention into this; he's spoken with his therapist about it. He told me recently that he doesn't have any negative or toxic friendships anymore, but he did for a long time. He has also told me that he has a friend who has said they wished he asked for help more. My friend has many good friends, but he still hates asking for help, even when he needs it.

Regardless, he has become a great model for me in my friendships. There were many years when I wished I had more friends but didn't spend a lot of time or intention investing in friendships. Partly I was busy (married with kids and a hectic job) but partly I was also scared of being vulnerable, especially with women friends. I was also scared no one would want to be my friend.

Over the last few years, I've spent a lot of time investing in friendships, which primarily means cultivating loose connections. Not all friendships can be deep and meaningful, and those loose connections can be quite rich. I think of this as cultivating community. And sometimes I still feel pretty lonely. Some of the best conversations I've had with my friend are about things like loneliness and friendship. I once asked him, "Are you ever scared about being old and lonely?"

I think one way you could deal with your loneliness and jealousy would be, in part, to have a conversation with your roommate. If you generally have a good relationship with her, ask her if she would be open to chatting about this. Tell her you admire her friendships and connections, and ask her how she's developed them. I think it'd be okay to tell her sometimes you get a bit jealous. You could ask her if she ever feels lonely.

I remember being jealous of my gorgeous college roommate when I was about 20, and having a conversation with her where she confessed her body insecurities. It was incredibly eye-opening. I saw her as beautiful and confident. In truth, she was beautiful but wracked with insecurities. It was so helpful for me to realize she and I had some pretty similar insecurities, and it made me realize that insecurities are partly curated by the world around us, and our false expectations for our lives, and by comparing what we see on others' outsides to our insides.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:54 PM on May 26 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I realize I'm envious of my friends' relationships not because I actually really want them, but because it seems like what everyone else has and I don't.
posted by metasarah at 4:00 PM on May 26 [3 favorites]

I’m envious of how easily she built up such a wide network of friends.

Similar to what openhearted said, it's quite possible what you are assuming was an effortless accumulation of friends was in fact a lot of intentional work on her part. This sort of work seems to be easier for some than others, but this is definitely something you can improve with practice. Being proactive about reaching out to people is one way to start - if you meet someone new and they seem cool, invite them to go on a hike/visit a museum/come over for dinner/whatever. With the friends you have, call them whenever you like (if you like talking on the phone), or figure out some low-key way to socialize during the week.
posted by coffeecat at 4:25 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

your roommate has all these people, all these great connections and longtime friends and even casual acquaintances who just like her so much, and yet she chose to live with you. for a long enough period of time that you know quite a bit about her.

that means -- I don't know exactly. but it means something. it could mean: all these people you're jealous of her having in her life aren't actually as close to her as you think, or weren't until recently. it could mean that for private reasons of her own, she doesn't want to live with anyone who really knows and loves her, either because she, too, has issues, or because that constant closeness isn't as good for a person as it seems to someone on the outside who doesn't have it. it could mean she just liked you well enough to stay through the year and thought you're cool to live with. it could mean you could be, or could have been, one of the many close friends she cultivates (maybe you don't want to be, maybe you are but don't feel like it counts or matters, maybe etc. etc.)

knowing that nobody really cares about you very much feels like the worst possible thing. but sometimes it is worse to realize later that some of them did, or might have come around to, but you never noticed at the time or never had the nerve to take action and encourage them.

however, even that worse knowledge is not as bad as it seems, because no one potential friend or connection is ever your last chance.

a lot of people, they go through life with their fundamental life complaint slowly evolving from Nobody likes me, to Nobody likes me enough, to Not enough people like me, to The people who like me aren't good enough. and all of these are real things to be miserable about if you feel that they are true. your unhappiness is real, but from what you say, you are not alone alone. it is worth recognizing what you do have even if it isn't enough yet for you to feel satisfied.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:54 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]

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