When I first committed to NYU, most people warned me that if I didn’t try really hard to make friends (and even if I did), I’d end up feeling incredibly lonely. As a result, I spent the months before move-in day planning how I would avoid this terrifying loneliness — making a list of all of the organizations I wanted to be involved with once I arrived on campus, following hundreds of people in my year on social media and trying to connect with people in my program as much as possible. But this persistent narrative about avoiding loneliness at all costs only made me feel more isolated and anxious.
It makes sense that loneliness is widely associated with being a student at a large urban school like NYU. According to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, living in an urban environment has been linked to a 40% higher risk of depression and a 20% higher risk of anxiety. On top of this increased environmental risk, NYU’s sheer size and lack of a campus can feel overwhelming and isolating. While my friends at smaller suburban schools tell me that they run into their friends on campus every day, I find it rare to consistently see the same people on a daily, or even weekly, basis outside of classes and extracurriculars.
I also understand why loneliness is often portrayed as something to be avoided. Throughout my first year here, I felt undeniably alone. Although I constantly tried to surround myself with people, I did not find what I was so desperately looking for — a tight-knit group of friends I could always count on to hang out — and I ended up spending a lot of time by myself. I often found myself questioning whether I belonged at NYU at all.
While this feeling of isolation was very real, it was also compounded by my extreme fear of being lonely. I was so wrapped up in avoiding the crippling loneliness that people told me I’d experience if I didn’t make friends quickly, that social interactions became life or death in my mind. Because loneliness was an intensely negative thing to be avoided, I felt like every moment was a chance to find community here, and would inevitably feel disappointed in myself when I did not make close friends at every event I attended. These feelings heightened during Welcome Week, when it felt like everyone around me was competing in a huge game to meet the most people. Every minute that I didn’t spend attending events and connecting with people felt like a wasted opportunity to create my ideal college experience.
I took this pressure to avoid loneliness off of myself and started focusing on simply doing what I wanted to do this past semester, I was able to meet people I actually connected with. I could pursue what I wanted regardless of whether it brought me friends. I started exploring my passions, and was able to feel present instead of consumed by anxiety.
In a recent article for the New York Times, speech language pathologist Dr. Angela Grice explained that spending quality time with yourself can help you to develop a stronger sense of self — which can then make it easier to find people who share your passions and interests. Making peace with loneliness did not mean that I stopped interacting with others, but it did allow me to devote more time and energy to seeking out what I’m actually interested in.
Once I decided to stop avoiding loneliness, I could acknowledge its presence without shame. Small things like going to the dining hall, studying in public or going to events I was interested in couldn’t be ruined simply because I did them alone, because being lonely was no longer an inherently negative experience.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to establish connections, or that I never feel anxious about being alone. I also firmly believe that NYU has a responsibility to make sure that students have easy access to the resources that can help them deal with the mental health struggles that often accompany city dwelling.
But it is important to realize that while our environment might make isolation more likely, trying to avoid loneliness at all costs adds more pressure to an already stressful situation. Loneliness can be scary and unpleasant, but sensationalizing it into an intensely negative experience that needs to be avoided does little but encourage people to judge themselves for a feeling that is ultimately an unavoidable part of the human experience.
Removing judgment and fear from the narrative surrounding loneliness is key to taking steps towards reducing loneliness itself. The fear of being alone only keeps us trapped in a cycle of desperately trying to avoid loneliness and beating ourselves up when we inevitably experience it.
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