Image: Flickr
Image: Flickr

Why it’s okay to feel lonely at Christmas

What is loneliness? For some, it presents itself as a state of mind: a lurking feeling of separation, distance, and isolation from others. For others, loneliness is more than a simple lack of physical proximity to those things and people. Even those who are well-connected socially may experience loneliness, as it is not solely dependent on external factors but also involves an internal feeling of being alone. I want to start this piece by suggesting we all work to destigmatise this feeling. Loneliness is not part of a dichotomy of emotions, where introverts and extroverts, or socialites and hermits, find themselves juxtaposed, one more lonely than the other. Loneliness sits on a vast spectrum of emotions, and any one of us may find that it punctuates our lives at various points and times. Humans are social creatures. We want to form connections with those around us. Yet finding ourselves alone seems both a consequence of not being able to do so and a future barrier to doing so. Making loneliness feel ‘okay’ is not intended to paper over the cracks or trivialise it but to help us realise that we can sit with it without letting it overwhelm us.

Just as when we might feel fearful or anxious, loneliness is just that: a feeling

Who is affected by loneliness? The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, a regular survey of those aged 16 and over living in Great Britain, recently found that 27% of adults ‘feel lonely often, always, or some of the time’. Judging by these figures on a national scale, most of us are not alone in feeling lonely. These figures are true on an international scale too. Japan, for instance, has grappled with the phenomenon of total social withdrawal from the outside world, known as ‘hikikomori’ (literally meaning ‘staying indoors’), for many years. The natural conclusion that one may draw from these figures is that loneliness is a problem, perhaps even a crisis, an issue to be tackled through various external courses of action. Whilst responses will undoubtedly vary across people and places, and external initiatives such as those managed by the NHS have a role, I would say it is for us as individuals to be aware of and accept when we are feeling lonely. It is in doing so that we may begin to chip away at any negative power that such feelings have over us.

The route out of loneliness does not follow any fixed path – there is no yellow brick road, so it is up to us to build our own

This was especially important during the Covid-19 lockdowns. It was important too over Christmas, which is marked by the heavy weight of social expectations and traditions including opening Christmas presents around the tree surrounded by others and pulling crackers over dinner, amongst others. Whilst these are wonderful, of course, the pressure to meet them might still hang over us, and make us feel worse when we cannot. For many international students in the UK, for instance, it is impractical or costly to return home. Loneliness can thrive on the fear of missing out, but we can also be our own company. Buying yourself a Christmas gift, cooking yourself a nice meal, or dedicating time to anything else that makes you happy need not be any less fulfilling than doing all these things with others. The festive period would not be named so without its own dose of festive nonconformity – whether it be from the grandmother who swears by charging her guests to cover the rising costs of Christmas lunch, a most transgressive act according to the jury of social media, or the realisation that feeling lonely is an opportunity and a reminder to be kind to oneself. Essentially, the route out of loneliness does not follow any fixed path – there is no yellow brick road, so it is up to us to build our own. Whilst undoubtedly daunting, this is also very liberating.

Just as we might feel fearful or anxious, loneliness is just that: a feeling. Techniques to combat, resist, or circumvent it are perhaps not where the solution lies. Loneliness, if accepted and welcomed for what it is, can be the start of meaningful introspection. It can help us question the fixed mindset we might have about why we are feeling this way and what being ‘social’ actually means. Dissolving the stigma of loneliness and actively challenging the use of terms like ‘loner’ as insults allows us to stop seeking connection for connection’s sake and instead forge meaningful connections on our own terms.

In short, once we accept that it’s okay to be lonely, what was initially a ‘failure to integrate, socialise, or make yourself feel included’ transforms into a starting point, a launchpad from which to begin a journey of building new relationships, most crucially with ourselves.


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