Note: This post discusses loneliness. I'm okay. Let me say that again. I'm okay. I feel more connected than I have in a long time. With that said, if it weren't for my friends being open about their experiences with loneliness -- and the encouragement I received to talk about my feelings -- I may not have written this essay. I hope my experience below is helpful to someone and conveys one key point: if you experience or have experienced loneliness, you are not the only one. Let my post below be a testament to that.
"Here we are again", I thought, as the new year began. Sometimes, around the holiday season, I don't feel as active as I usually am. I have since theorised that I likely experience stress at the expectation of being joyful during the holidays. I can see people having fun around me, but sometimes, a little bit of me is off. At the beginning of this year, a thought came to mind that has come to mind many times before: I feel... lonely. As I heard on Kurzgesagt, "if you feel lonely, you are lonely." ^1 Those words are so true.
Up until recently, I didn't have an intuitive sense of why I might experience loneliness. I thought that I must have done something that makes me less interesting to talk to than other people. Instagram didn't help. Seeing other people with friends and thinking about how some of my old friends had their own small community. My mind was being selective, too. I wasn't thinking about everyone: I was thinking about the people that had friends. What did I do wrong?
The answer? Life happened, and not as a consequence of any action taken on my part. I didn't do anything "wrong."
Transition Phases and the Pandemic
When I left high school, I went straight into working full time. At the time, I was so excited by having my first full-time job. I liked what I was doing. I enjoyed the writing that I did. I spent a lot of time at a computer, both for work as well as for hobbies. 
I made friends on the internet. People with whom I really connected, and still do to this day. Some I have met in person through events or who were passing by.
I didn't just make friends. I built relationships with people. I felt connected.
Shortly after, the pandemic happened, during which time I, as you can expect, spent a lot of time at home. The opportunities to meet up with friends from school were not there. A period of around six months passed where I didn't see any of my friends in person. At last, one of my closest friends met up with me one month. Then a few months passed before we met again. Meeting with other people was scary. What if they had COVID? What if I caught COVID and brought it home?
For the first year of the pandemic, I saw very few friends in person. I didn't connect with many people I knew virtually outside of work, either. I had left most social platforms for a while, having tired of the COVID coverage. My departure from social platforms marked the end of many of the cursory interactions that helped provide a sense of connectedness when restrictions were in place.
I focused a lot on work; calls kept me connected to people, but only to a degree. I eventually set up a regular walk with the aforementioned friend, an exercise to which I looked forward every week or two. Those walks made a big difference in staving off a feeling of loneliness. I could be myself and enjoy the beauty of being outside with company.
During the first year or so of the pandemic, I felt worried when going outside. The aforementioned questions came up. What if I caught COVID? What if I didn't know I had it? Does someone in this room have COVID? I started getting out more -- eventually travelling to the closest city for the first time in a long while -- but there was an underlying fear that I might get COVID. I didn't search for novel in person activities in which I could participate. I was content sitting in a cafe when they all opened back up again fully. That was enough.
As restrictions eased further and I started to feel less afraid from the pandemic, I ventured out more. Again, however, I didn't seek activities through which I could meet new people in person, but stuck to the odd meetup with a friend. There was always the concern that more restrictions may be imposed. The “what ifs” like “what if we go back into lockdown and I’ll not see my friend for even longer” were present. I didn’t stop making plans when able, but I had an underlying feeling of unease. That feeling later dissipated, but the memories remain.
Over the last few years, James who sees his in person friends every day changed into James who has in person friends but only sees occasionally. The opportunities to meet new people on a regular occasion were sparse. My mind became somewhat closed off. When I was in public, I sometimes didn't quite feel myself. I felt like I needed to protect myself from what other people might think about me.
I tried to read people’s minds, as if I could know what they were thinking. What did they think of me? Was I interesting? Did they like talking with me? I knew, intellectually, this was impossible. By that time, the pattern was etched in my mind.
I asked myself a lot of questions. What if people were looking at me? What if I said the wrong thing? I became very articulate at talking about work. I knew what was expected of me. When it came to social situations, I sort of... forgot how to be social.
Connecting with Other People
Earlier this year, I wondered, as I did every couple of months prior: what am I not doing right? Moving into full-time work, the pandemic, and the lost opportunities to build confidence converged to cause a few things to happen: (i) all my school friends moved on to new things, as one would expect; (ii) opportunities to meet new people were curtailed in the pandemic; (iii) I started to lose an understanding of how to make friends. I also worked from home, meaning that even after restrictions eased I still spent a lot of my time at home (I now occasionally work in co-working spaces, which has been immensely helpful!).
I could make friends online. But making friends in person? That's a different story.
I am out of practice when it comes to relationships and connecting with people in person.
I lean on other people to help me understand social norms in person. To this day, talking with someone for the first time can be difficult. I struggle to reach out to wait staff in cafes to tell them I want to pay, even though I have spent countless hours in cafes. I will sit longer than I may want in a cafe if someone doesn't come over to me or if I don't see an obvious way to tell them I want to pay. When someone misses what I said, rather than thinking, "you can try again!" my mind says "I hope nobody saw that."
Contrast that with my deeper relationships. I can speak with people for hours about topics when we have a shared interest, especially when it comes to work. The topic du jour is clear. I know what to expect. But in new conversations? I often feel so scared to initiate -- or continue -- a conversation that they don't really begin. When I do start talking with people, I'm fine unless they have other things going, in which case processing the situation is quite difficult. I find it amusing that I have been fine communicating in countries where the main language is not English, yet everyday situations can be challenging.
Over the three years or so since the start of the pandemic, I spent a lot of time indoors. A lot of time with myself. A lot of time where there were legal restrictions on who you could see. I emerged keen to develop deep relationships, but that mainly happened online. When I meet new people in person, it is often through a conference. Again, shared interests. Starting conversations without shared interests is difficult, yet I feel like I am missing out. To what new perspectives on life could I be introduced? What could I learn?
Earlier this morning, I was sitting in a bustling cafe, surrounded by people. An acquaintance was there, with whom I have spoken a few times. When I noticed their presence, it didn’t come to mind to go over to say hello. In hindsight, I know what I would have thought if it had: what if they don't want to chat? Will I look awkward standing there if they are already in conversation? These are hypothetical situations, but feel real. I feel like I can't be myself.
In the afore-cited Kurzgesagt video, they note that after being alone for a while you may mis-interpret social signals. Perhaps that's what’s happened. What you see can feel... amplified. You can not hear someone and feel more comfortable saying "yes" than asking them to repeat what they said. You can default to asking no questions about someone, no matter how curious you are, because in that moment you feel overwhelmed.
Cycles and Deep Connections
Herein lies a vicious cycle that has played out over and over again. I have a desire to meet more people. I feel like I can't understand certain social signals. I don't reach out to more people or see how I could. I wonder how others made the friendships they have. I am better at chatting with people in situations where we usually have shared interests.
Long, deep conversations are easier for me to manage. I can sit with a friend and chat for hours, losing track of time. In those moments, my primary focus is on the other person. I want to learn about them. I want to be the best friend possible. I want to be there, but today I don't have any in person friends where I feel like I am needed.
As a result of the pandemic, I became sensitive to losing friendships, too. When someone I knew deeply -- and helped me build a lot of confidence -- stopped messaging me as frequently, I felt like part of me had gone missing. I felt fear. What had I done wrong? It turns out that the person was busy with in-person things. I was and am so excited for them. I forgot that friendships don't last forever. I badly wanted them to, because it meant that as I met people I wouldn't have to worry about losing them as friends. That was a tough lesson to re-learn. It wasn't me. Sometimes people just move on.
Earlier this year, a friend invited me to play Magic: The Gathering. Remembering the games is causing me to become tearful as I write. I felt so... welcomed. I felt like being me is enough.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about a day when I looked up at the burgeoning night sky and saw two stars, distant. When I saw the stars, I felt a bit sad. I have made many amazing friends, but a lot of them are far away. And sometimes I forget about the ones I have close by.
When I went to see a friend earlier this year, another friend came in and said they had just had COVID. My first instinct? Leave as politely as possible, though they had had ample time to recover before the day I met them.
Burned into my mind is one of the primary edicts issued by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the announcement of lockdown restrictions in the UK: "you must stay at home." I remember the fear I experienced, and that fear would go on to influence how I thought for the coming months. I worried about touching things, getting COVID. Heard stories about other people having COVID. Those feelings gradually receded as I spent more time outside, the rigour of the testing programme was eased, and society started to feel different.
Getting close to most people was prohibited by law. We don't talk about that much. This happened at a transition moment in my life: from education to employment, a time that is already expected to change the people with whom one spends time.
I left my two friends that day because, deep down, somewhere, I still felt a fear of getting COVID.
The last few weeks have been different. I used to go through ebbs and flows, where for a few weeks or months I would be okay, and then for a few weeks I wouldn't. I didn't like being lonely. It sucks. It really does. And thinking it is your fault -- that for some reason you aren't good enough -- is not a good pattern to be in.
What helped me overcome this? Talking about it. I am in no position to give advice. I'm going to share what worked for me. I was more open about my experiences with one of my friends -- the kind of friend that texts you to tell you to go to bed because you are staying up way too late. As I started to talk about my feelings, my mind shifted from feeling like I was doing something wrong to realising the last few years have been hard. Really hard. Starting work, going through the pandemic, losing friends, and feeling like I wasn't enough.
I am becoming more comfortable with my own company. I am making an effort to get outside more, even if I'm not going to social gatherings. The little moments of communication in my day have become a bit less daunting. Going to conferences and in person events is now on the table, so I do that when possible. I am trying to accept invitations when they come, because for a long time, they didn't.
Here is an excerpt of something I privately wrote in July 2022, edited for brevity:
This isn't a new feeling: it comes and goes, although this time things feel different because I'm like "I am really here again?"
I know people, but I struggle to feel connected; the person with whom I have felt truly connected is across the other end of the world and I'm always stressed I mess up that friendship. I find my mind gets into strange patterns when I'm down. A spiral begins and I don't think I'm good enough, despite my rational mind knowing that I have done a lot. I then catastrophise about what could go wrong. I don't understand it.
For the last year or so, I just put off loneliness into the background, thinking it will go away. It sometimes does, but then it comes back again.
Indeed, loneliness doesn't "go away" by itself. I would stop feeling lonely but then later feel like I was in the same position. I'm writing this essay now. The words in the quotation above were written nine months ago.
Having only online friends was not a solution either, no matter how appealing that may sound. I have spent countless hours on group calls, in meetups, and in chats with online friends where I could lose track of time. Yet there is no substitute for seeing someone smile in real life. Seeing a full-body reaction when you make someone laugh. Being in close proximity to someone so you can be there. I am there for my online friends, but the distance is a barrier to being as effective a friend as I would like. There is no "drop by to hang out" without having friends in real life.
Let me reiterate the words from Kurzgesagt that helped me accept what I was feeling.
If you feel lonely, you are lonely.
If you are lonely, you should try to talk about it with someone, if you can. Being more open made the world of difference. I stopped feeling as afraid as I once was. Friends started telling me about their experiences with loneliness. I learned that the questions I was asking myself were not necessarily true.
It can happen to anyone. When I started feeling lonely more often, my mind started telling stories that weren't true but that I believed: I wasn't good enough, I wasn't going to meet people if I was not comfortable going to bars (as if that were the only social activity!), I had some trait that made me a less interesting person with whom to talk. I lost confidence in the non-work parts of me. I was content being focused on work, but that may have been because at work I could talk with more people.
Non-work James didn't develop nearly to the extent that work James did. Yet non-work James was the real me: the one where the success of a day was judged not by my completing all of the professional tasks on my to-do list. I didn’t recognize that.
Now, through practice, I'm re-learning social skills: getting into long conversations, interpreting social signals, saying "yes" more.
I'm becoming more comfortable with who I am. Lately, for example, I have been writing about more observations from my daily life, notably through my Moments of Joy series ^3. A year ago, writing about such matters was not on the cards. My blog was for longer content about either coffee or the web. Now I realise that I can be me here. I have been playing more piano, and enjoying how I can take what I learn and perform in public (even if I may be looking down at the keys while doing so). I developed an affinity for Taylor Swift and speak freely of that. My appreciation for her music has become part of my character.
Being more comfortable with myself is a journey, and one that I have not yet concluded. I mentioned earlier my feeling isolated in a particular cafe, not speaking with someone. By the time I looked up from my newspaper, they had disappeared. I need more practice following the things that my inner voice says I want to do. I want to be the confident James that lurks beneath but is often instructed to stay quiet by my mind that ruminates over whether I did something wrong. I didn't. I'm practising being me.
[^2]: Note to self: Working on a computer and enjoying coding in your spare time is great, but don't be surprised if one day you realise you need to just get outside and do something different. I have since become better at recognising when I feel stressed about personal "side projects" I take on and try to stop early, before I feel overwhelmed or burnt out. But it wasn't always that way.
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