Over the past three years I’ve lost both my grandparents and my dog, who was my whole world, and my mum's friend (who was like an auntie to me) had a mental breakdown and cut off all contact with us. Even though I’m happy the majority of the time, I’ve been single for almost seven years and feel like I’m getting nowhere. I think these are reasons why I now feel more lonely. I’ve been on dates, I talk to people on apps and get ghosted. I’m outgoing but do not get approached – I seem to attract the wrong men. My friends and family give me reassurance that I’m an attractive girl but I feel like I don’t know the way forward.
Besides my nursing course I can’t see anything happy to look forward to. I am grateful for my friends and family but I don’t understand why something happy can’t happen. All my friends seem to be coupled up, having babies or celebrating a new job or house. Do you have any advice?
Feeling left behind is a very valid feeling and makes sense in the context of our evolution. We need to feel that we are not only part of a pack but performing well within it to various different kinds of standards. But it isn't useful for us in understanding our place in the world now as many of us have more than we need.
That said, relationships are still important. Most of us have home, food and shelter; not everyone has the relationships they also need to flourish. That's part of our chemical composition – serotonin flows when we're with people. So if you are single and you see other people coupling up, you might feel out of place. But significant relationships don't have to be romantic! They can be partnerships but it's also very possible to just have the one or two or a close circle of in-depth connections and that will satisfy our evolutionary needs for connection. You can look at what relationships and connections you do have now and nurture those while still being open to meeting someone.
When you’re surrounded by other people who all seem to be hitting key stages in life (as society deems them), it’s hard but important to work on changing your perspective to one of self-compassion. How we treat ourselves is very, very important. Often we have a very negative narrative running through our heads, which we wouldn't dare say to friends or family. Instead you have to start from a place of understanding that you are where you are. If you have goals, you can start to do things to make steps towards them. But take things from where you are and just acknowledge the difficult reality that you're in, rather than being critical of your position and yourself.
The best chance of getting to our goals is by relaxing the fixation on the goal and enjoying the journey and the process. So it's not about finding someone to get married to. It's about enjoying getting to meet people, exploring things together, trying new things during dates: the experiences along the way, rather than the ultimate end point.
I noticed that you use the word 'happy' three times. For not that many words, the ratio focusing on happiness is quite significant. So I would also suggest you take a look at the definition of happiness or maybe modify it for yourself. Happiness is often very elusive. We can have moments of happiness but for most people, living a good life means looking for contentment, not happiness. This means they will allow all kinds of emotions to be instead of pushing them away, and grief and loneliness are parts of that.
This is particularly important for managing grief and loneliness. We can't be happy all the time. We need to go through a process when we lose something or there's a big change – you can't fast-track it. It may not be systematic but we need to go through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) in various intensities in order to pass through grief. So it's important to go through that, which will mean accepting those difficult emotions.
However, it's important not to get stuck and there's a possibility that you're getting stuck. A lot has happened for you in the last three years, plus COVID. There's no precise time which we can give ourselves for grief but if you're feeling stuck at that level of disillusionment or depression, then it's best to seek help, whether that's going to visit a GP or straight to a therapist.
Having said that, there are other practical things we can do because a lot of people will never get to the GP or a therapist. The key one being working on balancing out our negative thoughts. As Marcus Aurelius said: "Your life is what your thoughts make it." How we think about things will greatly impact how we feel about them. So listen to your internal narrative and the negative thoughts you have and adjust them so that you're saying things to yourself as if you were saying them to a friend.
The other way to work on automatic negative thoughts is by doing gratitude lists and making the practice as habitual as possible. At the end of the day, write down three things that you're grateful for in general and then three things that you're grateful for within yourself. The more gratitude exercises we can do, the more we will view the world with a cup-half-full mentality because we are noticing the things that are present.
Our minds naturally gravitate to things that are lacking – what we don't have compared to someone else. But we don't tell ourselves things like: "I have these lovely items in my wardrobe, my fridge is well stocked and there's no leaks in my house." On average 80% of our thoughts are negative so we really have to work to emphasise those 20% and we do that through gratitude.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity