The antidote to loneliness lies in the quality of our connections.
That’s why millions of young women still feel an empty ache, despite having hundreds of ‘friends’ at their fingertips. Instead of fooling ourselves we’re connecting and floating through life as an island, it’s time we found feel-good communities, deeper relationships and the sense of belonging we all deserve.
Social media – yes, that demon leech suckling away at our self-esteem reserves – can actually be a good place to start. It can soothe loneliness and help you find your people, but it’s important to remember that it’s just words and pictures. Instagram conversations can’t properly nurture you, a cry-laughing emoji isn’t the same as someone doing a dirty cackle at your joke IRL, and a little red heart will never match a hug that says ‘you’re important and I’m here for you’. Sorry, but you’ll never beat loneliness with a Snapchat streak.
In the summer of ‘99, my best friend and I knocked on a stranger’s door. I’ll never forget the words that came out of our mouths, which we’d rehearsed in unison beforehand: “Hiya! Does your little girl want to play with us?”
In hindsight, it was either innocently endearing or a scene devised by Stephen King. Our council estate boredom prompted bold interactions, especially when new families moved in. But it wasn’t just boredom. Our nine-year-old souls saw the new girl in the street – having left her old village and school and friends behind – and knew she’d be lonely. I can’t say I’ve ever reached out to another female so radically since.
I can’t say I’ve ever reached out to another female so radically since
In the summer of 2019, my best friend and I bonded over memes fetishising staying indoors, cancelling plans and having Chandler Bing bubble baths, alone. No thanks hun, I’d rather stay in with my cat. JOMO is the new FOMO. Sorry, I’m late, I didn’t want to come. Is that what we really want? Not according to the Office for National Statistics. Two years pre-COVID, a UK study found young women felt lonely more regularly than older age groups, and women reported feeling lonely more often than men. During lockdown, a UCL study found poor mental health was most common among 19-year-old and 30-year-old women. One-third of 19-year-olds surveyed reported symptoms of depression and almost half experienced loneliness.
You don’t have to be physically isolated to be lonely. Lots of lonely people are well integrated.
There are others who lack social connections, but never feel lonely. It’s a very specific experience and one that’s more emotional than physical. But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel it. I felt it in the pit of my belly for years. The day I realised I was lonely, it blinded me. Like when you step out of the cinema on a sunny day, disoriented and trying to adjust to your new, glaring environment. It was the day a kind-hearted cafe owner, clearing tables around me said: “You can stay while we clean up, if you like…”
I’d been working in his cafe most days for weeks. Knew every barista by name. An eager lingerer, lurking in the hope that they’d invite me for drinks after closing. His generous offer left my cheeks feeling like they’d been smacked by two just-boiled tea bags. Did I really look that desperate for company? Because I was. I just didn’t have a word for it. Loneliness was the reserve of widows and war veterans, not friendly, outgoing, twenty-something women.
I found myself wandering around Morrisons for hours as if it was a Turkish bazaar, just to be around people.
At 27, I’d already moved seven times since leaving uni. I was in a new house in a new town in a new city, again. Miles from home, family and friends. In the same month, I quit my agency job in Leeds to become a full-time freelance writer, so no longer had the cushion of office chit-chat and ‘Cocktail Fridays’ to ease the emotional and physical strains of feeling alone.
I found myself wandering around Morrisons for hours as if it was a Turkish bazaar, just to be around people. Which meant I spent money I didn’t have on things I didn’t need. Salad stirrers, peg hangers, cat toys, recipe books, flowers, multivitamins… all on some quest for a time-filling retail high. If there was a Lidl within walking distance, my God, you’d have lost me forever.
The L word
Loneliness is a sensitive subject for young women. To me, using the word felt sad, weepy and dramatic. “Hey, how are you?” “Actually, lonely AF”. Christ, that’s bleak. Might as well send them that clip of the walruses tumbling to their deaths on Our Planet and be done. But hey, it is sad. I mean, how’s this for a sad fact: Loneliness makes you colder. Like, lonely people literally feel lower temperatures than people who feel socially supported. FFS.
For me, mental health and that longing for connection work hand-in-hand. Anxiety prevents you from organising meetups. If you’re invited somewhere, overwhelm can lead to you flaking out – it’s even more tempting to cancel plans during a pandemic. Then, you feel guilty for missing the opportunity and feel more anxious for the next one. Rinse and repeat.
My main source of connection was social media. I’d have documented every pee on an Insta-story if I could’ve. I’d chat to strangers for hours, or just sit on the couch and scroll. Scroooooooooooll. Sit scrolling through highlight reels for long enough and you’ll feel misery crawling into your DNA like the girl from The Ring.
Sit scrolling through highlight reels for long enough and you’ll feel misery crawling into your DNA like the girl from The Ring.
Social media did help though. If you’re on your phone all the time, the key is to curate your feed for confidence. Delete, hide and block the stuff warping your good vibes, then find communities of people who help build you up – and who you can help build-up, too. Declutter and diversify. I found a local brunch club on Instagram and girl gangs on Facebook, full of fun, creative women running gigs, collabs and meetups. Joining a gym, cooking, reading, going to art galleries and getting stuck into a series on Netflix helped too. The void of audible conversation was temporarily filled with podcasts and books gave me characters so vivid they became companions.
And if I’d had a really bad day, I’d tell myself that tomorrow would be better. Feelings don’t last forever.
Reach out, don’t recoil
Think of loneliness like your body lacking in nutrients. To reach optimum health, you need to change your diet and try different foods. Vitamin tablets are social media – a helpful kickstart, but a shallow-working, unsustainable fix. Wholesome connections, on the other hand, are those from-scratch Sunday roasts you spend an afternoon picking ingredients for and perfecting the recipe with cooking secrets from people you admire (“omg, how did you do those glazed carrots like that?!”). For true nourishment, you need to put the effort in.
Being lonely is often a conscious decision. Creating and maintaining friendships as a young woman requires a little give. If we feel like friends aren’t there in times we need them, we convince ourselves they don’t care – so we slack off too. It’s so easy to put pressure on people. But like any relationship, perseverance, patience and forgiveness are all needed to maintain and deepen connections.
The 3-2-1 rule
It’s all very well telling women to ‘put themselves out there’, but no one is telling us exactly how to do that. Sonya Barlow founded Like-Minded Females, a community providing empowering connections for women when she was tired of being stuck in her own funk and couldn’t find the solution elsewhere.
“I’m on minimum wage, living in London. Every meet-up or initiative for young women cost money – one was £1,500, plus £40 per event. I couldn’t afford three grand a year just to make friends and start healing,” Sonya tells me. “A decision was made overnight. We provide women with a safe space to be themselves – every event is accessible, affordable and not centred around alcohol.”
Like-Minded Females evolved into support networks on social media, with a mix of fun and educational events. “Yes, you’re lonely – but you’re lonely and confused usually due to a certain topic or problem area,” says Sonya. “Well, let’s solve them together as a community, with experts discussing common problems. We give our communities their own Slack channel to keep things accountable and then follow up in six months.”
Everything LMF put out is actionable, actual information for women feeling lonely. Sonya dares women to try her 3-2-1 rule: you speak to three people, follow up conversations with two of them and then meet one for a coffee. “If you do that monthly, you’ve met six new people,” she explains. “Good people, kind people. It’s a nice way of remembering but also makes it a task – which I think women thrive off. I’ve had awesome success stories sent my way from those who’ve taken it on board.”
“It’s weird – it’s a flukey idea that’s turned into a movement,” Sonya says. “Young females are still feeling very vulnerable, isolated and lonely – so this is a community where you can come and we’ll facilitate you. Not only to make friends but to find confidence in yourself so you can go out and take charge.”
It’s true that self-care is important, but the notion of having to help ourselves before we can help others doesn’t always work
This isn’t groundbreaking stuff – helping people, connecting to people and loving people feels good. When you feel that longing for connection, reaching out to those in the same boat can lead to meaningful, beautiful friendships. It’s true that self-care is important, but the notion of having to help ourselves before we can help others doesn’t always work. We have a lot of commonalities that we don’t always realise – simply talking about them can reframe your mindset.
I asked young women on Twitter and Facebook when they first experienced loneliness and the ripple effects it’s had on their lives. With kindness, compassion and bravery, they responded:
Laura, 31, is a business development officer from North Shields. She’s felt loneliness creeping in over the past 18 months, following a toxic relationship break-up.
“I’d moved cities from Leeds to Newcastle to be with my now ex-partner, leaving friends and a very sociable job behind. When my relationship ended with my partner and I moved in on my own, it only worsened. I do have friends in Newcastle but those friends have family commitments and other groups of friends and I feel very isolated and at times, alone.”
Insecurities led to an acceptance of her loneliness. “I felt like I wouldn’t be interesting enough to meet other people, or that they wouldn’t like me. It’s only over the past few months, as my mental health has improved, that I’ve started to talk more about it on social media in the hope it’ll encourage everyone to connect a little more. It’s strange that we’re all feeling lonely, yet we don’t make that connection with each other. You have no idea how many people I’ve connected with since I started to open up – people who feel the same and want to meet up.”
Sarah from Devon is 22 and fairly new to the feeling of loneliness.
She moved out of her parents’ home for the first time last year and enjoyed living solo for a few months. It was when she returned home from her job as a digital marketing executive, made dinner for one and burst into tears that she realised she was lonely.
“I can be sitting there for a whole weekend crying about being alone, then get a text from a friend asking if I want to go out,” she says. “But I just don’t want to because I feel too upset. I see quite a lot of people throughout the week, but not having the important people around me (my family and partner) is what makes me feel alone.”
Sarah believes it’s important for young women to be able to be alone and be okay with it. “I’m not there yet, but everyday I’m trying. It’s the reason I decided to move out and live on my own in the first place. I wanted to learn to be independent and to be okay alone – it’s just proving a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
Terry is 44 and felt loneliness creep in both dramatically and on the sly.
She separated from her husband, friends moved away, and her York-based office job became a home desk. “When I hadn’t had any human contact for three consecutive days (excluding texts and emails), I realised what had happened. I looked back on previous weeks and sadly had to admit that it wasn’t the first time. That was a low point.”
It sounds glaringly obvious, but for me, the best way to feel connected is to speak with someone. Anyone
She now recognises triggers and prevents potential spirals into loneliness. “It sounds glaringly obvious, but for me, the best way to feel connected is to speak with someone. Anyone. Get some fresh air. Buy a pint of milk (even if there are two pints already in the fridge). I do it because I know I’ll converse with at least one person (avoiding self-service check-outs!), make eye contact with others and notice something that’s worth mentioning to the next person I speak to.”
Terry is one of many hidden lonely women in the UK, those who appear to be the ‘life and soul’ whenever they go out. “Trying to live up to that expectation is tough and putting on a show is hard work. But loneliness is still a bit awks. Lonely = sad. But not sad in a cool way. It’s sad in a social pariah kind of way. Admitting you’re lonely is tantamount to shouting “I don’t have any friends!”. That’s not the case. It’s just that we all have busy lives and keeping in touch is tricky.”
Emily is a 20-year-old student living in the south-west. She has plenty of acquaintances but misses the depth of close friendships from school.
“A combination of university and travelling a lot means I rarely see my oldest friends as all our schedules clash. We catch up regularly online, but it isn’t the same as seeing them almost every day as we did when we were young.”
Staying busy, as well as reading and sewing have helped Emily feel less lonely. “I spend a lot of time with my boyfriend and he’s been incredibly supportive. I’m preparing to join societies at uni to meet as many people as possible and I’m hopeful that next year will be much better for me.”
Darlington-based Maz is 32 and puts her loneliness down to a combination of mental health and pain following an operation.
She explains: “Even if I have a good night’s sleep, I’ll feel exhausted when I wake. One day of socialising leads to one or two days recovering both mentally and physically, so I avoid going out most of the time. I do try and get my friends to come see me, but most don’t bother. The ones who would love to have jobs or kids, so that leaves them stuck at home – probably feeling lonely as well.”
29-year-old Sarah works as a youth worker in Newcastle. Loneliness crept in after the birth of her first daughter.
“My husband went back to work and the excitement of ‘ooh new baby!’ wore off for the visitors. I lived away from family and was the only one in my friendship group to have a baby – I was young! I didn’t really put myself out there, like, I wasn’t really going to any baby socials. It’s easy to stay in your own little bubble.”
For Leanne, a 25-year-old support worker from the north-east, socialising has never felt natural.
When she’s met people she thought she could bond with in the past, she describes an “almost obsessive” need to make them like her.
“I’d end up putting myself in embarrassing situations,” she reflects. “For example, there was one person I believed was a friend, despite them actually not treating me nicely at all. For their birthday I spent a ridiculous amount of money on their present – money I didn’t have – just to make sure she had a good day.”
Leanne believes loneliness was also the reason she stayed in an abusive relationship for so long. “I didn’t feel any emotion for this person but I was scared of being alone. So I continued to accept behaviour that was controlling and coercive for a large chunk of my life.”
It’s important to go at your own pace when reaching out, Leanne advises: “I think a lot of people feeling lonely actually know how to combat it but are too scared/nervous to actually reach out and do it, so my advice would be to take little steps. If it gets too much then speak to someone, whether that’s a family member or your GP. I used to ring Samaritans on a regular basis. It’s not just for people who feel suicidal – the service is for anyone who is struggling emotionally.”
35-year-old entrepreneur Aneka believes we can make the country less of a lonely place one dog at a time.
“Dogs are people magnets and encourage conversation. When I had to leave my job in the entertainment industry due to poor health, I believe Chubbs, my very energetic French bulldog literally saved my life and gave me the energy and motivation to get better.” Aneka now runs the Doggy Cafe and launched the first-ever dedicated dog week in the world, bringing people and pooches together.
Bristol-based Hannah is a 28-year-old cam girl for Off The Record. She also felt lonely following a breakup.
“I had my whole life planned and then it was gone in an instant, so I lost the sense of security that comes with always having someone there,” she explains. “It’s probably different for everyone but for me, loneliness is a feeling of not having anyone to talk to or see at the drop of a hat, I still feel it sometimes now!
“I think we all have to remember we’re only human so feeling lonely is natural. I learnt that talking to close friends about it really helps. They make sure they check in on me every so often to make sure I’m okay. To live with it, I think you need to surround yourself with people who are caring and willing to help. Don’t be afraid to reach out. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
This vulnerability opens the door to others, who’ll feel safe coming to you with both the mundane and the meaningful
Sometimes the last thing we feel like doing is meeting new people, or even friends we already have. But when you meet face-to-face, you’re vulnerable. You can’t filter every word or hide every emotion, even from a COVID-approved distance. This vulnerability opens the door to others, who’ll feel safe coming to you with both the mundane and the meaningful. Having a mate rely on you and come to you first, with anything, is a life-shattering, sensational, technicolour moment. It delivers a sense of purpose and makes you feel less sad.
So, find like-minded women out there – there are literally millions of us. Start that conversation. Drop into a DM. Be brave enough to schedule a coffee date – and actually turn up. Join a local club. Join a nationwide club. Organise a cute trip to the seaside and see who can take the most achingly hipster photo.
Be kind to a random person. Share your friend’s post and tell them how amazing you think they are (and mean it). Pick up the phone and actually talk. Don’t flake out of that meetup, even though all you want is a Chandler Bing bubble bath.
Be there. Do anything. Just do it together.
If you’re experiencing a mental health condition and need support, you’re not alone. Please call Mind on 0300 123 3393.