I know you’ve had the feeling.
You log on to your social media profile and start scrolling through the photos. Dozens upon dozens of momentary glimpses of what someone did on their vacation, the wedding they’ve just been to, or the Project X like weekend they had. And you feel left out.
It starts to dawn on you just how many nights you spend alone, curled up under a blanket watching Netflix. Maybe you wish that people invited you out more often. It could be that you put in more effort in the past but were rebuffed so many times you just gave up. Sometimes it’s been so long since you’ve had a night out with anyone that you don’t think of yourself as having any friends anymore, and you’re wondering what happened.
Why do I have no friends?
There are few topics as tender and painful as loneliness and lack of friendship. In our culture, people use perceived popularity as a yardstick to measure their self-worth. For those of us who have ever pushed away the thought, “I have no friends,” we’ve had to wrestle not just with being alone, but what we think it means or says about us. “Does this mean I’m a bad person?” we might secretly wonder. Other nights, we might lie awake asking, “What did I do to deserve this? How did I end up so alone?”
The first step is to understand that social isolation is not a reflection of your worth as a person. In other words, the reason you don’t have friends isn’t that you’re a bad person or there is something fundamentally wrong with you. There are many good people who end up feeling alone, whether by choice or by circumstance, just as there are many flawed people who make friends easily.
It’s important to realise that appearances are deceiving, and even people with lots of followers on social media spend many nights alone. This doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t work on improving our personality and social skills, but it does mean that we should love and accept ourselves as we are right now.
The first, and most important thing to figure out when you find yourself lacking a social life is to ask yourself whether you really want one, and if so, to what degree. There is so much pressure in our society to be social that the angst we feel about being alone can have more to do with shame than with how much time we truly want to spend with others. Sometimes all you need to do to cure your loneliness is to give yourself permission to enjoy the distinct pleasures of solitude. If however, we’re suffering from anxiety or depression, it incredibly important to talk about it with whomever we can.
Are you an introvert?
You may be familiar with the idea that people fall into one of two social personality types, “extrovert” or “introvert,” and might have heard the oversimplification that extroverts like being around people while introverts don’t. If you’re an introvert or think you might be one, this might have led to some self-doubt or confusion.
There are many misconceptions about introverts, one of which is that introverts don’t like other people or are socially awkward. This isn’t true. Many introverts are graceful in social situations and enjoy the time they spend with others. What truly sets introverts and extraverts apart is how they respond to being social. Introverts build up energy in solitude and spend it in the social sphere, while extraverts build up energy as they socialise and spend it in solitude. In other words, introverts not only enjoy time alone, they need it.
Think of a toy you had as a kid that ran on batteries. When the batteries were getting low, the toy would slow down and eventually stop working until they were recharged or replaced. Now think of yourself as something that needs recharging. If you’re feeling mentally exhausted, what do you most want to do? The answer will tell you whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert.
If you need to spend time alone reading a book, writing, painting, watching Netflix, or doing some other solitary activity to recharge, you’re most likely an introvert. If so, this might be why you find yourself with few or no friends. This is even truer during stressful times in your life. When your job, your schoolwork, or another often social daytime activity is draining your mental battery all day long, you just might not have it left in you to continue spending energy by going out and spending time with others. This is healthy! You’re prioritising what you need for your day-to-day recovery from the social energy you expend as an introvert.
Other reasons you might have no friends
You’ve moved. Whether you’ve moved several times or for the first time, you’ve probably learned how complicated it can be to maintain friendships across geographic distance and just how hard it is to make new friends. Most people tend to report that it gets even harder as you get older. People settle into established social circles and become less open to reaching out to the new person in town or at work. But don’t despair—it’s not impossible to make new friends at any point in your life.
You have social anxiety. Living with untreated social anxiety disorder puts you on a path to social isolation. Over time, social withdrawal can become the easiest way to cope and that can lead to increased rumination about your situation. This can become a self-defeating cycle in which the very thing that makes you feel safe and comfortable also makes you feel deeply unhappy. When you have social anxiety, you feel pressed to choose solitude even when you are lonely. The pain of loneliness makes it hard to enjoy the safe feeling of being home. The good news is that you can break the cycle. Social anxiety responds well to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), so finding relief is possible if you make the extra effort to see a therapist consistently.
You don’t fit in. While it’s more common to grow up feeling like an outsider in a small town, people who live in a big city can feel this way, too. Local cultures tend to share a common mindset that you might not happen to share. If you find that you never talk about what most interests or inspires you with the people you hang out with, it’s time to start looking for your tribe. You’re probably not as strange as your hometown friends make you think you are. You might not have to move away to meet people who get you, but you have to be willing to move on from old scenes that no longer suit you.
Who ends up alone?
There might be no character modern culture is more confused about than “the loner.” On the one hand, we prize the “rugged individual” and love telling stories about the “lone cowboy” who always wins the day or the solitary genius who always solves the crime. We nurture the myth that our creative heroes are tortured souls who live on the fringes of society and that this is a necessary condition for their art. On the other hand, we vilify loners as untrustworthy people prone to violence, inaccurately associating them with mass shootings and serial murders. The truth is that there are as many different kinds of people who are loners as there are people who are socially engaged.
Sometimes people surprise us with their confessions of aloneness. Selena Gomez and Diane Keaton have said they have no friends, and other celebrities are well known for being loners. When she was a guest on the Dear Sugars podcast, Oprah revealed that she went through periods when she lost many of her relationships and saw these times as essential to her personal growth. She says that her childhood was lonely but that she now thrives in solitude. Many famous writers were loners, as were many scientists and political figures.
Superficial vs. real friendships in the digital age
Let’s go back to that moment when you looked at your social media feed and felt discouraged by how your social life didn’t match up. You felt pained by the fact you don’t spend any time with these people offline. What you might not have considered was that this is something universal rather than something unique to you.
Part of the problem with social media is how much it fosters illusion. It’s well known that people often represent their lives as being more positive and successful online than they actually are. Social media has also changed the way we experience and understand friendships. It used to be that we only considered those people friends who shared their physical spaces with us and spent time with us in person. Now we feel satisfied that we are “keeping in touch” as long as we are reading one another’s status updates. This illusion sometimes breaks, and people realize they have grown no closer to people they added as friends even after a year of following one another. The truth is, very few of our social connections bloom into close relationships. We all overestimate the number of true friendships other people have.
Why are friends important?
Human beings are social animals. There is evidence that even our most ancient ancestors cared for the elderly, injured, and unwell. While we can’t know exactly why, it’s likely that the emphasis we place on shared knowledge and cooperation made every member of an early human community valuable. Older or injured members who couldn’t contribute as much physically might have possessed knowledge that was important to the group. It’s also quite possible our ancestors were moved by compassion and feelings of caring, as other mammals appear to have these feelings too. From the beginning, making friends helped us out socially—and made us feel good.
Friendships improve mental and physical health. Research shows people with more friends have a reduced risk of chronic health conditions like heart disease and have fewer cognitive deficits as they age. People with more friends also tend to live longer. Interacting with friends releases endogenous opioids and oxytocin—neurochemicals known to make us feel good. Having friends may be even more important to our well-being as we age than having strong family connections.
Research also shows that quality matters more than quantity when it comes to friendships. Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, has found that the number of friendships our brains can manage is limited by the size of our neocortex. According to Dunbar, our brains can’t track more than 100-200 friendships. Dunbar has also found that the closest 15 relationships we have are the most important for our mental health.
Interpersonal neurobiology, a discipline developed by Dan Siegel and Allan Schore, is based on new discoveries about the brain’s ability to develop new neurons and neurological connections throughout our lives. According to Dr. Siegel’s “Triangle of Well-Being,” our connections with others are essential to forming these new connections and healing the brain. Relationships drove the evolution of our brains and drive their development when we are children—in Dr. Siegel’s words, they “shape our neural architecture”—and are the most immediate route to changing our brains as adults.
How to recover and reconnect
There are two components to recovering from social isolation. The first is healing any mental health conditions or other internal barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, to do the work of building new friendships. The second is to take the practical steps to build new friendships or rebuild old ones.
Social anxiety responds well to a number of interventions that challenge, redirect, or reframe negative and fearful thoughts. Complementary practices include mindfulness, deep breathing, and behavioural modifications like reducing caffeine use and exercising. Exposure therapy, which involves engaging in anxiety-inducing situations and moving up “the anxiety ladder,” is another common approach. All of these techniques are often employed by therapists who practice CBT, which has been shown to be the most reliable and successful method of treating social anxiety. So even if you are starting to work on your recovery on your own, consider connecting with a therapist as well.
After addressing anxiety or any other obstacles that are holding you back, it’s time to start rebuilding your friendship network. First, establish the right mindset and get organized. Keeping track of the steps you take and following up on them will yield better results than a haphazard and inconsistent approach. Progressing from meeting people to maintaining connections with them has less to do with personal magnetism than with persistence and consistency. There is a reason people talk about keeping a social calendar!
When you’re ready to move from planning to action, the best way to start making connections is to research and attend social activities in your community. You can sign up for workout classes and volunteer at local charities or even sign up for events where you meet each other’s dogs (and each other, of course). Using social media and apps can also lead to meeting people in person—if you take the right follow-up steps and maintain the right mindset. This means saying yes to everything and nurturing any new connections you make.
Do I need friends to be happy?
In some ways, we’re fated to feel lonely at times no matter how many friends we make. After all, it’s rare to find people who understand us, and our attempts to connect can end in disappointment and heartbreak. Losing friendships that we valued and believed would last can make us feel like our efforts are futile. We may even get to the point where we feel tired of everything and we need to search to find meaning and energy again.
Yet we thrive on human connection and never seem capable of giving up on our search for it. Even avowed hermits often spend their lives connecting with people in other ways, like reading or looking at art. For some, this is enough. After all, the very thing that makes it hard to establish deep connections with others is abundantly present in the arts: the capacity to be honest about life’s darker or more uncertain corners.
That’s just it, though—we’re usually wrong about what we think it takes to make friends. You might think, for example, that you’d be more successful socially if you were less awkward and more comfortable with superficial banter. While it’s true that we’re often better at parties when we’re witty and graceful, we’re most likely to make a connection that sticks when we’re able to be vulnerable. There’s nothing like that moment when you tell someone something you’ve been afraid to tell anyone before and that person gets it.
Consider the possibility that the thing you’re most afraid to confess—that you have no friends—is your secret strength. More people than you realise have gone through periods when they had no friends, and everyone knows what it’s like to be lonely.
You might be surprised by how people react when you’re honest about something awkward or painful. Of course, there’s no guarantee others will be as brave as you and confess what makes them vulnerable. The only way to keep being courageous until you meet another brave soul who connects with you is to tend to what is perhaps the most important friendship of all: the one you have with yourself.