Reflections From An Attractive, Intelligent and Sociable 26-Year-Old With No Friends

“Automat” (1927) — Painting by Edward Hopper

Our 20s are for many of us the most sociable years of our life — a time when we are young, beautiful and free, not yet tied down by a family or a mortgage. The loneliest? Naturally for many of us, the final decades of human life after our kids have moved away and we slowly outlive our parents, siblings, friends and even partners. I perhaps fall in a small minority of people with a slightly different experience.

At 26, I have a low number of acquaintances. So low in fact, that I am not brave enough to put it into figures. I say “acquaintances” because these are individuals that reach out to me every few weeks for empty, short-lived, courteous conversation. I know all of them exclusively through previous jobs I’ve had. My situation is circumstantial more than anything else. I struggled with social anxiety for most of my childhood and teenage years. In addition to that, I lost the few friends I made from my own ethnic and religious background (from the community school and college I attended) after I began embracing a more liberal lifestyle and values. During university I also struggled with anorexia and an abusive relationship which made it difficult to make or sustain friendships.

Now after years of therapy and as a working professional, I am in a much better place and much more sociable. I present myself well. To be honest, “well” is an understatement — “impeccably” and “immaculately” are more accurate terms. I wear a full face of make-up in public. My nails are always flawlessly painted and my hair is always done. My outfits and accessories are pretty and meticulously calculated whenever I leave the house. I look like I have a full social calendar, like my “likes” and friend requests are never ending (it’s a disguise I’ve perfected over the years). I have also read enough books and articles in all my time spent alone to speak well and intellectually about enough things, places and ideas to entertain and charm people of various backgrounds and interests.

All those things have paid off and I am a master of first impressions. I nail first impressions and sometimes even the next few encounters that follow. But after that, things always become more complicated. New acquaintances that find me of interest and decide to keep touch naturally want to know more about me. They want to know my social plans, what my life is like, what my existing friends are like, what my weekends are like, and (in today’s hyper-connected world) my Instagram page, my Twitter handle, my Facebook name (I unsurprising have none of those things). At that point I have no choice but to distance myself or risk my new acquaintance noticing that there is something ever so slightly odd or strange about me and ultimately discovering my “shameful” friendless existence. If I’m lucky, I am left with a new acquaintance (who will never quite transition in to an actual friend) to exchange empty, polite texts with every few weeks to replace another who has got bored and permanently fallen silent on me.

Not having friends stopped me from doing normal things like travelling, having weekend plans, using social media, going for drinks, dining out, going to the cinema/ theatre and celebrating birthdays and New Year’s Eve. To make friends however I felt like I needed to be interesting (beyond just first impressions and intellectual academic talk) by having these experiences with friends to talk about in the first place. I felt like I was caught in a Catch-22 situation. I tried to break the cycle by doing things by myself (galleries, theatre and even concerts) but it was never as fulfilling and I longed to have others or at least someone with me to talk to during those experiences and to make them “storyworthy”.

For a long time I tried to embrace the isolation. I used the “tortured genius” archetype to explain, justify and take pride in it whilst repressing the underlying shame I felt. My philosophy degree and specifically the works of Plato and Nietzsche are partly to blame for introducing me to it. Equally to blame was my own self-indulgence. I was convinced that my loneliness and failure to be understood somehow made me special. This thought was further reinforced when I discovered my Myers Briggs type (apparently the rarest in the world). My loneliness was my aesthetic and style. Though this was an absurd thing to believe as I was hiding this fact from everyone and aesthetics and style (concepts involving the appreciation of a persons’ attributes by others) fundamentally cannot be true unless others are aware of them.

I can’t ignore how unnatural, unhealthy and destructive this repression is any more. The constant shame surrounding all my time spent alone, the feeling that there was something wrong with me, the fear of others discovering my truth and the burden of hiding it, came with great costs in the last few years. It caused extreme anxiety, severe depression, low self-esteem, self-hatred, self-harm, poor appetite, insomnia, and emotional dependence. I was so ashamed that I even hid my situation from my family, boyfriend and countless therapists. I have to come to terms with my reality and understand that this is circumstantial and not my fault or a poor reflection of me. That is the only way I can free myself of the crippling shame and its detrimental impact on my wellbeing and happiness. A first step is this open letter to the internet accepting my situation, defying the societal shame associated with being friendless. I think my ability to speak more openly with others about an eating disorder and mental health issues rather than the absence of friends in my life speaks volumes about the inherent shame, discomfort and embarrassment I feel and we feel as a society about this. (Did the title of this article make you uncomfortable?)

Not having friends of course does not entail a shameful, burdensome existence. There are religious and spiritual hermits that have embraced complete solitude for centuries. Others may feel fully content being surrounded by a loving family. I am not dismissing those more neutral or even positive experiences of being friendless. However, human beings are social creatures and we live in an increasingly socially connected world so I think feelings of loneliness, shame, guilt and insecurity are very common for most people without friends. I myself am a hard-core introvert who can be happy with my own company and I have parents and a brother in my regular day-to-day life but for me that did not prevent those feelings.

We thankfully live in a “woke” world where we are taught to not to be ashamed of things. The way we look, who we love and what we believe in, just to name a few. In this euphony of self-acceptance however, I hear few voices telling us to not to feel ashamed of being socially isolated and friendless — arguably a message more important now (in the context of a global pandemic, national lockdowns, and lost relationships) than ever before.

So for those of you that relate to this article and my struggles, and are ashamed here is my message to you. In being alone you are not really alone. Some of the few acquaintances in your life may very well think you are weird, a misfit and a freak if you tell them the truth about your situation and how you wish to change it. Others however will be deeply moved by your vulnerability — they will relate, understand, empathise and still want to keep you in their lives.

The Sufi poet Saa’di once wrote that “the stranger has no friend, unless it be a stranger”.

I invented "I'm not like other girls" syndrome.