I’m as into Christmas as the next person – I love the bright lights, the festive feels, the sense that magic is around the corner (something I’ve learnt from all the Christmas movies I’ve watched over the years) and obviously, the food. But what I find hard is the expectation that Christmas is a time of total togetherness, with cosy warm family lunches, romantic evenings with loved ones and non-stop joy. The truth is, I often feel quite lonely at Christmas.
This loneliness isn’t always linked to anything tangible. I normally spend Christmas with family, so I’m never completely alone. But feeling lonely isn’t the same as being alone – they’re two very different things – and the older I get, the more I realise that being alone can actually feel quite empowering, while I can feel deeply lonely surrounded by people, especially if I don’t feel connected to them.
It doesn’t mean you can’t feel lonely while you’re alone – of course you can, and it’s why there are so many amazing charities out there to help isolated people who inevitably struggle with loneliness. But for me, the loneliness is a feeling that hits me as I scroll my Instagram and see people having the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER, while I’m having a slightly below-average time.
Or when I’m single and my coupled-up friends post cute photos of impossibly thoughtful gifts and festive ‘we’re engaged!’ selfies. These are feelings I’m likely to experience in my everyday life too, but they hurt so much more at Christmas because I’m not meant to be feeling this way at the most festive time of year; I’m meant to be bursting with joy like everyone else is.
Over the years, I’ve tried every coping mechanism out there to cope with this loneliness – from calling friends, to pretending it’s not happening (I really don’t recommend this) to trying to speak about it with family members in person. Sometimes reaching out to someone can really ease the loneliness, but it depends on how they react. If they get it, then the sense of connection you’ll feel instantly counteracts the loneliness. But if they respond with a blank look, or a jovial ‘but it’s Christmas!’ then chances are you’re going to feel a hundred times worse.
So, what I’ve now learnt to do when I feel lonely – whether it’s at Christmas or just in my everyday life – is to embrace it. Instead of running away from it and trying to distract myself by calling friends or making plans, I sit in it. If I’m surrounded by people, I’ll find a quiet place (even if it’s the loo) and just take a moment to connect with myself. I’m compassionate to myself, and I tell myself it’s okay to feel lonely. It’s a normal feeling and it’s part of being human. One in four people are currently lonely. I am not alone in my loneliness. I try and connect to all the other people sitting in bathrooms trying not to cry.
And then I treat myself like a friend. Sometimes I do this by giving myself an internal pep talk in the mirror, and sometimes I hide away from everyone, curl up in a corner with my journal, and write it all down. I acknowledge the pressure I’m feeling and congratulate myself on getting through it all. It might not sound like a lot, but just this simple act of self-compassion can ease the loneliness.
“It sounds like you’re taking the feelings seriously which is great,” says psychotherapist Michael Toller. ‘Beyond that it’s important for someone to think about, what way is this feeling impacting me? Can I deal with it myself or do I need help with it? You might want to share it, either with someone you trust, or a professional therapist.’