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Are you lonely?

In this new column series, Katie Thistleton, presenter of Radio 1's Life Hacks, journalist, mental health ambassador and trainee counsellor, shares her words of wisdom

by Psychologies

Katie Thistleton Radio 1 DJ and mental health campaigner

“I always thought of loneliness as something you experience as an elderly person”

When I was planning to write my series of Psychologies columns at the beginning of the year - connection to others - was top on my list. I didn’t imagine we were all about to embark on the most difficult year we’ve probably experienced in trying to maintain our friendships and relationships.

I always thought of loneliness as something you experience as an elderly person, and I’ll be honest, it is something which worries me and makes me desperately sad. Thinking of an old person not having anyone to speak to is the most heart-breaking image.

I find the AGE UK adverts an incredibly difficult watch, albeit affective, as watching them encouraged me to donate monthly. I selfishly remarked that the John Lewis ‘man on the moon’ advert had ‘ruined my Christmas’ a few years back, whilst of course I respected its charitable efforts. There’s no denying that loneliness is a huge problem for our older generation and something we should so rightly give our focus too.

However, I had never stopped to think of a young person being lonely, but increasingly through my work I’ve heard that they most definitely are. A survey conducted by the Young Women’s Trust in 2018 showed that one in four young people felt isolated, compared to one in ten from older generations.

“loneliness is not about being on your own, but rather not having anyone around you who you connect to or relate to”

Discussing loneliness and isolation in 2020 is a completely different beast. It has never been so difficult to connect with other people, but this isn’t a problem just confined to now, and I’m particularly interested in that feeling of loneliness and what it often really means when it comes to those who are young, and not short of people to see face to face.

It was only when I started to present The Surgery on BBC Radio 1, and then consequently the show I host now, Life Hacks, that I began to think of loneliness as something also experienced by the young,  and something endured not necessarily by those who are home alone. My co-presenter Dr Radha Modgil spoke of loneliness as not about being on your own, but as not having anyone around you who you connect to or relate to.

This made me start to think differently about some of the friendship groups I’d been in throughout my life, and some of the times I’d experienced uncomfortable feelings that I now realise, were actually loneliness. I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of people - my family is large with my mum one of nine children and my dad one of six. I have thirty cousins, and two older siblings who have seven children between them. I’ve also been in relationships most of my adult life, I’ve spent very little time single and never lived alone, and always felt like I’ve had a decent number of friends.

This is a lovely position to be in, but despite the strength in numbers, I can recall times I’ve felt that even though there has been noise and bustle around me, I’m all alone. A low-mood and solemn sadness that at the time I wasn’t able to pinpoint or identify. I have since reflected on this and recognised that I did feel lonely, because I was giving my time to friendships that didn’t serve me.

I’ve spent time in groups where perhaps going out and getting drunk was fun, but when it came to sitting round and talking, our outlooks on life and beliefs and values and interests were so different that it felt difficult to make conversation, frustrating, and yes, lonely. I’m sure this is something many can recall and relate to. Those feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem we experience so often in life which can be so prominent in our younger years can be further exacerbated by not keeping the right company, leaving us wondering why our social life doesn’t give us the pleasure we expect it to. 

“Leaving a social interaction with a friend who drains you might feel like a relief”

One of the reasons I think your thirties may be better than your twenties is because you’re more likely to have figured out that your connection with people is pretty fundamental. I like to think of the analogy of ‘radiators, not drains’. There are friends with whom I spend time with and come away feeling like I’ve had a therapy session. We’ve put the world to rights and spoken honestly about our emotions, or maybe we haven’t and we’ve just talked about face creams and something we’re watching on Netflix. Either way, I feel like I’m glowing from the inside out by the time we’re done. I feel understood, listened to, and resilient.

There are also friends with whom spending time with feels like a chore, for whatever reason, the connection is not there in the same way. There may be particular complications with that person that make you incompatible or perhaps you don’t have a lot in common. Maybe you once did, but you don’t anymore. Leaving a social interaction with them might feel like a relief, and rather than feeling energised you could do with a lie down after dealing with them.

Cutting friends out is never easy, and of course it’s important to always be kind. I am a people pleaser, and this is a trait which plagues my every day. I have stayed in relationships and friendships years longer than I should have done, denying the fact that they no longer serve me or make me happy because I don’t want to hurt anyone or let them down. Sometimes though, it’s like the universe makes the decision for us. I always tell friends of mine who aren’t sure about their relationships that the answer will ‘ooze out of them eventually’ because I think we are magnetised to the right people and repelled from the wrong.

“Now I’m in my 30s I make all of my decisions much more selfishly than I did in my younger years”

I’m sure there are friends you have just naturally grown apart from. There hasn’t been a falling out - but there’s been this unspoken distancing that’s happened over time until they are no longer a part of your life even though they once may have been so prominent. Perhaps you had something hugely in common at one point - geography - you lived on the same estate and played together as kids - you were in the same class at school - you did the same degree or the same job for a while and needed each other’s support to get through the difficulties that so few others could directly relate to. But when you strip away those things, there’s nothing strong enough to keep you coming back for more. On the flip side, there are people you meet and instantly feel drawn towards, you feel like they just ‘get it’, you’re comfortable with them and your friendship will surpass convenience.

Now I’m in my thirties I make all of my decisions much more selfishly than I did in my younger years. Selfishness gets such a bad rep, but putting our own mental health first requires us to be self-seeking. I’m much less likely now to attend a party I’m dreading going to and I give my time to the friends who stimulate me, and my family, who by some miracle, are all the warmest of radiators. This takes time, and perhaps years of dread and regret to achieve, I think. There are night clubs and parties full of people intoxicating themselves to remove that feeling of disconnection.

 I wish I’d encountered what loneliness can really be about earlier, recognising how easy it is to be around people but not truly connect to them has made the stats around young people feeling lonely understandable, and I hope those feeling that way find their people sooner rather than later. It’s about quality, not quantity, and reaching a point in life where you can be selfish in your search for those who give you their companionship, not just their presence.

My tips for connecting to others:

Recognise how you behave during and after an interaction

When having therapy for my binge-eating, my counsellor asked me to recognise when I feel the need to eat in excess or turn to sugary foods. I can now identify that when I am feeling uncomfortable and as though I can’t be myself or live how I want to, I turn to such crutches. This might be in certain working environments, but sometimes it is in social situations too. If I wasn’t looking forward to an event, I’d appease myself with the presence of food and alcohol to deal with my social anxiety. We can choose to remove ourselves from situations, and even if that’s tricky, we can recognise what a lack of connection can do and try to deal with it differently.

Get comfortable with your own company

My good friend Dr Radha likes to use the quote ‘if you’re bored on your own, you’re in bad company’. The more we get to know ourselves and are honest with ourselves about who we are, what we like, what we dislike, how we behave and think and feel, the better we will be at enjoying our own company, and at saying no to social plans we don’t want to be a part of. I believe this is another reason loneliness isn’t always about the numbers, some people are completely comfortable and happy with having their own space the majority of the time.

Start some honest conversations

I hate small talk so much. I find if I am with good friends or colleagues, and I start a conversation about real life, perhaps about whatever is going on with me at the time to get it moving, others will often share too and the time will fly, and we will go away feeling fulfilled. Obviously, there are social boundaries and I don’t just ask someone at the bus stop how their marriage is going. Disclosing feelings of loneliness to others will often help too, and they might even be feeling the same way.

My recommendations

Radio, to me, is a wonderful remedy for loneliness. I enjoy presenting on the radio more than on the telly because the connection between presenter and listener is so strong. Over Christmas, you can find me presenting early breakfast on BBC Radio 1 from 5am-7am, for the early risers, for a week leading up to Christmas Eve. I’ll also be on BBC Radio Manchester on Christmas day at midday, and hosting the Official Chart on BBC Radio 1 that day from 2pm revealing the Christmas number 1. I’d love to hear from you and give you a shout out!

Author and Blogger Michelle Elman’s new book The Joy of Being Selfish is all about setting boundaries and putting your needs first. Perfect for those who want to start 2021 looking after number one!

What would you tell your twenty-something self?

I asked my Twitter and Instagram followers this question, here are my favourites for this month:

@misterjaydee – ‘One night stands won’t make you happy!’

@clairebriscoe – ‘if something is less fun or enjoyable than it is hassle, try to fix it twice, then sack it off’.

Follow Katie on Instagram