How to feel less lonely

Bhavesh Gulrajani, Feature Editor

[This article was originally published on May 16, 2021, in Circuit.]

I asked three residents in Lyman’s Tower section whether they ever feel lonely. My first interviewee was Dante: tall, bearded and enthusiastic—whether on the field, in the classroom or kitchen. He wields a hearty chuckle.

I asked, “do you ever feel lonely?”

“In college?” he said. [I said yes.] Uh, yeah.”

“I think everyone knows what it’s like to feel lonely,” he said. Our conversation halted when I distractedly looked up, at a series of deafening booms coming from above the ceiling. He told me that it was just his roommate stomping.

Dante knows that he isn’t alone. He’s talked to others about this semester’s difficulties and mentioned that the counseling center has never before had this many students seeking its support.

“Not having any friends, you know … starting out the semester in quarantine, not being able to meet people … you know, it wasn’t easy. Definitely a hard transition going from lots of social interactions to absolutely nothing.”

Another pause occurred when Ben walked in, sporting a fancy tuxedo. Ben told Dante that the jacket only cost five bucks, a discount he explained by proudly outlining a puke stain on his right sleeve.

“It was so hard to make friends. And I feel lonely when I don’t have any friends.”

Illustration by Madi Welch.

He cited the quarantine and the weeks following it as being particularly challenging. “The first five weeks, probably—that’s where I was feeling pretty lonely. You have kind of surface-level friendships with people, you’re kind of amicable, and people kind of know you, but not really. No one really knows you.”

I asked Dante how he dealt with quarantine’s loneliness, and he started to tell me about the ‘numbing’, which for him consisted of calling people back home and watching Netflix. “It was easy to numb the loneliness during the quarantine.” After quarantine, he had trouble ignoring his feelings, but this led to his decision to more consciously address them.

“That’s actually something I’m trying to work on this semester, trying to recognize when I’m feeling something and when I’m numbing it. Whether it’s loneliness or something else. I think any kind of numbing is bad.”

Midway in our conversation, Dante segued into describing a mystical experience he partook in before coming to college.

This rite of passage occurred before he graduated high school, when he and a dozen or so of his peers, along with a handful of faculty leaders, spent a week in the desert. He spent three of seven days sitting alone (alongside rattlesnakes) and fasting, sleeping and waking in accordance to the sun and basking in joyful boredom. The trip was designed to mark the transition between high school and college, and it certainly resonated with Dante. It was his foray into adulthood.

“I wouldn’t call myself an adult, I don’t think I’ll ever call myself an adult, but I did not feel that transition here [at Whitman]”, he said. “I don’t feel much of a shift in myself other than, like, being alone. That was the biggest thing.”

I asked him if his beard helps him feel more adultlike, but he said no. Laughing, he added, “it’s just to mask part of my face that I don’t like. That’s all.”

Like many others, he spent some of his semester in the counseling center. “I needed some guidance. I think I was a little bit … I wasn’t a little bit lonely, I was a lotta bit lonely. Yeah, I got some guidance about how not to let that be too controlling.”

Within a few helpful sessions, his therapist had encouraged him to “spend some time doing something you love.” He realized that by hanging out with people, letting people into his world and letting them get to know him.

A third pause: at 8:30 p.m., people had shown up to watch Spiderman on the lounge’s projector. We moved over to a booth in Jewett Cafe, but on our way, Dante stopped by the kitchen to knead his fat ball of dough.

Dante told me how he shifted away from numbing. “Once I started just spending time doing things that I love, that bring me unadulterated joy—that’s when I started feeling less lonely, even if I was friendless. I still have things that make me so happy; those things aren’t ever gonna go away. And then I started to feel less lonely, and then I started to make friends. I’m still making friends.”

He added that the difference between numbing and doing things you love is about your intent. “The side effect of doing things that make you happy is that you’re going to start feeling the thing that you’re trying to numb.”

I asked him about the mini-posters on the stairwell of our section, with messages like “You are so loved!” Dante agreed that they can feel a bit silly. “Every time I see those, I’m like, ‘go fuck yourself, sign’. I get the sentiment … but that’s not gonna do anything.”

I asked him where his loneliness currently was. “I don’t think it’s gone—it’s just not very prevalent right now. I could go back to my room and feel lonely, and then get up the next day and not feel lonely. Little sprinklings [*hand gestures*] of loneliness every here and now. It’s gone but it’s probably going to come back at some point.”

To conclude, I asked him what the opposite of loneliness feels like. “It’s like security within myself,” he said. “Being alone is, a lot of the time, what leads me to feeling lonely. And the opposite of that for me, even if I am alone, is being secure with my being alone—being secure with whatever it is that causes the loneliness in the first place. Yeah, I think … security.”

My second interviewee was Zach: also tall, with shoulder-length hair and a gentle, measured voice. He’s also an active type, but maybe that says little on this campus. When he sees me, he’ll usually greet me with a sharp ‘Hey!’ and sometimes even a ‘Yo!’ (He has a very distinctive ‘yo’.)

I asked, “do you ever feel lonely?”

“Ummm … no,” he said. “I’ve met enough people here that I’ve always felt, like, whenever I feel the urge to go out and meet with people or do whatever, it’s not an issue.”

[I sat across from him, cross-legged in his wooden chair. He sat on his bed. The Lyman beds are unusually high off the ground, so he peered down at me, but politely—perched on the edge of his mattress, back straightened, hands on his lap. As if my phone on the floor recording audio was recording his manners, too.]

Zach told me about his transition to college life. “It took a little bit [of time], just getting adjusted to how self-directed it all was. In the fall semester, I was kind of sitting around on Zoom all day; it was harder to go out and see people. So, I guess getting adjusted to being more socially engaged was the main thing.”

He said that the strangest part of moving onto campus was getting used to being around so many people again. But it was a good transition, he said, not difficult, just that it took some getting used to.

I mentioned how busy the counseling center has been and wondered if he’d encountered lonely peers on campus. “I think there’ve been a couple times where I’ve talked to people and they’ve let me know that they were struggling. The pandemic’s definitely one of the causes of people feeling lonely and feeling like they need to go to counseling.”

He also told me about his experience with getting acclimated to a new home. “I didn’t really know anybody, like, I’d see people in the kitchen and say hi, but that was about it. And then once quarantine lifted, it was like slowly getting to know everybody, starting to hang out in public spaces and everything.”

Zach shares with me his process of befriending peers at college. “I think it’s easier if they’re in your immediate physical space ’cause you just run into each other more, so you kind of have to get to know each other or else it gets kind of awkward. I’ve been going to the climbing gym and the BFFC, so I’ve been able to meet people from other res-halls that way. And then, I’ll run into friends of friends at Cleve or something like that, and then they’ll introduce me, and that kind of thing.”

My third and final interviewee was Kate—she’s relatively small (compared to Dante and Zach). At one point, she described her body as being “condensed,” which made me think of an unstretched slinky. (Not my best analogy.) She’s energetic, friendly and personable.

I asked, “do you ever feel lonely?”

“Oh, absolutely,” she said.

She told me how the feeling arises. “I would say I feel … most lonely … sometimes even in big groups when I’m not finding connection. Just when it feels like I’m trying to be energetic for others, and I don’t feel very grounded. I can feel lonely when I make a choice that is best for myself and other people are doing things. If I can hear them spending time together and I know that’s not what I want to be doing tonight—that’s a space where I can feel lonely—by myself, feeling lonely.”

Like Dante, Kate mentioned a frustration in surface-level or “performative” interactions within groups.

“A lot of the time, I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone. But, sometimes, I can experience loneliness when I don’t have deeper friendships in a group I’m in.”

I asked her to explain how loneliness can exist in social settings. “When there isn’t something deeper and you’re not finding connection,” she said. “When the vibe is off, or I’m starting to wonder who is my friend versus who is near me.”

For Kate, a good friendship is one with vulnerability, since to her, vulnerability is the basis of connection. “A friendship where you can say, ‘hey, I’m feeling lonely,’ and that space would be held,” she said.

She also stated how authenticity is a vital part of friendship. “Yeah—being real. Saying hard things. Being honest. Saying something that has the possibility to be, not embarrassing, but held in a weird way. It’s about being authentic and telling the truth.”

After my first two interviews, I still had no answer for what loneliness feels like—on a visceral level—so I made sure to ask Kate.

“I think it’s a disappointment, right, it feels … it feels heavy,” she said. “I hold it in my chest, mostly. It’s kind of a longing for something that’s not there—for something deeper. It can feel frustrating. Yeah, just disappointment, I would say, is mostly how I experience loneliness.”

She told me what the process of adulthood entails. “Just learning how to be independent, having to be the only person that’s taking care of you, until you can find people that can hold that. So it is a lonely process, but it’s also a very rewarding one because I’ve learned a lot about myself throughout it.” She said that becoming an adult is a good feeling, and she feels proud of how she treats her body and herself.

For Kate, the opposite of loneliness seems to be connection. “The main way that I feel connection is—this sounds weird, but—physical touch,” she said. “I’m a very huggy person and, so for a long time, not being able to hug my friends was really painful. I hugged [my roommate] every once in a while, but I was not snuggled [*cackling*]. I have not been cuddled. And so, that was a big, sad transition of just, ‘your girl just needs a hug’. I’m a big hugger—that’s what makes me happy [*laughing*].”

If you, dear reader, ever feel lonely, talk to Dante, or Zach or Kate—or someone like them—because they’re all delightful people.