When YouGov released its survey of 1,254 adults this summer, the results—which found that 30 percent of millennials are lonely, making them the loneliest generation—made headlines all over the internet. Many found the stats to be surprising (for instance, one in five reported feeling as though they have “no friends”), but to me, they weren’t in the least: A few weeks prior to the survey release, I found myself sobbing to my therapist about how lonely I, a millennial, feel every single day of my life.
Instead of encouraging me to get out there and find a community, or do something to otherwise “solve” for my predicament she asked me to try and embrace it—to figure out how to deal with loneliness and make the best of it. Having never received advice like this ever before, I was skeptical. But after consulting three other pros, I’m convinced it checks out: One of the best things any of us can do in this situation is to challenge ourselves to learn how to deal with loneliness. Because as soul-sucking as loneliness can feel, there are certainly ways to reframe the way you think about it—even into a positive that can actually benefit your life.
“All emotions serve an evolutionary purpose—they’re signals meant to keep us alive and procreating—so loneliness is meant to feel uncomfortable and to motivate us to connect,” says therapist and executive coach Megan Bruneau, adding that connection helps us to “turn off” these feelings. But she cautions that’s not always a good thing. To some extent, these feelings are inevitable, and when we don’t learn how to deal with loneliness, it can become problematic. “Because we don’t learn how to tolerate loneliness—or any emotion, for that matter—many of us try to avoid or numb it using unhealthy means,” says Brueneau. “We might get into unhealthy relationships and friendships, over-schedule ourselves, or develop habits or addictions that don’t serve us.”
“When we judge ourselves for feeling lonely—especially temporary loneliness that’s a natural part of our individualistic human experience—we create unnecessary shame and anxiety.” —therapist Megan Bruneau
So while chronic loneliness comes with its fair share of issues (Bruneau points out that social isolation is a precursor to depression and other mental-health challenges, and that it can also compromise your immune system), allowing ourselves to feel it, at least temporarily, can be a positive experience. “If we’re equipped with self-compassion and self-care strategies, loneliness can be an opportunity to turn inward, practice supporting ourselves through discomfort, and evaluate whether or not we want to make any changes to invite in more connection into our lives,” Bruneau says. “When we judge ourselves for feeling lonely—especially temporary loneliness that’s a natural part of our individualistic human experience—we create unnecessary shame and anxiety.”
This creates a cycle: First you feel lonely, then you feel badly about the fact that you feel lonely, which makes the whole experience even worse. But even though we’re hardly alone in feeling, well, alone, reframing those feelings is a lot more easily said than done. “We can deal directly with the pain of loneliness, instead of trying to bury it or run away,” says psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW. “We can meditate on it, identify the sensations of loneliness, and get better at tolerating them versus running from them, which makes the pain worse.”
For a more specific tip, psychologist Juli Fraga, PsyD, suggests starting with self-reflection and asking yourself what’s missing in your life. “Like all negative experiences, loneliness can be a teacher, letting us know that we need to change about something that’s awry. It can also be an opportunity to build the types of connections we truly want—an exercise in authenticity,” she says, adding that trying journaling, meditating, and finding other activities that bring you joy on your own is a good challenge to put upon yourself.
I, for one, have discovered that walking around and listening to Lizzo songs on repeat is incredibly helpful for simultaneously learning to deal with loneliness and bringing me joy. And though no one is arguing about how painful and uncomfortable and undesirable loneliness can be, there is something we can change: how we choose to handle it.