How Not to Be Lonely in your 20s
You just have to make the effort
‘See, I’m not eating alone on a Friday night,’ I tried to telecommunicate to the Thai Always waitstaff as I ordered two takeout entrees, even though I’d be eating alone.
Lying to strangers somehow helped me cope with my disease: loneliness. The disease of 20somethings. I had moved to Chicago as a single 23-year-old, knowing one friend in the city. She’d consistently ghost on our friend dates, once when I’d already cooked dinner for her. At the time we would have been eating, she tweeted about the basketball game she was watching at a bar. So really, I was all alone in a big, new city.
My loneliness led to late nights at work, just so I didn’t have to face myself at home. I talked to anyone who listened. At home, my verbal diarrhea drove my Craigslist roommate away from our shared kitchen and into her room.
Once, I realized that if I ever had to go to the emergency room for any reason, I only had three people I could call to take me: my Craigslist roommate, my short-lived fling or the aforementioned ghost “bff”. The roommate moved out for the summer, and the fling moved on. And the female Casper was caught up in her own loneliness of another kind – that of having just broken up with.
The One Before the One.
So really, I had no one.
Worse, I thought I’d at least have my friends from college to occasionally keep my ears occupied via telephone. And I thought we’d get into a routine on weekends of them visiting me, me visiting them. I thought wrong.
While I was navigating the complexities of being single in a new city, they were navigating newfound serious relationship in the suburbs. I felt they had forgotten about me. I felt I was being replaced. I felt I was “out of sight, out of mind.” They were meeting their future husbands. I was meeting myself for the first time.
But today, I’m loving weekends instead of loathing them. Along the way, I learned a lot about how to deal with the kind of isolation that eats at you like a parasite until you don’t know how to function socially anymore. Everyone knows loneliness leads to depression and health problems.
Yet so many of in our 20s go through similar experiences, robbed of the cushion of college and away from our families just to make it in the world. That loneliness, coupled with the stress of learning for the first time that the phrase “life isn’t fair” applies to the office more than anywhere, can be unexpectedly suffocating. Here is what I wish I’d known before moving out on my own:
1. Craigslist isn’t just for creepers. It’s also for new friends
I met most of my friends in Chicago through Craigslist. Inadvertently. My Craigslist roommate invited me to parties hosted by her boyfriend’s friends. His friends became my friends. They broke up, and he moved away. And now I’m a core part of the friend group, although no longer in touch with either of them.
My friend Krista [name changed], on the other hand, met friends directly through Craigslist when she moved to Los Angeles. Turned off by the time it would take to grow relationships through conventional means like joining a club, she asked for exactly what she wanted. She posted an ad letting users know she was on the market for female friends. Krista met a girl or two for coffee, chose the one she felt the best fit with, and their friendship took off.
2. Well-intentioned friends and family will recommend you join clubs to meet people. Don’t
Common wisdom says to make friends, join clubs. An immediate social support system will follow. I’d advise against joining anything with this expectation.
First, developing strong friendships takes time. Second, it requires finding people with whom you click, which can be difficult. Personally, with this advice in mind, I joined a book club since I liked to read. I figured I’d meet like-minded semi-social nerds with a love of words.
But, the group setting was wrong for me. As an introvert, I thrive best in one-on-one interactions. Plus, despite logical expectations for a group that shares a love of books, the girls were catty and the guys were pretentious. And not even in a literary snob kind of a way. More in an “I have a higher degree than you and therefore am much smarter than you,” type of way. Not what I expected from a book club.
Making friends in a club requires a lot of forced effort, as well as the just the right blend of people in the group. Often, depending on the club, people are at a different place in life than you are, which can make it difficult to relate. Sure, sometimes you find just the right group for you, but that is rare and probably takes experimenting with different clubs to find the right one, as well as time to grow the relationships.
One exception: intramural sports teams. Although I am too unathletic to join one, multiple peers of mine have formed social groups (and melodramatic hookup cultures) through their kickball, softball and volleyball teams.
3. But if you do, join the 20Something Drinking Club with a Reading Problem, not the 20Something Drinking Club
Tons of meetups for 20/30somethings and “networking” exist. Beware these code words for “hookup scene”. If you drink with people with whom you have little in common, besides your age or desire to meet people, then you are likely putting yourself in the middle of a meat market. A male friend of mine went to a general networking meetup and ended up being stalked by a cougar on the prowl he had to uncomfortably get away from.
So if your ideal idea of meeting new people involves drinking, make sure you have a shared interest first. Then you have conversation points other than how drunk you are.
4. Volunteering trumps joining clubs
You know how they say you find love when you stop looking? It’s the same for making friends. You volunteer with an intention to help, which feels good. Making friends is secondary and therefore happens more naturally. Plus, people who volunteer tend to be very kind and caring people -- the type of people you want to be friends with!
I used to volunteer at an animal shelter, and even if I didn’t meet anyone, I felt so much happier and less lonely through interacting with the dogs. A friend of mine decided to do a bunch of volunteering with the intention of meeting girls. While he met a few at various gigs, he found that he enjoyed working at a food pantry most, even though he met the least amount of women there.
5. Movie-watching isn’t just for Friday nights. It’s for any time you’re alone in your home
I wish I had known much sooner just how much better I felt with Netflix as a constant companion. That sounds sad, but y’know, desperate times. Almost anything I did around the apartment: cleaning, cooking, etc., was made less lonely by keeping movies or TV shows on in the background.
Not only does Netflix make household activities more fun, but it also gives you conversation fodder for talking to almost anyone. At parties, I could talk to people it seemed I had nothing in common with by asking them if they’d ever seen the movie I’d watched the night before.
6. Just. Get. Out
Anytime I felt lonely and low, I was shocked to find just how helpful simple errands like going to the grocery store felt. I’d leave my apartment feeling down, and always return feeling much, much better. I think the combination of interacting with strangers, the fresh air and getting something accomplished formed a mood-boosting cocktail.
7. Always say yes
I learned this tip from a psychologist. Anytime anyone asks you to do anything, always say yes. No matter what it is or how exhausted you’re feeling. Because you never know how it’s going to turn out; often you can unexpectedly end up meeting interesting people and having oodles of fun.
Of course, personally I took this advice to heart a little too much and ran myself ragged. I said yes to people and events that were toxic for me. Eventually, once I got a solid enough social life, I cut back on always saying yes to protect my health.
But I wouldn’t have ended up meeting some of the people I have if I hadn’t followed this advice in the beginning of my time in Chicago.
8. See a therapist
Someone who gets paid to listen to you and can give you strategies for navigating major life transitions like moving? It’s a win-win, so long as you (or your workplace, which often offers up to five free sessions) can afford it. I really wish I had done this when I first moved to Chitown but didn’t even think of it as a possibility.
Today, my weekends are so busy that I wish I could have a weekend for my weekend. And I almost had to go to the emergency room once for having an insanely high fever, but I was too afraid to interrupt my friends while they were at work. When I told them a few weeks later, I was reprimanded for not reaching out for help when I most needed it. They all agreed they would’ve gladly left work to take me to the hospital. And now, when I make dinner for people, they are usually so excited someone else is cooking for them that they rush to my apartment.
I really don’t miss being new and alone in the city, but I do look back on that time with nostalgia for my wide-eyed wonder at my freshman year of life. Being a 20something post-college is hard, but it gets easier, I promise. You just have to make the effort.