Your twenties are meant to be some of the best years of your life. At least, that’s how they’ve been sold to us. You’re not restricted to a classroom or library or the clutches of a looming exam or coursework deadline.
You’re free of any ‘real’ responsibility, not tied down by marriages or mortgages or children clamouring for your attention.
The world is your oyster! You’ll hear.
Oh, what I’d give to be in my twenties again! To have that body, that social life, all that free time!
What they won’t tell you, is how fucking lonely it is.
I grew up watching shows featuring tight-knit groups of friends, girls with heavy rotations of love interests and parties and social events pencilled in to an ever-crammed diary bursting with plans. Once social media exploded onto the scene, it was like all the It Girls™ had stepped from the TV right onto our phone screens – a Girls’ Night Out here, a Brunch there. It’s no surprise that so many of us developed FOMO (fear of missing out) and, eventually, FOBO (fear of being alone).
The colourful, stylish, seductive antics of the characters I’d spent so much time watching was how I assumed adulthood would be when I was still in the naivety of my late teens. I think that’s a mistake we all make – picturing a ‘certain’ future and then falling apart when the reality doesn’t match up to the expectations we set for ourselves. (I thought I’d be engaged by 25. I’m now 26 and can barely commit to a bag for life.)
I truly believed that my twenties would be filled with an overflowing Whatsapp inbox, with invitations and opportunities and romance – I didn’t picture morphing into the single girl cliche of coming home to my one and only housemate, my cat.
“Even Bridget Jones didn’t have a cat!” I recently lamented to a friend.
Not that I resent him, of course. My fur-child is a much appreciated source of companionship – I just thought I would have interactions with more actual humans.
Nobody warned me about the realities of never seeing your friends because of clashing work schedules and competition from the men in their lives.
Nobody told me about the downsides of being a ‘strong independent woman’ and feeling like you can’t talk about being alone as a negative because it contradicts with your strong beliefs that you don’t need anyone.
Nobody seems to talk about this side of your twenties at all, do they?
It makes sense, of course. In 2019, we aren’t people, we’re ‘brands’. We’re forever marketing ourselves, to employers, to dates, to our social media followings. We edit ourselves and edit ourselves, erasing all traces of what isn’t going to get us hired, or laid, or ‘liked’. What’s appealing about being forthcoming about loneliness or insecurity?
What’s marketable or sexy or engaging about that?
Nothing. But what’s human about it?
Loneliness in your twenties isn’t just centred around your relationship status – but when you’re The (only) Single One in your social group, you can’t help but notice the automatic demotion that comes along with the title.
You can’t help but know, deep down, that even the best of BFFS will have eventually emotionally replaced you as their Person. It isn’t out of malice or carelessness, it’s just the natural progression of relationships – our other half takes priority by default in the heart’s hierarchy.
(Granted, parenthood may change this, but I’ve yet to experience that)
You can’t help but notice that every single person who tells you that being in a relationship isn’t important, is in fact… in a relationship. That every other social media post is about #couplegoals. That everyone seems to have a ‘date night’ that night.
Most strikingly though, you can’t help but feel as though everything you heard about the single life is dramatically misleading. It’s as though singletons are expected to have dates scheduled once a week, with a string of different characters and venues to provide the perfect set-up for a metaphorical Filofax of funny or disastrous or scandalous anecdotes.
The reality is that there’s a dangerous spectrum to tiptoe. One side is throwing yourself into serially dating with no real connection or settling for the definitively WRONG people just to avoid being alone with yourself. (a very real reason why I bemoan dating apps)
The other, is staying alone but ruminating over it to the eventual, inevitable detriment of your self-esteem. If you tell yourself that you’re alone for a reason, your mind will work overtime to come up with a list of potential suggestions – likely none of which are true. Loneliness is often down to pure circumstance, not because we’re horrible people, regardless of what mental health conditions can whisper to you when your mind goes quiet.
It’s easy to see how either end of the spectrum can make us our most vulnerable, which is why we have to try and remember that we’re not the only ones who feel like this. I’m not the only twenty-something who spends a large portion of their time alone, and I’m certainly not the only twenty-something not in a relationship.
The trick is to try to stay in the centre, like balancing on a tightrope with arms outstretched and fingers splayed, trying desperately not to fall either side.
It’s about avoiding artificial or damaging relationships, and giving our energy to real chemistry and connections – not trying to talk ourselves into a relationship, or brushing off unacceptable behaviour as a ‘one off’ or ‘not that bad’. When you’re vulnerable, you attract entirely the wrong kind of person – believe me.
It’s about self-improvement for ourselves and not anyone else. Learn something new! Try something you haven’t before! Succumb to curiosities, pursue passions, pick up hobbies, finally do that thing you’ve been putting off because you’re too afraid to climb out of your comfortable, miserable rut.
Validation has to come from yourself and not notches on a bedpost or numbers on a screen. False promises or pretty words are so easy to fall for when the choice is between sweet nothings or silence – but sweet nothings are worth exactly that; nothing.
Remember (often) that we are loved, and make time for those that love us. Ironically, loneliness has a way of making you isolate yourself even further, which, of course, only serves to make things considerably worse.
(Additionally, remember that the relationships we see on social media are just a fragment of their reality. Nobody is #goals all the time.)
Try to count yourself among the people that love you. Your own company should never be a chore, a fear or a punishment. You know you better than anyone else walking this Earth. Treasure that.
I’m trying to work on this as best I can, as often as I can. It’s not easy, nobody wants to admit that they’re feeling isolated from the rest of the world. Like I said – nobody really talks about loneliness.
So, for anyone who needs it, I’m talking about it. I feel lonely too.